Black Assets performs at an open mic night. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
On a recent Friday night in West Baltimore, T. McGuinness steps into the ring, ready for battle. The music cuts out; an attentive crowd encircles him and his opponent. There's no escape.
Then, McGuinness delivers his blow — unleashing a debilitating freestyle, furious and filled with superhero puns as the crowd "oohs" with approval.
"I hope you bring your crew / It's gon' be so on / It's gon' be like I've been waiting for so long / I would do 'em so wrong I'ma have your whole force lying together like they're trying to form Voltron," he raps.
When the round is over, the crowd — a blend of spectators, artists and well-known local emcees like IconThaGod and Chase Ultra — declares him the winner. Then a new group of competitors enters the ring for a dance battle.
This monthly freestyle event, Be Civil Battles, is just a glimpse into Baltimore's underground hip-hop scene — one brimming with up-and-coming artists, and forums where they display their unbridled talent.
"It's one of the only aspects of hip-hop community that's still raw and hasn't been touched by mainstream," said Shaka Pitts, founder Pit Fights Battle League. "[Rap battles are] hip-hop in its rawest form."
And it's not just rap battles. Baltimore's thriving hip-hop scene is infused in various events throughout the city — from dance performances to open mics and spoken word events.
Here are seven events where you can take in the sounds and sights — and maybe even grab a mic yourself.
Be Civil Battles
Launched in 2015 by local entrepreneur Ejay McDonald, Be Civil Battles began as a way to reinvigorate some of the original elements of hip-hop — emceeing, dancing, and DJing — all while exposing existing talent within the city.
"The idea was to provide a platform for a lot of my artist friends to be able to exercise their talent for other people and give them an opportunity to network in the city," said McDonald, who owns the apparel line Civil Wrongs.
The monthly event intersperses one-on-one, a capella rap battles with featured artist performances; spontaneous hip-hop, R&B and reggae singalongs; and energetic dance competitions. The night often concludes with a cipher, which features several rappers in a collaborative freestyle session.
The dance portion is often the most exhilarating, McDonald said, with performers combining the fast-paced footwork of the Baltimore club scene with influences from ballet to martial arts. But in a city brimming with lyricists, poets and spoken word artists, the rap battles are often the most anticipated.
The experience is less than civil during the battle. Anything — including the contenders' style, significant others and street credibility — is open to critique and insult. When the round ends, competition is replaced with camaraderie. Emcees often engage in a conciliatory hug or handshake while judges in the crowd determine the winner.
And "if it's too good of a battle, the crowd will cheer for an encore," she said.
Be Civil Battles, founded local entrepreneur Ejay McDonald, aims to combine some of the original elements of hip-hop with rap and dance battles. (David 'Wavey' Anderson, III)
Pit Fights Battle League
When you come to a Pit Fight, come prepared. One of the oldest hip-hop events in the city, Pit Fights Battle League beckons rappers from across the country to show off their best rhymes, creative puns, thoughtful deliver and unique cadence.
"It's based in rawness. ... We're going to say some things. It may be shocking," warned Shaka Pitts, who officially kicked off the event in 2010.
The battles often channel the essence of comedic greats like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, he said, with lyrics and content that elicit "a facial expression as if you tasted sour milk."
"It's lyrical pugilism — that's the best way to describe it," he said.
Pitts said originally being from Brooklyn, N.Y. — not far from the Bronx, where hip-hop was born — has helped him recognize Baltimore as a musical gem of the East Coast.
Hosting the rap battles, for which he often pre-schedules contenders to help build fanfare, is one way of pushing the hip-hop scene forward, said Pitts.
"It's a lot of talent here, and I just want people to know it and recognize. I believe in networking ... but I also want people to take pride in what they have here, and don't feel like I have to leave Baltimore to find a new artist. ... The fight is just to let [people] know, we're really here."
Pit Fights Battle League is typically held the third Sunday of every month. The Depot, 1728 N. Charles St. For more information, visit pitfights.tv or call (443) 692-PITS.
While some events based in hip-hop are fueled by the competition, spoken word artist Alanah Nichole strives to create a live performance event that is inviting to people from every genre, skill level and background.
Nichole formed Much More than an Open Mic in 2015, filling what she saw as a need for more inclusive open mic-type outlets.
"I'm a very expressive person and I feel like some places don't allow for you to be as free as you need to be," she said.
Her event draws a culturally diverse crowd and list of performers, including martial art enthusiasts, singers, musicians, poets and rappers.
"Whether you're black, white, lesbian, trans ... I want people to feel welcome," she said. And if you don't have $5 for the cover, Nichole said she's open to bartering.
"I want the event to be as accessible as possible," she said.
Much More than an Open Mic is held at 7:07 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month (next event is May 10). 2114 N. Charles St. $5 or item for trade. facebook.com/MuchMoreThanAnOpenMic.
Local hip-hop artists pass the mic and knowledge at Bmore Beatclub.
Baltimore Boom Bap Society
On a recent evening at the Windup Space, as the melodies of live saxophone, beatboxing and the sounds of turntables ebbed and flowed, singer Joy Postell belted out lyrics about love, life and whatever else came to her mind.
That live, improvised creativity is the the very essence of Baltimore Boom Bap Society, founded nearly six years ago by music producers Erik Spangler, better known as DJ Double88, and Wendel Patrick, musician and an instructor at Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory.
The duo, who share a classical music background and a love for hip-hop, are the society's core members and are in charge of carefully curating a rotation of musicians for monthly live jam sessions.
"We're like a big family that's always expanding," said Spangler. "Every month is going to be a different combination of people who are often times for meeting the first time on stage, without knowing what the outcome's going to be."
Adds Patrick: "It doesn't always sound exactly like we think it would. But we have an idea in mind."
The Baltimore Boom Bap Society hosts events from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of every month (next event is May 3). The Windup Space, 12 W. North Ave. $7. For more information, visit Baltimore Boom Bap Society's Facebook page.
Hip-hop enthusiasts, music producers and emcees are invited to take the stage at Maryland Art Place the second Thursday of every month for a night of collaboration, freestyles and networking within the hip-hop community. At least three producers showcase music throughout the night, while dozens of participants take to the stage, two at a time, to battle over the featured producers' beats.
Brandon Lackey, creative director of recording studio Lineup Room, founded BeatClub as a hip-hop incubator with the goal of growing the city's hip-hop scene, showcasing local talent and connecting producers with rappers and emcees. Since its start in 2014, the event has built a community, leading to artist collaborations and informative exchanges about the music industry.
"We do talks about how artists make money. We're just trying to use the platform to help people chase their dreams," said Lackey.
The event is open to anyone, Lackey said, under one condition — all raps must be freestyles.
While attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, poet Alex Alexander felt the need to create a space where people could "get down and cipher," a place where they could express themselves and get their "performance fix."
A cipher and drum circle held in a speakeasy-type setting for her friends soon evolved into The Bolton Hill Open Mic Series, also known as BHOMS. Now in its fifth year, no form of expression is excluded from the get down, according to Alexander. There have been comedians, actors, poets, musicians, emcees and the rare performance of the Australian wind instrument didgeridoo, though spoken word and hip-hop — which Alexander describes as a "beautiful type of aggressive poetry" — are often the main feature.
"People can just expect just about anything and will always leave absolutely inspired," she said.
The Bolton Hill Open Mic series occurs 7 p.m.-10:30 p.m. on the third Friday of each month (next event is May 19). 1111 Park Avenue. $10 donation. facebook.com/BoltonHillOpenMicSeries.
The Living Room Social
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As its name suggests, spoken word artist Ashley Yates, also known as Black Assets, first started holding open mic events in her living room.
Though it's now hosted in a revamped car garage, the goal of The Living Room Social is to cultivate the same intimate feeling of sitting in a friend's parlor for an evening of soulful entertainment.
Yates aims to "bring love, peace and light" to the monthly event, inviting hip-hop, R&B, spoken word and instrumental musicians to perform. There's also food; Living Room Social partners with two different chefs each month — one vegan, one non- — to serve up a variety of dishes.
The Living Room Social is typically held at 7 p.m. on the first Friday of every month (next event is May 5). 1101 Filmore St. $10-$25. facebook.com/thelivingroomsocial.