At this point, I'm developing fatigue from appearing on
for various MC battles and talent competitions and should probably learn to say "no," at least some of the time. But I definitely couldn't turn down at least one more request, from local rap duo the
, to participate in their Battle on the Beltway event at Sonar last Friday. Taz Jones and Stevie Krizz of the Nuklehidz are two rare eccentrics in Baltimore hip-hop, guys who march to the beat of their own drummer with a zany sense of humor, which they display both in songs such as "Camera Phone" and on their gossip blog the
. So at the very least, I figured that their show would be a little different from the usual monotonous rap battle. And it was.
Instead of the usual onslaught of dozens of competitors, the Battle on the Beltway, which was hosted by local femcee Jade Fox, featured only nine acts. And while the majority were straightforward hip-hop groups and solo MCs, there were more than a couple singers also on the bill, ranging from R&B to pop to gospel. Though all the acts were vying for a cash prize for the night's best overall performer, the Nuklehidz also had judges evaluate each contestant for different criteria for a few consolation prizes: Best Lyrics, Most Crowd Reaction, Best Song, and the dubious honor being declared the biggest "hot ghetto mess."
Throughout the night, it was the singers rather than the rappers who stood out the most. A performer named
made for the biggest spectacle, with a peppy R&B number for which she was accompanied by half a dozen backup dancers, performing intricate choreography both on and in front of the stage, and a guitarist who appeared to be there purely for show, silently strumming an ax with no cord plugged in along to a song with no audible guitar part. It was a little more ridiculous than it was entertaining, but Orentia and her entourage were clearly the most professional act of the night.
And then there was Minnie Smith, a soft-spoken lady who took the stage to sing a gospel ballad and "take it to church" for a moment at the otherwise secular concert. Unfortunately, the song's religious message was somewhat undermined by the fact that Smith was a jaw-droppingly curvaceous young woman wearing a form-fitting denim dress. By the end of her performance, it appeared that the whole room was chuckling nervously at the conflicted feelings that Smith was giving most of the men in the audience, and DJ P-Funk, who was spinning, hilariously shook his head at the audience and said, "Y'all are goin' to hell."
One of the night's featured performers was Midas, a local battle-rap vet making one of his first live appearances since the launch of his new label, Mania Music Group. Midas has always struck me as an exceptionally bright and personable guy who has struggled to find his place in Baltimore's crowded, competitive hip-hop community. And it appears that with the new material he performed on Friday, he may be finding his own voice, and it's considerably more idiosyncratic than the one displayed on earlier recordings such as his
mixtape. Wearing a loud outfit with a bow tie and looking considerably slimmer than he was a couple of years ago, Midas sometimes ventured almost entirely outside of hip-hop, dancing and singing over a guitar-driven track at one point. But he also proved he was still adept at more traditional rap when he was joined by Mania label mates Kane and Ron G. for a posse cut at the end of his set.
The last of the competitors performed toward the end of the night, and it soon became grimly apparent that the organizers of the show had not really thought out their plan for deciding a winner. Myself and the four other judges had each been given a sheet to complete for each performer, rating three criteria--talent, charisma and creativity--on a scale of 1-10 for the main prize, and one criteria for each of the other four prizes on a scale of 1-5. So we had 45 scoring sheets to crunch numbers from as the night was winding down, and most of the people involved with the show had already had at least a couple beers. Adding to the confusion, some of the judges had used a scale of 1 to 10 for the whole sheet. The whole situation quickly became a ridiculous comedy of errors as we scrambled to tabulate scores and figure out the winners, while Jade Fox and other rappers in attendance freestyled to stall for time.
When the smoke cleared, the winner was announced as OK and Reno, a charmingly amateurish duo of an R&B singer and a white rapper. The polished pop star-in-waiting Orentia was awarded best song, a smooth-talking rapper named Jay Bond was crowned the best lyricist, and, unsurprisingly, the voluptuous Minnie Smith was announced as the crowd favorite. The "ghetto mess" award was given to the last performer, a rapper named Stick Em Up who seemed to stumble into the club at the last minute, gave a quick and hostile performance over the instrumental to Sheek Louch's "Kiss Your Ass Goodbye," and was long gone by the time his tongue-in-cheek award was announced. Given the debacle that happened behind the scenes with the voting, though, the biggest mess of the show the Unstoppable Nuklehidz put on Friday was one of their own making.