It’s the fourth year in a row that this spoken word battle has sold out the Concorde2, and it’s still pulling in newcomers – both on and off stage. Last year’s bout (see here) ended with a declaration of solidarity, a mutual attempt to fudge the final verdict in favour of celebrating the shared aspects of poetry and rap. This time round, however, it didn’t take long before the knives were out.
While the poets kicked off the first round with an impassioned piece from battle veteran and team captain Rosy Carrick, the MCs used the opportunity to showcase a raft of new faces. Though the format remained the same, the rappers quickly began to subvert expectations. Mrisi did his piece while playing a keyboard, Teej came on stage dressed in a robe to invoke Hindu deities and Collette delivered a high-energy rap entirely (and bafflingly) in Spanish. Some of the poets may have tried to hark back to the early days of the contest to pigeonhole their opponents, but it didn’t wash. These Brighton rappers have little in common with the bling-and-bitches genre clichés they used to get mocked for. After all this time, both sides have had to up their game.
Weighing in for the poets, Michael Parker delivered a brilliant riposte to the supposed supremacy of the ‘hip hop generation’ with a piece inspired by his love of rock music. Garnering surefire support for his references to Bowie and Lemmy, Mike spoke of trying capture in words the immediacy and excitement of going to gigs, discovering bands and losing it on the dancefloor. The poem succeeded on all fronts and the whooping it generated seems to prove that spoken word – at its best – is every bit as exciting as rock’n’roll.
The middle section of the show consisted of a hip hop cipher which saw the stage invaded by SlipJam regulars alongside up-and-coming protégés from the BITE Youth Team. It’s been 13 years since the first MCs Vs Poets battle so it was both apt and inspiring to see rappers in their early teens take to the stage. Some of them were probably only forming their first sentences when the event began, yet here they were entertaining a room of seven hundred people with their wordplay. And on top of all that they were making it up on the spot (we believe it’s called freestyling). However, Wez Reid and others like Eben didn’t seem all that daunted, and their deft rhymes were met with a warm welcome even from those in the audience aligned with the poets.
The second half of the night began with a surprise comic interlude from MC Gramski masquerading as a grizzled American wrestler trying to wring a truce out of the enemy. His rebuttal came in the form of a blow to head with a metal tray which caused the pantomime prankster to revert to type and kick back with some proper fighting talk. It was an amusing set-piece, despite containing little in the way of either rap or poetry, but his subsequent attack on the poets went astray and caused some serious Facebook fallout which seemed disproportionate to the offence, given the context. Rosy Carrick, the main target of Gramski’s improvised barbs, needed no help to defend her corner. “I’m a mother and I’ve got a PHD,” she coolly replied. “It just so happens that I’m sexy as well.”
Holly Holst, another new face on the rappers’ team, stepped up to offer a counterpart to Rosy’s analytical taunts, while Spliff Richards – himself a previous victim of close-to-the-bone invective – managed to retain his heartfelt style even when doing some serious dissing. The poets’ wildcard, Chris Parkinson, lightened the tone with a gangsta parody featuring a catchphrase chorus of “Rappers love GUNS! GUNS! GUNS!”. With a nod to how far things have moved on in the hip hop world, the poem’s absurd details (e.g. shooting bullets through ham) were so farfetched it was hilarious.
By this point, after some droll banter and understated wit from poet Robin Lawley, there was still everything to play for. However, when the poets’ only first-timer, KaT’s Head, came on to read a somewhat vague poem it felt like the team was flagging. When she suddenly burst into rap and defected to the other team it was a devastating blow. Having given us a poem earlier about crying in toilets, no one suspected that this meek newcomer would declare her love for rap and cross the floor – nor that she’d be so good at it. The MCs danced onto stage, their resident beatboxer Karel Cox provided the backing and it was a brilliant bit of theatre.
Jon Clark pressed home the advantage with an excellent trickshot rap which incorporated recorded snippets from last year’s event, turning the poets’ own words against them like documentary evidence in a court case. It was inventive and caught everyone, including the performers, off guard. After that, there was little Michael Clark could do to pull it back, despite scoring an impressive consolation goal with the final poem of the night. Like his earlier train ticket haikus, it was snappy, smart and fun. Having hit the curfew, possibly as a result of Gramski’s overlong wrestler spiel, the night ended without an official result being called.
In summary then: funny, controversial, unpredictable and inspiring. There’s talk of next year’s battle moving to a bigger venue, which can only mean one thing: Brighton Dome. Wherever it goes, we’ll be there.
Concorde2, Thursday 28th January 2016
Words by Ben Bailey
Photos by Mike Tudor