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06 Apr 2011

Mark Grist, Poet in Residence Blog 7 - Apr 2011

On Saturday I went to London to compete in a rap battle for a YouTube channel called Don't Flop.

Yes. That's right. A rap battle.

Over the years I've begun listening to more and more hip hop and checking out rap battles online. There's something about rap battling that I find really impressive. The showmanship of the battling and its celebration of multi-syllabic, bombastic rhyme fascinate me. At the same time, I struggle with some of the content and have seen fair few examples of the art form getting ugly.

For those who haven't seen a rap battle before, you basically get two people hurling abuse at each other in front of a rowdy audience. The insults are often explicit and often involve derogatory comments towards family members and attacks on the opponent's sexuality. It can be funny. Dead, dead, funny. But it can also leave a fairly sour taste in the mouth. Particularly when some has been lazy with their writing. There's a lot of anger and arrogance tied up in some examples of the art form as well and some experienced rap battlers I've met have told me that it can really weigh them down to be using words so negatively.

That said, it can also be absolute genius. When an opponent lands a complex multi syllabic rhyme with an intelligent, topical or off the wall insult, the audience reaction is incredible. And this Saturday had some great examples of just that. The event was buzzing. Everyone was up for it - I talked to way more people than I'd normally talk to at a poetry event! - And the battles themselves were full of intelligent wordplay and some great crowd interaction. When it comes to battling, Don't Flop get it spot on.

For a start, they made this event an 'April Fools' one; an attempt to address the amount of ego associated with battling and celebrate the fun can be had with the art form. A pretty gutsy decision - and one that paid off. The highlight for me was seeing one rapper, Deffinition, battling himself. Someone held up a mirror while he directed a schizophrenic tirade of intelligent searingly sharp put-downs at his reflection, then responded, insulting himself more in an attempt to offer some kind of defence. It was one of the most original takes on battling I've seen and had the audience crying with laughter.

I often think that poets could learn a lot from the rap community, particularly in relation to taking risks and interacting with the audience. When it came to my battle I tried rapping using only one vowel. I'm pretty sure it's something that hasn't been attempted before, at least on the Don't Flop battle circuit. It did take a while for people to grasp what I was trying to do, and I didn't help myself by tripping up a couple of times, but…

It worked! I won my battle! Wow! I have an official Nuts t shirt for my efforts. Not many poets could say that! I have to say that I was shocked - my opponent, Mos Prob, was really impressive. It was difficult to rap; he was making me laugh so much.

So, one competition down, one to go. I jumped on the train and headed back to Peterborough for the Poetry Rivals competition - run by Bonacia. After the success of last year's event, I was expecting big things…

And I wasn't disappointed. An incredibly high standard of material and some fantastic performances by my fellow judges. Most importantly, the whole event was slick. Super slick. And with over 60 poets reading, that's quite an achievement. Plus, they did Tiger bear on tap at the venue, so I was very happy.

The judging itself was really tricky, particularly as there was such a wide range of material on offer. As it was, Stephen Watt pipped it in the end with a very clever piece to win a publishing contract. Hats off to him!

All that remains is to say well done to all those involved in the organising of both events. With the current cuts across The Arts, it's great to see that the creativity is going to keep coming through, both from Producers, publishers and writers. I'll definitely head out to another Don't Flop event, and I can't wait to see the work on offer in The Poetry rivals competition next year.

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