A-Class | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam

On Friday, Oct. 3, Sonar served as host to the Baltimore preliminary for the 2008

. The long-running annual hip-hop festival, which includes competitions for rappers, producers, and DJs, has launched the careers of many famous MCs, including Eminem. And I was invited to serve as one of the, er, "celebrity competition judges" to help pick an MC and a producer to send to the big tournament in Cincinnati later this month. Surprisingly, it was the latter that turned out to be hungriest: 25 producers registered to compete, while only eight rappers stepped into the arena.


Hip-hop producer battles are always interesting, because they're not as inherently confrontational as rap battles and are more subject to personal opinion. But host

had the smart idea to push the competing beatmakers to treat it more like a boxing match, encouraging them to actively sell their music to the audience with showmanship during the 60 seconds that each track played. Of course, producers are generally the nerds of the rap world, and it was funny to watch a bunch of shy studio rats stand onstage and try to hype up the crowd while their beats played, sometimes air-drumming or playing conductor, swinging their arms in time to the rhythms or counting down to a big chorus section. It worked, and though the decision was left to the five judges to choose the winner in each two-producer match-up, soon audience members were getting involved and holding up one finger or two to signify which beat they liked best.

The quality level of the productions was surprisingly high--there were only a couple of immediate duds--and some perfectly capable producers like BeaLack of

and the Pornstars got knocked out in early rounds just by making the wrong call about what kind of beat to play. Many of the matches were won by a split decision, and I often found myself rooting for the loser, with my vote being overridden by three or four of the other judges. But when the smoke cleared, it was good to see that the big prize went to Mark Henry, a Washington-based producer who got the whole room excited every time he brought out one of his big, booming beats with cinematic samples and thunderous snare drums.

The MC tournament was far less competitive but exciting nonetheless. In recent years, many Baltimore rap competitions have opted for less-confrontational formats, with the contenders merely performing a song, or freestyling without gearing their rhymes toward insulting an opponent, perhaps to avoid the possibility of battles spilling into actual violence. The Scribble Jam preliminary went the old-fashioned route, with two MCs facing each other onstage, and going back and forth for 30 seconds each for two rounds. Shaka Pitts added to the urgency by only providing one microphone, which he jerked from one MC and handed to the other as soon as the time was up, even if someone was in the middle of an unfinished punch line.

As intense as the MC battle was, though, there was no suspense about who might win as soon as A-Class stepped onstage. The young Korean-American rapper has been ripping opponents to shreds at practically every big MC competition in Baltimore over the past couple years, winning the

as well as the "One Mic" and "Word War" competitions, and placing as a runner-up in "Style Warz." (Disclosure: I recently interviewed A-Class for

Mic Life Magazine

, and his label Brake Fast Records was one of the sponsors for Friday's event.) And yet, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in Sonar that night who thought he didn't win the competition fair and square--he was in a whole different league from almost any of other MCs. His flow was never less than rock solid, and with a quick wit he turned every Asian joke thrown his way into a punch line of his own. It was a little disconcerting that A-Class shouted "faggot" at his opponents at least four or five times in the course of the night; even in the context or a rap battle, where homophobia and politically incorrect insults are the name of the game, his outbursts came off as particularly jarring and hateful, usually yelled at the end of a round rather than as part of a rhyme. Slurs aside, though, it was a wrap as soon as A-Class arrived, and it'd be boring to watch him win all the time if he wasn't such a talented performer.