Outside on Westheimer, a small crowd of young music lovers has gathered in front of Numbers. Before Rocks Off even makes our way into the building, we're immediately greeted by soulful hip-hop tunes blasting from the speakers. We look up to see that 9th Wonder is inside a Red Bull booth giving the crowd a whirlwind tour of his production catalog, everything from Jay-Z's "Threat" to Jean Grae's "Don't Push Me" with a few Little Brother gems in between.
We hang outside for a while. Local rap duo Dirty & Nasty is here. Dirty informs us that they're playing a show this weekend. We nod enthusiastically, even though we have no plan of going there. Oh look, Rocks Off writer Valerie Alberto is here with her arm candy. She's also wearing that unmistakable smile. We exchange pleasantries and finally make our way inside.
Ahhh, it's refreshingly cool inside. DJ Good Grief is entertaining the crowd of about 50 early birds with choice cuts from Lil Wayne's catalog with a few other hit songs sprinkled in. We contemplate going back outside. Cool and Lil Wayne vs. humid and soulful gems? This is a tough one. Let's toss a coin. Heads, we go outside. Tails, we stay.
This time, 9th is spinning Pharcyde's "Running Away" and Jaylib's "The Official." The crowd has now doubled. Some of them are pointing to the sky and bobbing their heads forcefully.
The contest kicks off around 10:25 p.m. Tonight's host, the ever-charismatic D.R.E.S tha BEATnik, introduces 9th Wonder, Bun B and Rhymefest as the judges. We also meet the eight contestants: Andrew Sepulveda, Japanese Jesus, Mic Skills, Zeale, Phranchyze, Lyrics tha Lyraciss, Dubb Sickks, and Core. Japanese Jesus is wearing a Mike Tyson t-shirt and looks like he could kick some serious ass, but that won't help him in the contest as we'll soon find out.
There are three stages in tonight's competition and we'll try to explain them as best as possible. Pay attention. The emcees have to battle against each other and the clock, as their agility skills are tested in the quest for sovereign rights. One MC to rule them all.
The first stage is the "visual cue" stage. Each contestant is shown 5 random images, everything from an ATM machine to Justin Bieber. He then has 60 seconds to incorporate as many of these images as possible within a freestyle.
D.R.E.S tha BEATnik invites Rhymefest to show the contestants how to do it. Ten dollars says Rhymefest will mention that he once annihilated Eminem in a freestyle contest. The showcase is a breeze for him and he really gets the crowd pumped. Referencing a hockey image that was shown earlier, 'Fest rhymes: "I'm the only black player to win a game of hockey." He doesn't mention Eminem at all.
Phranchyze vs Japanese Jesus
Phranchyze takes this one by unanimous decision. Bun B complements Mr. Jesus on his unique moniker, "Japanese Jesus is the best rap name I've ever heard." By the way, Bun B really has his OG hat on tonight. "This is my house," he reminds us over and over.
Dub Sickks vs Mic Skills
Houston's own Mic Skills comes correct in his battle with some ill punchlines, but Dub Sickks gets the best of him and wins for being more consistent with his lyrical assault. "Consistency is the key," says Rhymefest, echoing the other panel's collective sentiment.
Zeale vs Lyriqs tha Lyraciss
Next up is Austin's Zeale against his doppelganger Lyriqs tha Lyraciss. Lyriqs spends most of his time and energy jumping around onstage. Bad idea. We can't decide if he's nervous or drugged on Red Bull. Aside from a few boos, the crowd is a graveyard. Zeale advances. Bun B's word of wisdom to Lyriqs: "You gotta bring the crowd into these battles, mayne."
Andrew Sepulveda vs. Core
This turns out to be the most entertaining matchup of the evening. At the end of Sepulveda's freestyle, we're left wondering how he managed to qualify for the contest? His delivery is nonexistent and it's impossible to make out his words because he's kissing the mike. Beatnik shakes his head, puts his arm around Sepulveda's shoulder and politely tells him to get the fuck off the stage. Beatnik declares Core the winner by default without even hearing him rap.
No, wait; Bun B is protesting the decision. "There's no defaults in my house," Bun says. He insists that Core has to earn his victory by busting a rhyme. Core obliges and does just enough to get by. Given the circumstances, even Brian Pumper would have advanced in this matchup. "Now you win, nigga." Bun B is a happy camper.
At exactly 11:00 pm, Beatnik announces that it's time to take a break. 9th Wonder hops on the wheels of steel and proceeds to spin a litany of hip-hop classics. He kicks off the set with "Mr. Scarface" and slowly moves on to Wu-Tang's catalog for Raekwon's "Incarcerated Scarfaces" and "Ice Cream," and back to Scarface. Toward the end, he breaks out some Michael Jackson bangers. Beatnik is busting out moves onstage. 9th Wonder concludes the wild ride with "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough."
Around 11:30, the battle resumes.
The second stage is the "text-to-screen" stage. This time, the contestants are shown various words on a screen instead of images. As the beat plays, each lyricist must form rhymes around these words, while hurling lyrical darts at his opponent.
Rhymefest is back onstage to show the MCs how to work the text cues. Twenty dollars says he'll mention that he ghostwrote Kanye West's Grammy-winning single "Jesus Walks." Sure enough, he works it into his rhyme: "I helped Kanye write College Dropout."
Core vs Zeale
Core and Zeale give the opposite of each other's performance. Zeale starts off ripping Core to shreds but by the end of his performance, the crowd is no longer sure. Core, on the other hand, gets off to a slow start, gets booed and somewhere in the middle of the boos manages to conjure some of the best rhymes of the night. At one point he grabs Zeale's wrist, raises it to the crowd and says "This dude got on a Hello Kitty watch."
This one's too close to call. Rhymefest gives his vote to Zeale. 9th Wonder is torn between the two, so he requests a rematch. Beatnik declines, citing time constraints. 9th reluctantly casts his vote for Core. The onus is on Bun B to decide the winner. He points out that Core remained focused despite the boos he endured, and casts his vote for Core.
Dub Sickks vs Phranchyze
Phranchyze puts on yet another clinical performance. His best moment arrives when he rattles off a torrent of multi-syllabic rhymes that concludes with "paranoid schizophrenic." The crowd explodes into an ecstatic cheer. Phranchyze destroys Sickks and moves on to the final stage.
Meanwhile, there's a guy in a brown hat and brown T-shirt causing a ruckus in the crowd. He tries to bribe the host $20 to bring him onstage. Bun B pulls Guy in Brown onstage and offers him a deal - spit a rhyme. If the crowd loves it, you get to stay. If the crowd boos, your ass is gone. Guy in Brown fails miserably and gets kicked out of the club.
Beatnik starts beatboxing to restore order. Bun B proceeds to kick a freestyle of his own, rhyming "Rhymefest with "rhyme best" and "more shows" with "more dough." This gets the crowd's attention and order is finally restored.
STAGE 3: THE FINALS
Core and Phranchyze go head to head in the finals. Core's rhymes mostly consist of poking fun at Phranchyze's size (dude is lanky as hell), calling him an anorexic version of Freeway and "black licorice." The crowd goes monkey bananas.
Phranchyze comes back with "Yeah, I got skinny jeans, but where do I find fat ones?" and "The only way they'll want your autograph is if they mistake you for SPM." At this point, the crowd is going "ooooohhhh" and "ahhhh." He adds insult to injury by ending his freestyle with: "Wait, you're not a rapper, you're Nacho Libre."
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The battle is over but we'll have to wait a while for the results. In the meantime, Rhymefest takes the stage and performs a mix of old and new songs, including "Talk My Shit" and "Brand New." During the latter, he asks if anyone knows Kanye's verse from start to finish.
A young man in a black tee and rimmed glasses responds in the affirmative and proceeds to mimic Ye's verse (and dance moves) without any hiccups. Wait, isn't this the same rapper that introduced himself as Dirty from Dirty & Nasty earlier. We later ask if the Kanye thing was staged and he had this to say: "No, that was not planned," Dirty tells Aftermath before adding, "Although, I had the opportunity to do that with him at SXSW this past March. It was dope as well."
The finalists return to the stage. To no one's surprise, the judges unveil tonight's unanimous winner: Phranchyze. He advances to the National Red Bull EmSee Finals in Detroit, overseen by Eminem. The newly crowned king of freestyle tells the crowd that he has all of Texas on his back. "I'm on my Vince Young shit and I won't stop till I bring a belt home."
Beatnik offers some parting words: "We came as strangers, we leave as family." We all say peace and bounce, hit the streets and suddenly realize that our car has been towed. Yikes.