Oakland emcee Nerve is a ten-year veteran of online rap battling. He explain the process: You sign on, pick your opponent, type in some lines, and attach an audio file with the recorded verse — usually sixteen bars (or 2 minutes) worth of insults and braggadocio. Battles last one round only, and spectators use their mouse to vote which emcee should prevail. It's a slower, more methodical sport than traditional verse sparring — and to the uninitiated, it sounds about as exciting as playing a game of chess by mail.
Nerve takes exception to that. "They thought we were pocket-protector-ass nerds back in the day," he said. "A lotta industry cats was like 'Oh, you motherfuckers is nerds and this and this and this and this.' It really is hard to see behind that screen." But Nerve said online battles are at least as cutthroat as their live counterparts, in that they require rappers to be a lot more inventive. Participants can't riff off one another like they would in live battles. You have to be quick-witted and fresh, since the format allows competitors to Google your material and cry foul if you recycle old lines. To top it all off, each audience member has to really defend his vote. "You'd have to say I like these bars, his delivery here, his sound quality, the way he was riding the beat," said Nerve. When the competition got real heavy, emcees would arrange to battle in person. "That's how hungry we were."
Hunger is apparently one of Nerve's best attributes. It was the impetus for his 2001 move from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Oakland, where he hoped to find a better-organized independent hip-hop scene. It was the character trait that helped endear him to right-hand-man Mr. Rath (aka Rapheal Gavin), the DC-raised rapper who collaborated with him on tracks like "Caller ID" and "Rep Your Shit." And it helped win over local DJ and producer D Sharp, who insists that all artists in his stable be "humble and hungry."
Now thirty-four, Nerve is hungry enough — and, for that matter, heady enough — to be on the brink of dropping his first album, aptly titled Loose Cannon. At this point, the cards are stacked against him. He's coming out at a time when Bay Area hip-hop no longer has national presence, and would-be rap titans have been forced to go it alone. Nerve — aka Derrick Hatten — is a Grand Rapids transplant with little name recognition in the Bay Area, save for his ties to D Sharp (who signed Nerve to his indie label, Urban Republic, after meeting the emcee two years ago). And he's entering the rap market right as studio albums are becoming less relevant and artists are increasingly selling their songs digitally. Fortunately for Nerve, that shift might actually be advantageous for him. He's not a major-label veteran who suddenly has to compete with the nobody who just broke on MySpace; he is that nobody, and he knows how to go it alone. Nerve launched his career online before it was cool to do so, in the course of ten years, he's learned how to pimp the medium.
Sitting in Sharp's studio last Tuesday night, Nerve happily reminisces about his online battling days. He's a skinny guy with suede shoes and a wallet chain, and a penchant for slurry mumblings. But when you get him talking about the battles, the emcee gets animated. "I'd wanna make you wanna fight afterward," said Nerve. "I'd talk about your mother, your sister, your cousin, your girl, you, how you smell — all that shit." It was in these forums that he encountered the most formidable emcees to ever hit a mouse pad — namely, a girl from the Bronx named Drizz Mami, and the Harlem rapper Mickey Factz, who played trumpet in high school and still sings in church every Sunday (he says that having a musical background helped him learn proper intonation for hip-hop). "Her and Mick was a tag team — Mickey and Mallory," Nerve said.
Mickey Factz appears on "Old School," the new single with which Nerve will introduce himself to the world. It's a song that befits Nerve, with its slippery texture and nostalgia-based lyrics. Sharp starts his melody on an offbeat, playing a minor-key guitar chord and incorporating new elements one at a time — a piano fill; a conga; a sample cribbed from Nas; the sound of an actual record being scratched on an actual turntable. He puts the accents in weird places to make the rhythm sound choppy and staccato without losing its harmonic integrity. Nerve drops the first verse — a growly remembrance of his old neighborhood and his early days as a rapper — followed by a curmudgeonly guest rap from Mickey, who chides his audience for not knowing anything about real hip-hop. (At twenty three years-old, Mickey Factz may not yet be an expert when he reminisces about the old school.) The song "Caller I.D." is lyrically more interesting, with its plot about tracing a threatening phone call and exacting revenge. In that track Nerve and Mr. Rath swap verses over a deadly minor-key beat, meant to shore up the rappers' hostility. Like "Old School" it is characteristic of Sharp's production style: chopped-up samples, asymmetrical rhythms, and several instruments drifting around the same tonal center.
"Old School" and "Caller I.D." are two pivotal tracks on Loose Cannon, good enough to hold their own against most current rap albums. The question now is whether Nerve can be the next SoundClick phenomenon, jockeying with the likes of Soulja Boy Tell 'Em, the Cool Kids, and even his friend Mickey Factz, who all broke first on the Internet. Nerve says he'll succeed by dint of personality. After all, this is a guy whose aliases include "Al Sharp Tongue" and "Silky Johnson," who learned to flip punchlines online and made rivals want to sock him. And Nerve says he's a real showman: "I came out with the one-piece thermal underwear shit like them hillbillies be wearing with the ass patch," Nerve recalled in a recent phone conversation. "I had the JJ robe, the tube socks, the two-dollar karate shoes on, the doo-rag, the gold belt, and some swim goggles, and I was fresh. And you know what ma? I came out the house like that. That's how I was feeling that day."
Sadly, some things can't be conveyed through a computer screen.
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