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At Verbal Armageddon, the end is the beginning

(Published November 4, 2002)


Staff Writer

As MC Artemis steps down from the small wooden stage, he is breathing heavily and is slightly damp with sweat from the stage lights and the battle from which he has just emerged. His opponent, K-Ruckus, has just defeated him, but he is still in high spirits.

"It’s all good," he says, with a smile. "He’s my friend."

This is how Armageddon happens in D.C. There are vicious battles, glorious victories and crushing defeats. These warriors are out for the heads of their enemies, or, at the very least, their bruised egos.

But, don’t worry, good citizens, because it’s not over yet. In the Verbal Armageddon – Washington’s largest organized hip-hop competition – the end is only the beginning.

Verbal Armageddon is a hip-hop tournament aimed at crowning the queen or king emcee of the Howard University and D.C. community of hip-hop artists. A season-long event, the tournament puts contestants through a series of competitive rounds successfully performing and competing in various free-style and "written" rhyme challenges to advance through the tryouts and three-round tournament in pursuit of the championship.

In a rap battle, the goal is to make yourself appear to be the best, or "freshest," or, even, "most def," rapper by the way you form the words to rhyme.

In rap music, the term MC (a.k.a. emcee) stands for the Master of Ceremonies, and is used interchangeably with the title "rapper."

Hip-hop, or rap music, is an art form that emerged from the Bronx in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Kurtis Blow were a few of hop-hop’s pioneers during this time, with hits like "Rapper’s Delight," "The Message" and "The Breaks."

Rapping has been compared to "playing the dozens," an older form of the back-and-forth, tit-for-tat wordplay that has been, for generations, a common way in which black men communicate with each other.

Hip-hop, for all intents and purposes, is, and has been since the beginning, a male-dominated industry. Some would even go as far as saying that the messages in a lot of hip-hop records can be degrading to women. Yet, this hasn’t stopped the number of female hip-hop artists from breaking in, and even succeeding within the industry. Female rappers can now join the ranks of artists like Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill.

Within the most recent round of Verbal Armageddon, the second of the Fall 2002 season, Club 2K9 hosted Round 2: Battle Round in which 28 rappers faced off, showcasing their free-style rhyming skills, a talent that utilizes the art of quick-thinking and improvisation.

As some spectators agreed, free styling is not the sport for amateurs.

"What I look for in an emcee is an originality of flow [of rhymes] and a different delivery," said Chinoa Littlefield of Metatraks, a D.C.-based production facility that also is a sponsor of Verbal Armageddon. "I need something special."

MC Artemis, a regular contestant and former winner of the competition, says that he competes to enhance his skills as an emcee. "Every competition helps me to concentrate more and focus on my free-styling," he said.

Nelson Bennett, a Howard student who founded and coordinates Verbal Armageddon, said he "wanted to start an event that would bring together all the hip-hop talent we have here at Howard, and here in D.C."

Verbal Armageddon has drawn record numbers of audiences and participants, which has made it Howard University’s second largest event, next to its homecoming festivities, and the largest hip-hop event in Washington.

This season marks the fifth year since its inception, beginning with Round 1: Self-Definition and ending later this year with Round 3: The Gauntlet.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator