Monday, May 31, 2010

Rhyme Cal 9 - Interview - J. Armstead Brown

Rhyme Cal 9 was chock full of both exciting and frustrating moments. On the high side, competitors Black Sun and Jon Quest each respectively impressed throughout. The low had to be the 20-minute delay leading into the final round. Rhyme Cal founder J. Armstead Brown took the time to clear the air on the controversy and give his interpretation on some of the MC's that have developed as participants in the competition.

AB: What up Rory? Before we jump into your questions I wanted to start off with a few words. First I want to once again thank all the MC’s that competed in Rhyme Cal 9. This shit ain’t easy and we appreciate the fearlessness and commitment to creativity that the MC’s demonstrate. At the same time I know some MC’s came away frustrated for different reasons. We as the Rhyme Cal creators hold our selves accountable for making sure the game is both exciting for the crowd and fair to the competitors. Most of the time we succeed but sometimes we fall short. I want to remind everyone that Rhyme Calisthenics is an ongoing experiment—we have no blueprint to follow—we’re creating this thing as we go—Rhyme Calisthenics is one long three year freestyle! We’re coming up on three years and in that the three years we haven’t made a single dime. We don’t do this for the money we do it because we believe that Rhyme Calisthenics is a needed part of a larger movement. We do it because we believe Rhyme Cal is part of the tipping point to put the Pittsburgh hip-hop movement in motion. We do it to bring MC’s and hip-hop heads together. We do it because hip-hop is and always should be unpredictable, spontaneous, and most of all fun. We hope the MC’s play this game for the same reasons.

RW: Can you talk about what you saw from the champion, and first-time competitor, Black Sun, and what he did in his performance that gave him an edge over the competition?

AB: Well, in an MC competition where tensions were high and expectations were great, Black Sun was like a Buddhist throughout the whole competition. I think his edge was that he had no expectations, he came for the experience, he came to experiment, to exercise, he came for all the right reasons. Beyond that I think Black Sun is just a really dope MC down to the definition of what an MC is. If you were paying attention he not only had really great lyrics but he MCed each challenge from the moment the wheel stopped spinning to the moment judges raised their score cards. When “Storytelling” dropped he told the crowd to “gather ‘round the campfire,” and in the last round he recaptured the audience with “The Message” after several confusing distractions. He was poised and in control the whole night.

RW: In the championship Sun defeated Rhyme Cal vet Jonny Quest. This was Quest’s fifth Rhyme Cal appearance and his first time making it to the finals. In the first round his spin of the wheel landed on “Crowd Topics,” a category he has struggled with in the past. How can his perseverance and progression be related to the idea and goals this competition has for its competitors?

AB: It’s funny because I know Jonny Quest was ready for a lot of the written challenges, but the wheel has a funny way of landing on your weaknesses when you get a little too confident. I didn’t see his “Crowd Topic” verse, I’ll see it when I review the tape, but his performance overall captured his improvement. He’s just a grinder and the Wheel of Skillz has helped him craft his lyrics, he’s not just writing verses without purpose. Although he’s putting in work at the studio, he’s learned to write his verses for the stage which is something I think is really important. Sometimes studio verses don’t come across on stage, but if you write your verses like you’re about to spitting them to a crowd of 500 people you’ll have an intensity and urgency in your flow that you can’t get standing in the booth. Much respect to Jon Quest.

RW: There was some confusion leading into the final round with the bracket that was distributed a few days prior. Granted, this was the first competition in the new format. Will there be any type of rule book implemented to keep this from being a distraction again?

AB: Yes, we are going to publish our official rule book before the next Rhyme Cal Competition. And by the way, we do have an official rule book that we abide by. It’s too complicated to explain the confusion regarding the final-four round, but I’ll say this… Boka had a legitimate complaint and I’m glad he voiced his opinion. The same way that we encourage our MC’s to get better, Stretch and I are always trying to make the competition better, more exciting, but also more fair. That’s why we listened to Boka’s complaint, and huddled up right there in the middle of the competition to review his complaint. But at the same time we stick to our decision. Our decision was to stick to the rules we created, even though the bracket we posted on Facebook was misleading. If the NCAA tournament has a misprint in the way they post their brackets, they don’t change the rules to accommodate the misprint. They stick to their original rules and let the public know that they made an error in the way they presented the brackets. So that’s what we did. The fact is that the brackets we posted on Facebook were really meant to allow the MC’s to see who they will be up against in the first round. They were also meant to create a little bit of hype. But after reflecting on Boka’s complaint, we’ve decided to change the rules for the next one. So the final-four round will be a little different in the future.

RW: This is the ninth installment of Rhyme Cal, without counting the All-Star competition and the 4x4. Why do you think some competitors still come to the show unprepared?

AB: Well, I think there are different types of competitors, and there are different ways for an MC to prepare. One of the best ways to prepare is to actually write verses to the written challenges. “Storytelling,” “Last Word,” “Acapella,” and “The Message” are all categories that cater to pre-prepared verses. Another way to prepare is to do some homework on the other competitors and develop a few punchlines for them. This will help you in “Comp Killer” and you could also put a few jabs into other challenges like “Mackin’” or “Here and Now.” Another way to prepare is to practice the freestyle challenges at the crib. You can practice “Word Bank,” “Grab Bag,” “Scenario,” and “Crowd Topics” by rapping about different item or things in your crib. Even if you never compete in Rhyme Calisthenics, theses are exercises guaranteed to make you a better MC. Having said that I first want to acknowledge the MC’s that did come prepared. Black Sun, Jon Quest, 3PFD, Kid A, and Boka all came with a few writtens and few ideas about how to flip some of the challenges. Then there are some cats who can go up against the wheel with no preparation at all – like A-Jaxx. He’s an MC who can develop dope phrases on the fly. As far as I know he’s never really prepared for a Rhyme Cal and yet he regularly makes it to the final four. I know A-Jaxx didn’t do as well as he usually does this time around, but he’s dope and he’s supported us by competing in almost every single Rhyme Calisthenics competition we’ve ever done. The reason he does so well is because he’s a true wordsmith, not just an MC. He’s got a real mastery and love of words. For some it’s all about preparation and for others it’s all about riding the moment—the key is knowing which type of MC you are. If you’re not fresh spitting in the moment then take your ass home and write something dope!

And that’s the real difference – it’s not about those who prepare and those who don’t – it’s about those who really love words and ideas, and then those who just like to brag about themselves and talk shit over beats. Cats like Zone, 3PFD, A-Jaxx, and Boka consistently do well because they’re prepared, but also because they have a real love of words and a real message to deliver.

RW: There were times when the judges - I Majestic of RXC/Classic 1824, Luqmon aka B-Tree, and DJ Chevy - would be speaking, or constructively criticizing the MC’s, and I would look around the crowd and see numerous participants talking amongst the crowd, hanging outside, or leaving after their own elimination. Personally, I see this as disrespect to the honorable judges, all of which have more than 15 years experience in hip-hop. Granted, for every two or three careless MC’s, there is one attentively listening. What is your opinion? Is it a difference within generations?

AB: It’s partly a generation thing, but more than that it’s the difference between those who genuinely want to get better and those who have managed to convince themselves that they’re already the shit. It’s the difference between those who mainly want to have fun and those who only want to win the $500. Rhyme Calisthenics is no different than the rest of the rap game – those who are only in it for the money generally don’t get as far as those who do it for the love. I think this time around even some of the most passionate MC’s were more focused on winning the prize than on working on their craft. They cracked under the weight of their own expectations – that happens to all of us sometimes. And then there’s the fact that people enter Rhyme Calisthenics for different reasons, some find it fun, some use it as motivation to get better, some use it for visibility and promotion, and some see an opportunity to win some money. The judges constructive criticism is only valuable if you’re working on your craft in some way.

RW: A couple first round competitors, R-Sin and Zone, spun the wheel twice. Any comment?

AB: One of the re-spins was because of a weak spin. The official rules state the wheel must complete one full rotation to be considered a fair spin. The other re-spin was because Shade missed the cue to play the “spinning” theme music. This re-spin was actually an error because the official rules state that “the wheel is not to be spun a second time for any reason except due to an incomplete rotation.”

RW: There was some animosity between competing MC’s Ayatollah Jaxx and Mista Scrap. What is your opinion of the situation? And in a situation that could have quickly gotten worse, is there anything that can be done to prevent something like this from happening?

AB: Well basically, Scrap threw Jaxx’s hat into the crowd. I’m not gonna speak for Scrap but it seemed like a heat of the moment decision during a really tense “Comp Killer” playoff heat. Whatever Scrap’s intentions were, the fact of the matter is that Rhyme Calisthenics is a no-contact sport. You can get up in someone’s face, you can diss them, intimidate them, you can verbally assault them; but you can’t touch them or their property. It’s kind of like basketball where you might get away with a light tap here and there, but you can’t grab your opponents’ jersey. I’ve mentioned the official rule book a few times and that’s something were going to have to put in there. Even though I know Scrap didn’t mean anything by it, I hope he can see how that situation could have gone bad if it were two different people.

RW: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AB: Yeah, RhymeCal X is gonna be the shit! MC’s get your bars together…

Follow-up interviews for each Rhyme Calisthenics MC Competition can be seen right here at

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