Every second Thursday of the month, the basement of Maryland Art Place transforms into rap battle arena, a networking platform, an artistic refuge and a breeding ground for the Baltimore region's hip-hop artists.
Hip-hop producer and artist Nature Boi steps on the stage in the basement of Maryland Art Place on a recent Thursday, plugs his electronic device into speakers and out comes a melodic beat he created. It's heavy and nostalgic with a Curtis Mayfield sample. It's also the first time he's ever played it in public, but the 100-plus audience members, many who are bobbing their heads, seem to approve.
And then the performing begins.
Suddenly, the arts venue is a rap battle arena, reminiscent of the movie "8 Mile" but with a more congenial spirit.
Baltimore-based rappers Greenspan, Chase Ultra, Icon tha God and the host, Eze Jackson, all jump on the track, freestyling and rhythmically pacing the stage with improvised lyrics, unmatched energy and a last-minute hook. They fling their arms around each other's shoulders as they move two microphones among themselves. It's all unplanned, but it's standard for the hip-hop freestyling event known as Bmore Beatclub, which heads into its 22nd month this week.
The event, held every second Thursday of the month and open to the public with a $5 entry fee, allows more than 20 artists and producers to take their talents to the stage and compete through freestyle rap battles. The series of ciphers usually go on for more than two hours straight, and offstage the artists casually converse about the music industry and ways to improve their game, promote their music and book shows Often, collaborations are organized.
Rapper Greenspan, whose real name is Brian Dawkins, 30, called dibs on Nature Boi's track that night, and the two made an agreement on the spot to collaborate.
"The impromptu energy, that's what creates great record[s]," Dawkins said. For Nature Boi (real name: Antonio Ervin, 28), finding artists to work with is just as crucial.
"As a producer, you make so many beats that'll never get heard until somebody wants to do something with it," Ervin said, "and as you've seen, you might make a connection with an artist that liked it so much, they want to get it. It's very valuable in multiple ways."
While hip-hop vets can polish their game and make industry contacts, Bmore Beatclub is also a breeding ground for budding regional artists and a place where producers and rappers can unleash — and harness — their creativity, said Brandon Lackey, the founder of Beatclub.
Lackey, 34, a Parkville resident, is also the creative director of the upstairs studio, Lineup Room. He has been hosting Beatclub for the past two years. The recording engineer and studio manager saw it as a way to help hip-hop artists develop their careers by creating an environment where artists could meet and display new music and creativity.
"With me, the big way to get beats out to people in person was battles, and that's where a couple producers play back and forth and whoever has the loudest, hardest beat wins," Lackey said.
Lackey kickstarted Beatclub at a Parkville record store in August 2014 with about 30 people. It was a tight fit, Lackey said, but the creative energy was rippling.
"For us, it's about creating opportunities for these artists who work so hard and cultivating a positive environment for people to create in and help develop their skills," said Lackey.
On Beatclub nights, a sign-up sheet for rappers and producers circulates through the venue for a chance to get up on the stage. At least three producers showcase music throughout the night, and dozens of participants take to the stage to battle two at a time. And though there are other hip-hop open-mic nights in the city, such as art collective Llamadon's Beet Trip, Lackey said the rules at Beatclub tend to bring a different dynamic. The only real rule is that all raps must be freestyles.
The result, summed up in one word, Lackey said, is "raw," with songs about beer, vulnerability, sex, summertime, growing up on the streets — all showcased in a battle format.
"I'm sure some people have something that they've written, but the important thing is that you have no idea what beat is going to be played," Lackey said. "If you're not really good, you won't get up there. It keeps the bar of talent really high, and it's really entertaining to watch."
The event has since grown as it moved from Parkville to Terra Cafe, where it reached capacity, and now to Maryland Art Place, where it averages 120 to 130 people per event. During July's Beatclub, producers will have the chance to compete for a spot in Beatclub's Artscape showcase, "Bmore Beatscape," Lackey said.
And in some cases — when people like Jeff Hollyer, a financial manager for entertainment group AEG Live who also helps scout local talent in the area for Rams Head Live, are in the audience — performers have a chance to be discovered.
"There's a bunch of different people rapping on and off stage," Hollyer said. "It's this organic, free-flowing energy. It's wonderful, really."
One of those people looking for a chance at the most recent Beatclub was Danny Chase, who also goes by his rap name Chase Ultra.
"Step outside. / I just stepped into my kingdom / but it's real outside. / Stay at home and rethink it. / From this side, you see legends in the making. / Who the hell's that guy?" Chase rapped while on stage with Icon, pointing across the room.
For him, Beatclub's a place where people can relish Baltimore's hip-hop scene, a melting pot of classic hip-hop, trap music, Baltimore club music and more. It's where artists can help others with their craft, said Chase, 29.
"You can come here and talk about whatever's on your mind … It's not about judging. It's so many good artists on here," he said. "If you're not on point, but we see that you're taking it serious, one of us might pull you to the side and say, 'Look, you might want to come at it this way, switch this up,' because it's about building. It's not about tearing each other down."
Towson University student Isaiah Briscoe, 20, who goes by the artist name Captain Swim, was called to the stage. It was his first time performing in front of a crowd, he said.
"I was just standing on stage, and someone was like, 'Oh, I know you're hungry, bro. Just grab the mic,'" Briscoe said. That was all it took. He even went a second time that night.
"I realized this is a positive environment. No one's going to boo you off stage. You're here to try and practice," he said.
When it was Shatyra Hawkes' turn with the mic, her flow was fast and rhythmic. It was her third or fourth time at Beatclub, she said, and she was just getting comfortable.
"They say that they ride / but they're not by my side / so I ride solo to the day that I die," she began.
The Sandtown resident, 24, who goes by the artist name Tyra, was one of only a few women performing. "I don't necessarily compare myself to" the men, Hawkes said. "I just want to make sure that what I'm saying is just as lyrical. ... Whether I think I'm better than them or not as good as them, it's motivating. It either motivates me to keep doing what I'm doing or to step my game up."
At around 11 p.m. Beatclub finished, but the freestyles continued outside on the sidewalk, where instrumentals were played through the open windows of a running car.
"Hip-hop is very competitive," Ervin said. "We're all trying to find ground in a place that's not really what you'd call an industry-type city. There's not much of a music industry here. This kind of brings us together. It's not a show. You're not trying to get people to come out and see you. It's just doing it for the love."