Reading Don’t Flop Rap Battles February 4, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.
Rap has come a long way since it emerged in the street music of the Bronx in 1970s New York. If that moment was an implosion of cultural lines compressed into the birth of Hip Hop culture, it was also the trigger for a further cultural explosion that made rap an international activity, as this linguistic rhythmic agility test morphed into myriad hybrids wherever it touched down.
One of its trajectory struck UK land in the Don’t Flop rap battles, and one of its most fascinating incarnations is the battle between 17 year-old Mancunian, Blizzard and English teacher and poet, Mark Grist. Rap battles may seem to be the worst excesses of macho Hip Hop culture in which (mainly) men recreate a boxing match using words as their weapons. Don’t Flop even seems to signify the sexualised fear of masculine impotence that lies at the heart of these ritualised shouting matches. However, there is more going on here than just that.
While the battles act out the ceremony of boxing with their umpire, judges, rounds and scoring winner, they owe their origins to African American dozens; one of those cultural lines that created rap in the first place. The dozens are in themselves a ritualised signifying practice, working on language as insult, trading and remaking it to achieve supremacy over an opponent through dexterity, invention and put down. The raps in Don’t Flop contests are textbook reproductions of the dozens; opponents focus in on social status, intelligence, and appearance.
At one level everything is wrong about the Blizzard-Grist battle. These guys are white Britons, and not African Americans. A Mancunian doing an imitation of a Londoner being an east-coast rapper and a middleclass fenman British accent are to the fore, Grist even wears a suit, and in mainstream society they represent (and represent themselves as) the powerful teacher and powerless student. As John Dollard pointed out in his classic 1939 study of the dozens, the battles empower their black participants in a racist world that denied them any sense of status or even adulthood. Hardly the cultural positioning that’s at play in Don’t Flop battles, which claim style over substance and parade cultural theft as a marketing exercise for ‘street clothing’ brands.
The Blizzard-Grist battle is, though, a brilliant remaking of the dozens for British society. While Blizzard takes on most of the mannerisms of black rap culture, he twists them with a proud Mancunian irony, Grist takes the form full on, but articulates its performance in the language and metaphor of the English middleclass English teacher in the pub (he even appears with pint in glass hand to begin with). Blizzards’ repertoire is the hardcore ghetto rapper mixed with cheeky-chappieness of George Formby without the ukulele. Grist digs deep into Chaucer and Shakespeare and the evocation of two thousand years of dead poets.
Blizzard opens his first 90 seconds with Yo! (signifying the black street language he is to act out as a linguistic transvestite), then rhymes ditch with bitch, a putdown couplet that immediately flops. He recues it with a Formby-esque appeal to the camera, and a physical leap into the face of his opponent as he takes on the role of the challenging student: “Fuck You, Mr Grist”, moving from classic rap to grime speed-talk acted out with mock physical slap, he then attacks the basis of Grist’s power and social standing: his qualifications in “dick-related studies”, his teacher’s income and holidays as markers of status but claims these are undermined by the need to mark students work. Attacking Grist’s young rap poetry partner Mixy, punning dead poets (the name of the duo’s poetry performance act), bottle attacks with status glass ceilings, undermining Grist’s central power: the ability to control a class. Some final sexually-explicit insults and threats of violence and a reference to Ofsted as an impotent source of power. The audience (aka cipher) love the ending.
Grist attacks Blizzard for his age (claiming viewers will confuse the battle with “extreme babysitting” [which floors Blizzard]) noting he is not able to legally drink, and displacing “infantile” with “getting riled”, he lists breast feeding and defecating, disses his earlier battle wins, his home town for its poverty, his rapping skills, and then claims he’ll look like a 50 something female Dragon’s Den judge when he’s older [a knock out punch]. He finishes with insults about his height, facial features, auto-eroticism, an the fact that he gets his name from the makers of World of Warcraft. Clearly Grist’s round, with even Blizzard applauding.
Blizzard opens the second round more aggressively, but turns his attention to the video audience, and the attacks he received for his earlier battle victories. Clever wordplay; poor strategy. Some puns on Eng Lit, allusions to films about assassinated US presidents, and a final stroppy student playlet.
None of this quite prepares you for Grist’s next 90 seconds. Now calling Blizzard Bradley (his given name), citing his opponent’s earlier anti-woman statements, he turns to the camera to present his own pornographic version of “Your mama…” “Mrs Green” presents itself as the teacher’s talk at parent’s evening, with clever but misogynistic insinuations, and then graphic hard-core porn fantasies against women. Even the experienced umpire can’t believe the allusions. He contrasts Blizzard’s childhood games with fantasy mother insults, and graphic, highly-sexualised, physical descriptions which go beyond even the most macho ghetto rapper. The cipher and Blizzard shift uneasily on their feet. Grist attacks Blizzard for fantasising about his mother, calling on (of course) Oedipus, to demonstrate his formal knowledge of the mythical Greek king of Thebes and of Freud’s psychological theory, and his ability to attack his opponent’s own sexual status and his mother at the same time. He then links it to East Enders and Formula One racing (rhyming alacrity with battery), ending up mashing up rapper, English teacher and street smarts with: “I’m so sorry about you Mrs Green, and I’m so sorry about Bradley. He keeps on trying to attack me, I’d be pretty pissed off but he’s doing it really fucking badly”. The cipher gives a big cheer.
Blizzard, uses the education meme again in his final round. Performing the role of the student speaking back, Blizzard first attacks Grist as the teacher figure before showing his own learning – citing Samuel Pepys, Martin Luther (though I think he meant Martin Luther King as refers to speeches), Oscar Wilde and Confucius as a reference point for his own verbal skills and his assertion that Mr Grist is inadequate as a rapper as well as a teacher. Asserting his own superiority at the same time that he denies the claim to power of formal education, the school system and teachers.
Grist replies in incongruous terms: “I suggest you fuck-off” (to big laughs) before reintroducing the age-inferiority theme bringing in computer games, the sexualisation of vampires, the Sooty hand-puppet, flat-pack furniture, with attacks on Bradley’s sexual prowess running through. He casts doubt of the authorship of Blizzard’s earlier raps, cites Socrates, suggests his opponent has repressed homosexual feelings, returns to his relative youth by claiming his iPhone apps are older, and finally finishing him off by taking the role of teacher writing Blizzard’s school report. The audience erupts in laughter and applause.
In some sense this is an ironic take; a knowing exploration of the clichés of rap battles; a performance art stylisation of a performance artifice. The audience seem genuinely impressed by Grist’s understanding of the form and rules of rap battles and the unconventional form in which he fights. At times Blizzard struggles, often knowing he is beaten on every front, but he actively involves himself in the idea that this is a teacher-student competition, even initiating the idea in his first rap. One comment on You Tube suggests people thought they were actually teacher and student in the same school.
If African American men engaged in the dozens to reclaim their manhood from the racist society that took it from them, how should we understand the reuse of its form in a commercialised copy-cat, wannabe-ghetto-rapper, mediated show? And how should we understand one little play about the power of teachers and their students’ ability to rebel, that performs misogyny with articulate irony?