By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Practice is vital but when it comes to rapping, nothing improves skills like a live, trial-by-fire MC battle. This weekend, several rappers will have a chance to compete for money.
The third annual Versus Emcee and Beat Battle goes down Saturday night at the Record Bar, 1020 Westport Road. A pre-battle show will be held tonight at the Riot Room.
“Battles are how you prove yourself and show how far your skills have developed,” said Clarence Draper, who goes by the MC name Vertigone. “This is also a way for people who aren’t actively involved in the scene or new to the area to get up and connect and get involved.”
The contest is open to the first 16 MCs who sign up. Draper encouraged them to arrive between 8:30 and 9 p.m. The winner will take home $500.
“This is first-come, first-served, so they need to be there early,” he said. “Plus people should come out to see the beat battle.”
In the beat battle, six DJs will use their own equipment and go head- to-head in six rounds that include using a common sample to create distinct productions.
Draper said the final evening will resemble the battle scenes in “8 Mile” but without scripts. Everything that comes off the stage must be spontaneous.
“At Versus we reward the freestyle,” Draper said, “which is the most pure idea of the MC not having anything and being ready to rhyme.”
Draper practices his freestyles during his normal routine, incorporating things he sees, such as traffic signals, into rhymes.
“The socially conscious stuff I do on my albums is not going to win you any battles,” he said with a laugh. “I practice all the time how to rhyme, which words work together. I focus mainly on two-syllable words like ‘eventually’ and ‘century.’ It’s not all ‘cat’ and ‘hat.’”
MC Les Izmore, who releases albums on his own and performs as part of Hearts of Darkness, participated in last year’s Versus battle. For him, the night is more about building his skills than beating others.
“I know a lot of people practice their freestyle, but I’m not prepping,” Izmore said. “(Last year) was a thrill. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I may not know the person I’m up against, but I’m there to challenge myself as an MC.”
Although boasts and insults are a large part of the battle repertoire, presentation plays a large role. In other words, sweat the technique.
“Battling is more than insulting people. You have to have style and swagger to how you do it,” Draper said. “You have to work the crowd as much as your opponent. When someone says something that sways the crowd, you have to win them back.”
While the Versus battle is only in its third year, its tradition runs deep in Kansas City. During the city’s jazz heyday, musicians would spar in ‘head cutting’ contests nearly every night in the 18th and Vine District.
“I’ve been at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and seen the musicians, all of them were just in this mood, this groove,” Draper said. “And then they started jumping off of that with solos, each person trying to outdo the other. It’s the same thing we’re trying to do in a freestyle.”
Vertigone and his friend Raymond “Kartoon” Hardy hosted the initial Versus battle because they felt there was a void in the community after the demise of the successful Mic Mechanics battles in Lawrence.
“Battle rhyming starts out under the street lights and on the corners in the neighborhood,” Draper said. “Eventually you get tired of that and want to take on other people. We are trying to keep this going for anyone who doesn’t have an outlet. It’s as much about social networking as anything.”
Izmore has one final word of advice for everyone joining him onstage this weekend.
“When I was up there (onstage last year), I could feel a ton of raw energy,” he said. “You gotta make sure to come with your best, because you don’t know what will come up next time.”