Wit mixes with poetry and a bit of nastiness when "FLOW" contestants let the insults fly
A quick wit, a sharp tongue and devastating eloquence have been valued attributes in many cultures over many centuries. The Germanic peoples of Viking times, the Arabs of the medieval era and later, 16th-century Scots -- they all enjoyed formal insult competitions and similar forms of verbal jousting among rival poets, warriors or storytellers.
808 Hip-hop Showcase first-anniversary concert, presented by Level H Promotions and Funky4Corners:
On stage: 10 p.m. Friday
Place: The O Lounge
Cover: $5, 21 and over; $7, ages 18 to 20 before 11 p.m.
Insult humor -- particularly the ability to reply to an insult with another one even more cutting or bombastic -- was so popular in England during Shakespeare's time that professionals not only gained fame in formal competitions, but were sometimes hired by the well-to-do to instruct them in the art.
Winston Churchill, admittedly of somewhat more recent vintage, is remembered for several devastating one-liners. One of his most cited occurred when a wealthy woman who heartily disliked his politics informed him that if he were her husband she would give him poison.
Churchill's response: "If you were my wife, I would drink it."
On the American side of the pond, we find in African-American culture "the dozens," in which competitors exchange insults until one of them runs out of material. It's a game anybody can play -- money, size, strength, good looks or birthright are irrelevant. It's all about mental agility, verbal ability and self-control.
One ever-popular version -- "Yo' mama" insults -- became so mainstream a few years ago that inexpensive collections were published as impulse buys at bookshop cash registers.
A G-rated sample from the public domain: "Yo' mama is so fat that her butt has its own ZIP code."
From "the dozens" and "Yo' mama" jokes it's only a short hip-hop, skip and jump to the competitive art of "Freestyle Battling" in which battle emcees exchange insults while performing to the rhythm -- or "flow" -- provided by a DJ. The challenge is twofold -- to decisively dominate while dropping insults in sync with the music.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Krystilez will bring hip-hop sounds to The O Lounge Friday, and Malakai also performs.
Honolulu's freestyle battling scene emerges from the shadows this weekend at the first anniversary of "FLOW: The 808 Hip-Hop Showcase" -- a combination concert and "freestyle battle" at the O Lounge. Malakai and Krystilez perform, and MC Everybody Knows, the reigning FLOW Freestyle Battle champion, headlines with a defense of his championship belt against all comers at the end of the night.
"The belt itself has been around for, I'd say, maybe three years, but they only started using it for FLOW last January," the champ explained.
"It just got passed around through various battles before it ended up with FLOW. The (co-host of FLOW), Big Mox, had it for a while before he decided to donate it to FLOW when it started."
Video clips posted at myspace.com/everybodyfknknows makes it clear that Everybody Knows is formidable and a worthy champion -- and that anyone uncomfortable with contemporary inner-city vocabulary should look elsewhere for entertainment. The general level of discourse is loud, lewd and four-letter crude.
Most battlers don't take their opponent's insults personally.
"It happens every once in a while, but they're usually drunk. Other than that, we're all friends, we're all homies, so it's usually no hard feelings after we're done," the champ said.
Among significant battlers he's been up against are Obese Jesus, TKO, Martino and Archangel.
"Usually when I go against a Caucasian, I don't pull the race-card thing, but (Archangel) brought a truckload of his friends, and it would be hard to beat him, so I went for something more complex (a joke about a Caucasian taking the Hawaiians' land)."
Normally, insults relating to race, skin color, weight and almost all other weapons of ridicule are legitimate in competition. A battle can consist in large part of insults based on standard stereotypes or alleged sexual preferences.
A battler can find the odds mount when facing someone who has brought a cheering section. The earliest FLOW competitions were judged, but since then the winner has been determined by audience noise.
"Usually we don't have a problem with audience bias," Everybody Knows said. "A couple of months there have been some problems, but other than that the audience seems to know what they want. When there's a problem, Mox, when he's hosting, will usually try to make it go another round to make sure that there is a decisive winner."
Step away from the "battle" milieu and Everybody Knows is a multifaceted songwriter and recording artist who has posted several songs on his MySpace page and is working on an album for release this year. In contrast to the aggressive ghetto-gutter vocabulary of competition, he writes articulate pop prose and has broad musical horizons.
"A lot (of the album) is going to be like the stuff you can hear on my page but better quality. The ones on my page I recorded on a laptop (with) a $10 microphone from Longs ... but I'm also in a band called Fat Soul that started off with me and one of my friends -- my rapping and him making beats -- but we've tried to get this live-band thing going that allows us to do different genres of music."
Everybody Knows plans to continue battling "until I hate it," while working on "concepts for several projects," including a solo and a Fat Soul album and others still in the planning stages.
And is there anything else we need to put out there?
"I like to give a shout-out to Los Feo Faces, Kings of Yag, Fat Soul and the Lightsleepers."