I Won an Evangelical Christian Rap Battle
These days I enjoy making a living writing and teaching music, but at one point not too long ago my primary source of income was battle rapping. Yes, entering tournaments and spontaneously rhyming insulting someone over a beat was how I earned a living for a number of years. Tonight, September 16th, I'm competing in the Freestyle Mondays Off-The-Head Gameshow Battle at Congregation Beth Elohim. It's a 16 MC tournament where the topic of each round is determined by a giant spinning wheel or a Plinko board. The set-up is incredibly challenging and a bit peculiar as far as rap battles go, but it's not the only unique freestyle competition I've participated in. I once entered a rap battle at a Gospel Hip-Hop Festival.
Chaz Kangas Chaz Kangas in front of God Graffiti at the 2008 Gospel Hip-Hop Festival
I moved to New York in autumn 2004 to attend NYU and immediately tried to make a name for myself in the underground hip-hop scene. I'd been rapping for a few years in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and tried to follow my hometown heroes' blueprint of attending every show, rocking every open mic and entering every battle I could. The latter proved to be my greatest asset as I found I had a gift for freestyling. I know I don't look like prototypical battle rapper, even amongst battle rap weirdos, but trust: I looked even less like it then. Here's me battling at First Avenue in 2007, several haircuts ago:
Battling wound up working for me, so much so that it would end up essentially being my "job" through college. I'd book all of my classes for three days a week, and use the remainder to seek out battles in the city or, if the prize money covered the travel, along the east coast. Between 8 Mile sparking a new-found interest in battling and the modern hyper-organized and ubiquitous era where a new rap battle can be found online everyday, there were plenty of isolated scenes who would post somewhere online about a battle. As a result, I was getting onstage to rhyme insults quite often.
I've always personally enjoyed both performing and money, so the battles I wouldn't enter were few and far between. The summer of 2008 was also a time when I was working at an avant garde film co-op and dating a female professional wrestler, so when I saw the post online with the title "Emcee Battle with a Twist $300 Rochester NY" it didn't strike me as that strange. The flyer posted read (all sic everything):
Emcee Freestyle Contest (Battle of the Compliments) NOW $300 CASH PRIZE First annual Gospel HipHop Fest SEPT 6TH ROCHESTER NY 890 N. Goodman Street 14609 SEARCH BY MAP QUEST agenda : DJ Trix battle , B-Boy 1 ON 1 contest , Graffiti Show case (we supply your cans),Iron sharpons Iron FREESTYLE CONTEST COMPLIMENT YOUR APONENT, Food, Games live Performances (also call if you want to perform or get in ANY OF THE contestS) Call [redacted] or email [redacted] send me a friend request for more event updates.
When I saw some of the top freestyle MCs in the country on a few message boards knocking the idea of an "iron sharpens iron" battle where you had to out-compliment your opponent, it kind of baffled me. It would be a substantial payday for doing what you do best, only using the other part of the brain. Rising to the challenge, I called the promoter the next day to verify the event was legit and find out the best way to get to Rochester. After he offered to cover the cost of transportation, I was down.
Full disclosure, I am a practicing Catholic, but while Christian themes pop up in my music from time to time, I wouldn't by any stretch say what I do falls under the banner of "Christian hip-hop." It's interesting to consider how some of the universally considered all-time classic hip-hop records are fundamentally about kicking militant five percent doctrine, but outside the once-a-decade exception of MC Hammer's "Pray" or Kanye West's "Jesus Walks," even some of the most diehard hip-hop heads have an immediate adverse reaction to the mere mention of Christian hip-hop. That's probably because the words "Christian hip-hop" conjure memories of this, this or even this. For me, some of my favorite rap releases of all time like Goodie Mob's Soul Food or David Banner's stronger works have dealt with the compelling struggle of the artist's own Christian spirituality in their narratives.
I made the eight hour voyage knowing next to nothing. Of course I had my presumptions, as this was a time when the documentary Jesus Camp was still really popular and Sarah Palin had just received the Republican nomination for Vice President with her faith being a central focus of the media. The Republican National Convention had just ended two days prior, so I guess I was anticipating the hip-hop equivalent.