From William Wordsworth’s smackdown of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Nas gassing Jay-Z with “Ether,” poets and rappers have long used their command of language to dismantle their rivals. This weekend, Houston’s best spoken-word poets and rappers add to the annals of these word wars by going head to head in Verses Vs. Verses, the centerpiece of a free party designed to raise funds and awareness benefiting Public Poetry.
Saturday’s event at 215 Grove Street has been dubbed Red Alert: Rhyme Time Extravaganza. It begins at 7 p.m. with a poetry reading and ends with a four-hour, hip-hop dance party. Sandwiched in between, there will be programming that showcases poetry, including the spotlight rhyme battle pitting the city’s top hip-hop artists against Houston’s reigning slam poets. Notables from both disciplines are confirmed for the event. On the rap side, Devin the Dude, SUC’s ESG and Fat Tony are a few of the heavyweights participating. In the poet’s corner, Deep, Amir Safi and Jordan Simpson lead a talented stable of spoken-word artists.
If that wasn’t enough, the event promises “free booze, free beer, free entry.” For seasoned Houston partygoers, that’s enough to know this is a Dutch Small event.
“On Facebook it says ‘Free Booze, Free Beer, Free Entry’ because that’s like the most compelling value proposition that people who’ve got very limited attention can consume while scrolling,” laughs Small, the event’s producer.
He also knows that eye-catcher works and admits that it's been his model for past successful parties of this sort. This year’s bash adds a new and distinct element to the festivities.
“I’ve done a lot of them, thousands of people show up, everyone has a lot of fun, people talk about them for years afterwards. I have people asking about parties we did five or six years ago,” Small said. “I’ve been also trying to kind of tweak the formula to figure out how to turn it into something that can be hopefully lucrative in order to support and give back to the community, to hopefully make some substantial donations to nonprofits.
“The idea here is that I am attempting to launch a social practice art project. The brand will be called Good Work; its purpose is to establish an alternative fundraising and engagement model to support individual working artists and small arts nonprofits,” Small continued. “Public Poetry is a small organization. I think their work is really cool, it’s really inspiring. They’re grinding hard to keep it together. I felt like they were deserving of some attention and some support.
“For a poetry nonprofit, with a poetry event, I felt there was a natural segue to hip-hop. They’re basically two different disciplines within the poetry umbrella and so I felt like pairing them was natural.”
Apparently, Small wasn’t alone in seeing the connection. The event’s list of performers reads like a Who’s Who of talents with verbal acuity. The Facebook event page lists Killa Kyleon, Doughbeezy, Genesis Blu, Corporate Dough, T2 Ghetto Hippie and Kyle Hubbard joining the afore-mentioned as featured rap artists.
Small is elated with these participants, but isn’t shy about how the group might get even better.
“I’ve seen Paul Wall and Bun B several times in the past several months and I’ve asked them to come and do it, and they’ve both said that they’re totally going to do it based on their schedule. So, like as a last-second shout, I’d just like to wave and say, ‘Hi, Bun…hi, Paul. I hope y’all come do this because it’s gonna be awesome…I love you.'”
Maybe they’re not as renowned as their rap counterparts, but Small said the poetry contingent has its own people’s champs and underground kings.
“As an example, Deep is Mayor Turner’s poet laureate. She’s like the official poetry representative of the City of Houston,” Small noted. “She’s gotten a lot of news coverage, she’s profoundly talented, she’s got an incredibly strong stage presence. She’s just an incredible human being too. Amir Safi’s got tens of thousands of followers on Facebook; he’s got a real neat, knock-it-out-of-the ballpark hit that’s about Whataburger. And there are still more poets that are just profoundly talented and very well-known in their genre.”
The event page lists Monica Leigh, Jeremy Eugene, Eddie Connor and RJ Wright rounding out the field of poets.
Small wanted to do an early-evening, seated show before getting everyone on the dance floor, so things will kick off with an hourlong reading from Public Poetry featuring several Houston poets. Ramen Tatsu-Ya will be serving noodles and there will be a champagne reception. That will be followed by “Space Rhyme Continuum,” which Small describes as “an entertainment set which kind of has some scripted elements and some improv elements and some hip-hop elements, and there’s a pretty significant humor component.” That segment features performers James Trotter and Detre Val, who will remain onstage and usher in the Verses Vs Verses piece.
“Either they’ll do two minutes of prepared work or they’ll do two minutes of improv/freestyle where the emcee will choose words from the audience at random and then both of them will do their thing, like off the top of their heads, they’ll do some miraculous freestyle, and then the audience will respond to determine who wins each round.
“There’s not a trophy; it’s not a rap battle – it’s more just to have a lot of fun and showcase the amazing talent of the people who are on the bill.”
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To close the night, DJ Charles David will do a U.K. garage set and the artists on hand will be nudged to continue the wordplay over David’s beats. That’ll go into DJ sets by Josiah Gabriel, DJ Baby Roo and Dayta.
If the drinks are free, the ramen is gratis and the entertainment comes without a cover charge, how does the event raise funds? Small said there will be raffles all night to raise revenue for Public Poetry. Among raffle items are a Four Seasons Mexico City vacation for two, including flights and a three-night stay; tickets to Day For Night and Float Fest; a night’s stay at the JW Marriott Downtown; a one-hour massage by Massage Caddy; and more items, including hundreds of tickets to approaching House of Blues shows.
“It’s really going to be beautiful, it’s going to be an exceptional Saturday night,” Small promises. “Also Verses Vs. Verses will be incredibly inspiring. People are going to have a great time.”
Red Alert: Rhyme Time Extravaganza, 7 p.m. Saturday July 1, features Houston’s top hip-hop and spoken word poets. The event at 215 Grove Street is free but Eventbrite registration is required. Guests are encouraged to wear red. 21+.