My knees were weak. My arms were heavy. Part 1.
I was standing between Parabellum and Goldface Richie. All three of us had our iPhones out. We sipped water carefully, trying to keep our throats nourished but also trying to avoid having to pee right before we were called on stage. Each of us had our Notes app open, and the verses we had penned were staring back at us, our faces illuminated in the dark corner at the edge of the bar. The lyrics had been seared in our minds, but nervousness and fear kept us returning to our cyphers. It was only my second time performing, and unfortunately it would also be my last. This is the story of how I got there.
On a typical Wednesday, I took a leap of faith on an email from my then-roommate, Mike. It was an invite to an MC competition, but I read it as an invite to compete. I was in, and looking back, I'm proud that I jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. The rules were simple: there would be a performance verse, where each MC could rap prepared lyrics alongside a live band. The best MCs would be moved to the next round, which would consist entirely of freestyles, followed a final round of freestyles. I had no intention of making it past the second round. I just wanted to be up there with a rad prepared verse.
Preparation came in fits and spurts. I knew my strength as a writer. In the fifth grade I penned a diss track called "Rap Sandwich", which reached #24 on the billboard charts in 1998 (joke). In case you missed this smash hit, here is a sample: "Rap Sandwich, you jump like a flea / Rap Sandwich, You're quick like a tree / Rap Sandwich, I own a starship fleet." You get the picture. I had come a long way since then though, and I knew that to make it, I had to get topical. Some of my favorite rhymes mention obscure subjects or are extremely relevant to pop culture at the given moment, and in live hip hop, those references are what build your connection to the audience. I started throwing in everything I could think of. References to House of Cards, how slow the Red Line is, hell I even mentioned David Blaine in my prepared verse.
Although I had no intention of actually succeeding against "real" MCs, I still didn't want to embarrass myself for the freestyle competition. Preparing for freestyling did not come as easily as writing. I put on a beat, found a random word generator online, and stood in the middle of my den and freestyled at my iMac like a buffoon. My roommates were home, and could hear every miscue and stutter, but they were supportive. I readily admit that I was more nervous practicing in my home, where I knew I could be heard suffering through shitty, incoherent, and made up verses, than I ever was on stage.
I perfected my one verse, and had a back up just in case, and I was also improving my freestyles. But there wasn't any more time. The night of competition was here.
I sat on the bus going up Florida Avenue (92 bus for my DC homies) and was poring over my notebook. My legs were shaking. It was my birthday. I was supposed to be doing something I enjoyed, and instead I was scaring myself witless. I breathed, and put my notes away, and as the bus pulled across 15th st, I pulled the Stop Requested cord, sealing my fate.
"When I walk in the club, all eyes on me."
I have the best friends in the whole world. More than half of the people in the crowd were there to support me. Suddenly the nerves fell away. Friends telling me that I was going to "crush it" and that they were pumped to see me rap provided a shot of confidence and adrenaline. Then the event emcee took the stage. It was time to begin.
I was in the second round of four MCs to take the mic for our prepared verses. The band, All the Best Kids, had played a kick-heavy, aggressive beat for first group. I was hoping for the same, but instead got a slow, almost bossa-nova style beat. I put the mic up to my mouth, and started my verse. Punch lines flew. The crowd "oooooh'd" at my lines, and before I knew it, my final couplet: MCs are scared, they be running and hiding / While I wave to my friends like my name is Joe Biden" came and went, and the crowd went nuts. I hopped off stage, and one of the other MCs gave me props, saying my flow was like Easy-E's. I was on top of the world. Holy shit. I had done it.
After the first round, the event's host took the stage, and said that every one of us was moving on to the second round: freestyling. Fucking great, I thought to myself. Here's how it was going to work: There was a hat, and in the hat were different words written on sheets of paper. Contestants drew from the had, and had 40 seconds to rap about that subject. 40 seconds is a long fucking time. It's an eternity. And I drew "Prison." Great.
There was a memory that I believe will remain etched into my brain, even long after I die. The stage lights were in my face. I couldn't see anyone in the crowd. The beat dropped. And I started rapping about prison for 40 endless seconds. Everything else was a blur. It became very clear that I knew nothing about prison from the moment I opened my mouth. I think I referenced orange jump suits twice. It did not go well. The bell rang. And my forty seconds were up. It was clearly over for me.
But I couldn't have been happier at having put myself up on stage. The remaining MCs duked it out and a short young woman, Bad News, took the final victory. But the competition wasn't about prize money. The top 6 MCs were going to be invited to participate in a Flash Band hip hop show at Club Heaven & Hell. The host then made a major announcement: because of the caliber of every MC at the show, everyone was welcome to move on to the next level, including me. It looked like I'd get another shot at being on stage after all...