Live from the Sound Battle Royale [Review]
Toronto, ON – “I better win. It’s my birthday.” By the end of the night, the crowd recognized Peter Project’s statement on both counts. There’s something about the Drake Underground. Tucked away beneath the landmark Drake Hotel in Queen West, the venue’s darkened ambience starkly contrasts the rest of the venue. No glitz, no strobes and absolutely no Moet Rose. But perhaps it’s the perfect setting for tonight’s event, a competition between peers to determine not only whose production skills are the sharpest, but also the quickest. I’ve been to several beat-making competitions before and for the most part the shows are typically formulaic: soundbombin’ upstart brings CD mixed with his/her finest replication of the sound du jour and stacks it up against foes who have done likewise. Then they proceed to awkwardly bop around the stage whilst their composition blasts through the speakers showing just how hard that beat knocks, ack. The Sound Battle Royale promises different.
The competitors don’t just bring CDs, they bring their equipment and are expected to compose a beat on the spot in front of an audience, a judging panel and under specific conditions. Oh, and there’s a time limit. Wait, what? “We wanted to put together a tournament that would break from the norm” explains event organizer Tonika Morgan, “The concept of creating a beat live and from scratch isn’t new, but I’d never heard of producers doing it in a tournament against one another.”
The four-part series has been running over the course of the summer and is in its third instalment, yet there are more than a few fresh faces in the crowd. “Yeah, this is my first time out” says Ryerson University student Michael Roberts. “I’d never seen something like this before but came across it on HHC (HipHopCanada.com) and thought why not?” But it’s not just Michael’s first time; it’s also the Drake’s. Tonika clarifies, “We held the first two shows in Kensington Market, but this time we were aiming for a sound system boasting a bit more bass.” With an eclectic mix of hipsters and hip-hop heads in the crowd, there’s sure to be a cross-section of opinions on the music. And it doesn’t take long. One of the contestants runs into a technical difficulty whilst trying to construct his beat. A few members of the crowd are fairly vocal with their criticism. The boos and jeers serve as a reminder to the unforgiving nature of competition within hip-hop. The blip may have only lasted a minute, but onstage, underneath the glare, it surely feels like an eternity. The producer regains control of his hardware and finishes the beat. “You guys are losing out on easy points; half of you guys have really dope beats, the other half need to work on it.” Co-judging the event is Don D, one third of Tone Mason, and one of Toronto’s more established producers. It appears the official assessments will be just as merciless as the crowd. Closing out the first round, the competition is whittled down to four for the Mass Appeal category, in which ADC, Omari J, Peter Project and C-Sharp will have to incorporate the audience into their beat.
An early crowd favourite, Project looks more Arcade Fire than Alchemist, but the Halifax beatsmith has been in rare form this evening. He creates a Sesame Street-styled soundscape, featuring the audience by sampling their “happy birthday!” yells. In rebuttal, C-Sharp takes it back to Sedgewick Avenue. His South Bronx call and response steez and neck-breaking beat moves the crowd to ensure that it’s he who makes it through to the last round, alongside Project. For the final stage, the shackles come off. The producers are provided with a single acapella to craft their own beat around. Synth or sampled, it’s time to show and prove. With the first two rounds having a distinctly east-coast feel, tonight’s music selector DJ Mel Boogie decides to throw the two a slick curveball. She cues up Dr. Dre and 2Pac’s West Coast anthem “California Love,” much to the pair’s consternation. Most acapellas are reasonably simple to line up with a new beat providing you match the original’s BPM (beats per minute), but Pac and Dre’s vocals are so intrinsically set to the original melody that caution is required. The rules state that from the moment the clock starts, the two have ten minutes to work their magic.
Laptops and MPCs are frantically battered for drums, kicks and keys as the time starts ticking. C-Sharp‘s head nods back and forth in between mouse clicks, trying to catch the rhythm of the acapella. Staring at the screen, Peter Project stands up from his Mac for a moment and then crouches back down again. His brow remains furrowed. Five minutes. Is this where the self doubt creeps in? ‘What if I screw this up? What if my drum pattern is off? What if I’m the one that gets heckled next?’ Most of the crowd are busy chilling as Mel Boogie cuts up some Black Moon, but I can’t help but overhear some of the impromptu conversations that are popping off. “Yo, it’d be sick if he was here though, he’d def take”… “nah, nah, he’s not even that good, but yo! You know who’d murder this??” Names of Toronto area producers are floated around, some having worked with major label budgets and some I’ve never even heard of before. The argument almost runs parallel to the classic good studio rapper versus good stage rapper debate. Some artists just aren’t cut out to perform live. Some don’t know how to, and then, there are some that just flat out don’t care. Hearing some of those names, I’d be surprised to see them subjugate themselves to this pressure cooker of an environment. Not that I’d blame them, it takes a lot of guts to get up there and do this.
00:00. Time’s up. C-Sharp’s beat hits the speakers like a tsunami. Waves of synth crash over the crowd’s heads and it almost seems a foregone conclusion that Sharp just took the W. By now the crowd are buzzing with anticipation. Project’s beat starts playing. Roger Troutman’s opening hook almost drowns in the thumping drums but it’s the switch-up that kills it. A live flute sample that would have DJ Quik paying attention dances around Dr. Dre’s vocal as the melody ebbs and flows with the verse’s progression. The audience feedback is enough to summarize the box score. It’s Project’s night, and what sweeter birthday present than to be moving on to the final in October for the $1500 grand prize. He’ll join the winners of the first two instalments, Fresh Kils and Memorecks, and the to-be-determined victor of the fourth show in September. And yet, despite the entertaining outcome and the self-resolution from the overheard argument earlier, I can’t help but wish for one of Toronto’s so-called big guns to step up. If only for the expectations. If only to see how they’d match up in this arena. But then, to appropriate an old boxing saying: it’s tough to step on stage with the threat of embarrassment when you’re used to getting five figures per beat.
Find out who’ll take the last slot and move forward to the finals September 23rd at the Drake Underground. For more information, visit www.SoundBattleRoyale.com.
Written by Chris Cromie
Photography by Andy G for HipHopCanada
Tags: Sound Battle Royale