Competition drives hip-hop culture. Whether it be reputation, jewelry, cars or whatever, it doesn't matter. Yours has to be the realest, shiniest, most candy-painted, or else you're liable to be found suspect. It's the ruthless Tao of rap's Pooh, and fuels the genre's famously hostile landscape.
Battle rapping, then, is hip-hop's career-ending (but sometimes career-propelling) catharsis. Two rappers trade lyrical blows, whether it be in a high-end recording studio or high-school cafeteria, until one is shamed into defeat. From LL Cool J vs. Kool Moe Dee to Tupac vs. Biggie to 50 Cent vs. everybody, it's an unforgiving and absolutely necessary part of hip-hop, the one true test of a lyricist's skill. Control rap's fickle mob with your diamond-crested tongue or, well, join Ja Rule circa 2003.
Countless MCs have tried to ride their acclaimed battle-rapper status to mainstream fame; few have succeeded. Some have even become punchlines (see: Jin). Now a local titan sits poised to try his luck.
Godwon (pronounced God-WON), a Nigerian transplant born Neyu Godwin Nyan, has spent the better part of 16 years battling in and around Houston, establishing himself as a certifiable rap threat. His rap sheet of lyrically slain emcees is as thick as the Montgomery County phone book, and he's looking to ride the wave from his latest mixtape, Music for Me — available today at www.myspace.com/godwon — closer to mainstream legitimacy.
The Houston Press recently caught up with Godwon to talk about the assassination attempt that forced his relocation to Houston, his relationship with Houston rap icon Scarface and why he'd just as soon not wear a shirt, ever.
Houston Press: Your family was politically connected in Nigeria, right? Talk about this assassination attempt a little.
Godwon: Yes, my father, Elias Nyan, was an advisor for Nigerian President Babangida from 1986 till 1992; that's when the assassination attempt took place. We lived in the most rural part of Nigeria, Kaduna, yet still they sent a militia to search our family home for our father. Luckily, he wasn't home.
Happy at least that we were safe, but fearful of further persecutions, we left for America immediately. I don't even have much of any pictures of my past and haven't spoken to many people since then. [My dad] tried to hold it down over there, but it was gonna cost him his life, so he went into hiding. I hadn't even spoken to my father until recently.
HP: Wow, that's heavy, man. You know what else is heavy? That security chain around your neck. (How's that for a lame segue?) What's with the chain?
G: Actually, the chain comes from Scarface's "G-Code" video. If you watch the video, I'm on his car [holding the chain]. And I think it's obvious which [one] is me (laughs). Face has actually been a friend and mentor for years, so I feel blessed to have one of the last legends respect my work.
HP: We can't recall seeing you offhand, but we'd guess you probably weren't wearing a shirt. (Note: We were right.)
HP: Oddly enough, that kinda ties into our next question. How does somebody become a good battle rapper? You know, other than doing 1,000 push-ups and taking off their shirt.
G: (Laughs.) I gotta put these slave genes to work.
HP: Nice. So did people mess with you or something?
G: Yeah, man, I grew up with some comedian-ass people, man. When I first came to the U.S., I used to wear dashikis to school because where I came from, those were fine threads (laughs). I got a good dose of it. You've never seen an outcast till you've met the actual "African Booty Scratcher."
HP: That was you?
G: (Laughs.) Yeah. So I practiced battling a lot. That's what I think people need to do to be good. Rhyme in the car about the signs you see, write in an intricate pattern and after a while it will reflect in your freestyle. It's what your mind knows of you, what you have been subconsciously programming in your brain to do when you're practicing. You simply can't write bullshit and freestyle like a champ.
HP: What's a line that you dropped on someone that just destroyed him, made the crowd go nuts?
G: It was against this fat dude talkin' about my moms: "Could hear the whole crowd chuckling loud, he can't jump in the air, cause he'll get stuck in the clouds" (laughs).
HP: If you could battle any person from any time period, rapper or not, who would it be?
G: I would simply like to cypher with all the greatest, man: Notorious B.I.G., Scarface, Eminem, 2Pac, Jay-Z. I just wanna get my respect from my peers like the old days; I would love that.
HP: That'd be dope. We saw that you like the Dave Matthews Band and Kurt Cobain. Not exactly hardcore there. Does anyone ever give you shit about that?
G: (Laughs.) Nah, man, I am a true person and that resounds in my being. I am an African refugee; I love any music that sounds good.
HP: We've always been curious, why don't rappers smile when they take pictures? They're rich, right?
G: I would smile if I were them. I am poor, though. I simply don't smile much 'cause I was taught that here in America. You should see my grandparents' pics, though (laughs).
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HP: Let's finish this in the most stereotypically rapper way possible: shout-outs! Go.
G: I'd like to send a shout out to Reggie B, E Ladder, everybody who reads this and cops a CD, Uncle Face Mobb, GC FAM, Rando The Boss. I want everybody who wants to eat authentic African food to grub at my mom's restaurant, Suya Hut. Shout out to my Nigerians and Africans, the foolish rapper that I beat the shit out of outside 24 Hour Fitness [and] 97.9 The Boxx.
HP: Whoa, whoa, whoa. You beat up someone outside 24 Hour Fitness?
G: I don't want to promote violence, man, but there was a rapper who went on air saying he beat me up. It really caused some challenges for me. I just couldn't catch up with the dude for like three years. I seen him at the gym, we stepped outside and I beat him till he ran off. Sometimes you simply have to protect your name.