Live Review/ Youth Speaks MC Olympics, May 22 @ Betti Ono Gallery
Poetic language and oral tradition lie at the root of hip-hop. But in a culture that’s been turnt up and trapped-out, is there still room for innovation and creativity? Watching a qualifying round of Youth Speaks’ recent MC Olympics competition, the answer seemed to be yes.
According to Youth Speaks’ website, in the MC Olympics, participants are “required to demonstrate a diversity of lyrical skills including but not limited to free styling, ripping their best 16 bars, or writing a verse on the spot.” The objective is to emphasize skill while bridging the gap between spoken word and rap, and to bring a hip-hop edge to the organization’s youth development work.
Ten contestants, all between the ages of 14 and 19, vied for the honor of competing in a battle to determine the Bay Area champion, who will then compete in the Finals in Atlanta, along with winners from 64 other regions. The ten emcees included D-Soul, AMC, Casper, Molly (the lone female representative), A Fi Fuego, Antihero, HD, Vic Johnson, C-Mac, and REU. Unlike other rap battles, in the MC Olympics, the entrants don’t directly take on each other; there’s no dissing of competition, which introduces a totally different dynamic into the proceedings.
The first test, of Hot 16s, required the emcee’s hottest bars – delivered over beats supplied by DJ Treat U Nice. “Shots fired,” remarked host D.O.D.A.T. (of Ensemble Mik Nawooj), after a blazing start by last year’s champ AMC. Vic Johnson, meanwhile, was told to edit his content after unleashing an epithet-laced string of NSFW words.
For the second test, a freestyle challenge, random words (“brave”; “narrative”; “ambition”) were selected. This seemed particularly challenging, since the emcees had to incorporate the words into their rhymes mid-flow, and not all syllables matched. A couple of times, the emcee didn’t know the word in question. But when the rhymers were able to find their flows, they rode them like surfers catching breaking waves.
The final round could be freestyles, writtens, or a combination of both. “Gimme the most turnt up beat,” said Molly, before launching into a swag-filled throwdown which didn’t earn her many technical points for lyrical finesse but captivated the crowd. D-Soul, meanwhile, asked for a bass-heavy beat but “none of that trap shit.” Outsider Y, who whiffed on the previous round because he doesn’t freestyle, showed an unforeseen capability for rapid-fire triplets. A Fi Fuego, HD, and Casper all went a cappella, while Antihero delivered his most impressive rhyme to date. AMC, however, proved commanding.
Just before the judges announced their decision, two of them left the judges’ table and took the stage, where they delivered impromptu performances. Hailing from North Oakland, Rico G dropped a Native Tongue-worthy rhyme, then told the up-and-comers, “don’t be afraid to spit a track like this in the turnt up era.” His fellow Mind Oakland crew member Najee Amaranth followed, accompanied by backup singer Omi.
The judges then returned their scores. A Fi Fuego placed third, Vic Johnson second, and a first place tie ensued between AMC and C-Mac. The two top scores made sense, as the two had been the most consistent throughout the competition, but on Oakulture’s unofficial scoresheet, Antihero could have easily supplanted either Fuego or Johnson.
After the battle was over, we asked some of the emcees their thoughts.
“I’ve really been rapping since Kindergarten. I’ve been rhyming the words, picking up the beat. Music has been my life since day one,” said Molly, who hails from “East Oakland – Fruitvale.” The MC Olympics, she says, are her first official competition. “I always come prepared. I’m a very confident person,” she said. “Crowds, they don’t scare me. I get up there and I do what I do. In order to be original, you have to be yourself.”
Being the only woman in the competition wasn’t an issue for her, she says. “You just don’t think about it. You think about, oh, we’re all emcees. It don’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl in this competition going forward.”
For AMC, who claims the Lake Merritt area and has been rapping “seriously” for five years, the competition was his fourth. His preparation involves “listening to music, rapping every day.” To stand out from other emcees, he says, “It begins with knowing your audience.” Reading the crowd, he says, helps him decide “how to attack, how to form your lines, when to bring energy, when not to bring energy. It just depends on the venue. You walk in, you get a feeling, then you deliver based on how you feel.”
The MC Olympics Finals take place May 30, 8-10pm at Impact Hub Oakland.