Battle Royale 

Freestyle hip-hop scales the heights at Oakland Metro.

You'd suspect that Tourettes Without Regrets founder Jamie Kennedy wastes whole afternoons inventing new analogies for freestyle battles, even if he rattles them off as though they just occurred to him: "It's like a swordfight of the tongues, or an Olympics for shit-talkers," he says. "The emcees are gladiators throwing verbal grenades at each other, while the audience acts as the emperor who decides their fate." Yet Kennedy admits that what is actually most appealing about freestyle battles is the fact that any schmuck can come in off the street with no name or record deal, and take a title that night. If an emcee has the skills, he'll take the skrills -- whether he came solo, or with a fat entourage.

At least, that's how it happened for Oakland's Kirby Dominant. Dominant remembers coming down to KALX in 1994 for a freestyle showcase with Mystik Journeymen and Fundamentals (who later became Kemetic Suns), whom he'd never officially met before: "So I was doing my little thizzle and everybody knew each other, and I didn't know anyone, and motherfuckers was like, 'Damn, he's doing his thing!' I was the standout." It was Dominant's first semester studying urban economic development at UC Berkeley, and he was still entertaining notions of becoming a college professor or stockbroker. How he ended up as a professional MC and hustler still eludes him. "It was like fucking around with the Cal water polo team when all you'd ever done is got a few trophies back at Ensenada High," he says. "Nobody knows you from shit, but all of a sudden they're suggesting you join the team."

It's easy to romanticize those early days in the rap game. Dominant, who now hibernates and makes beats in a blue-and-red apartment that looks like an Almodóvar film set come to life, was quickly falling in love with all things Berkeley -- Joni Mitchell, tofu tandoori, and the Legends' "Broke Ass Summer Jams" at La Peña. As he recalls, Mystik Journeymen were "on some beatnik shit" back then, peddling their CDs on Telegraph Avenue, throwing $1.87 warehouse parties to raise money to pay the electric bill, and living the traditional Berkeley hippie lifestyle, minus the tofu part. Every once in a while they'd come up to Dominant's dorm room in Unit 2 -- one of the high-rises on Durant Avenue -- to kick down rhymes while their friend Kevin Mingus jammed on the electric bass. The next afternoon, they'd be freestyling on the corner again.

Now there's a new wave of hungry, Depression-era backpackers hawking CDs outside BART stations and giving the old royalty a run for its money. One of the hot young cats is the feared and revered Orukusaki of the group Forensic Science, who, according to Kennedy, "could slay twelve emcees a night without breaking a sweat -- even after smoking three blunts." Already a kingpin at Tourettes, Orukusaki refuses to merely rest on his laurels. He has won numerous battles, including Mighty Four and Battle Avenue. "And he's taking all the comers," Kennedy adds, "to the point where every first Thursday I'm left asking, 'Can anyone fucking take this man?'"

Kirby Dominant and Forensic Science perform with Deraj tha Scatterbrain, Cobalt, LQ Savee, and the Seven Leaves at the Poetic Asylum Hip-Hop Showcase, held at Oakland Metro (201 Broadway at 2nd) on Saturday, February 12. It's a three-hour, jam-packed, "no bullshit" show that begins promptly at 8:30 p.m., and also features a $150 freestyle battle (sign-ups at 8:00) hosted by Jamie Kennedy and DJ Expel. For a mere $10 cover, any quick-witted potty-mouth can enter the rumble and bitch-slap those old school cats for cash and instant fame. Who knows; you might just be the next standout.

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