Internet is where the hip-hop go to exchange rap lyrics

Rappers participate in freestyle battles

April 30, 2005|By Richard Fausset | Richard Fausset,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Aspiring rappers Mike Siehien and Erik Maldonado have never met. Siehien, 27, lives in Santa Monica, Calif., in a one-bedroom apartment; Maldonado, 25, is a freelance Web designer in the Bronx borough of New York.

Yet on a recent weeknight, Siehien spit out a furious rhyme that mocked Maldonado's rap skills, questioned his manhood and let him know where he stands in the vast hip-hop pecking order: "You can't hold a candle to this vandal who manhandles you," Siehien raged.

After a long day processing mortgage loans, Siehien uploaded the song to a free Web server, then posted a link to the song on Maldonado's Web site, www.hiphoppoetry.com, where the two MCs have been swapping vicious audio put-downs for more than a year.

It was the latest salvo in a classic MC battle, the kind that has long been a staple in the dog-eat-dog world of hip-hop. To a generation raised on computers, it seems only natural that the tradition has migrated from street corners to cyberspace, home to all manner of uncivil discourse.

Its practitioners call themselves "Net-cees." What started a few years ago as goofing around in rap and sports chat rooms, they say, has evolved into a unique offshoot of the rapper's art.

Some online rappers use cheap music-editing software to battle one another with actual songs; others, who call themselves text-cees, simply type their rhymes. Many troll for combatants on "battle boards" sponsored by sites such as www.rapflava.com and www.hip hoppoetry.com, which host strictly refereed tournaments and, in some cases, boast thousands of registered users.

Kids from the Bronx battle soldiers stationed in Iraq. Hip-hop heads in London square off against 14-year-olds borrowing their mothers' computers. And on the Internet, rappers don't know if they're battling a thugged-out gangster or a mortgage broker home from work.

Some of the put-downs can verge on the erudite: Maldonado has called Siehien a "trickled down rapper like Ronald Reagan money."

But more often online battle lyrics - like those of their real-life counterparts - brim with violent imagery, machismo, put-downs and threats. They are occasionally homophobic and misogynistic, and they are almost always spectacularly profane - like syncopated Don Rickles riffs grafted onto a Quentin Tarantino flick.

In mainstream rap, hard words have contributed to headline-making feuds and, sometimes, violence. But the online MCs can happily taunt their rivals, safe in the knowledge that the insults are pure ritual.

"The truth is, how many real thugs get online?" said Maldonado, who raps under the name Advocate of Wordz. (Siehien goes by C-N Tower.)

Some hip-hop purists see the Net-cee battles as a debased - if not downright ridiculous - take on the live rap freestyle battle, a cornerstone of hip-hop culture rooted in the cutting contests of the jazz era.

At the real competitions - famously portrayed in the Eminem movie 8 Mile - rappers improvise verses, taunting their opponents in front of audiences that choose winners and losers with ego-withering candor.

"Every heartless geek with a keyboard has come along and tried to cheapen my craft," a rapper groused recently on the hip-hop site www.rapverse.com. "People that would never get on stage and move a crowd, people that never go to block parties where the DJ's at, with the mike and tables and truly represent."

The Net-cees concede that spontaneity is sacrificed online: They typically have three days to compose and post their battle rhymes. But the best of them believe it is a legitimate way to practice the craft at home.

Maldonado started his Web site in 2002 with no intention of hosting rap battles. After losing his job at a health-insurance company in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he simply wanted to start a site dedicated to the music he loved.

As the rappers started going at it more often, Maldonado and his friends developed house rules: Site administrators set the length of the rhymes, the battlers had 72 hours to post, and the rapper who earned the best of five votes from the online audience was typically declared the winner. The crowds who judge the battles can be tough.

"You wanted an honest and objective critique and vote," one observer recently wrote to a text-cee who lost to a battler named Nubian Prince. "But NP pretty much ripped your limbs off and beat you to death with the severed appendages as your life's blood seeped across your keyboard."

Because online rappers' opponents are invisible and largely unknown, it takes some creativity to come up with truly personal put-downs. On one track, Siehien goofed on Maldonado for rapping with a lisp and breaking up with his girlfriend, a fact he gleaned from elsewhere on the Web site.

"But I don't wish him ill health," Siehien said. "It's like he said in a thread the other day: If he saw me in the path of a speeding truck, he'd push me out of the way. I feel the same way."

Reached by phone a few days after Siehien's song posted, Maldonado was magnanimous and cool.

"He put his time into this one," he said. "I've always said the kid is a good writer."

Maldonado vowed to post a rebuttal. But how long can a beef between two rappers virtually unknown to each other go on?

"As long as he wants it to," Siehien said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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