In June 2003, a thousand hip-hop MCs converged on MTV's New York offices for a televised freestyle battle, vying for a $25,000 cash prize and a recording contract with Def Jam. Most competitors were walk-ups, but five rappers had guaranteed themselves a place in the qualifying round of 32 by winning on-air contests sponsored by their local radio stations.
Of that elite group, exactly one hailed from the West Coast: the Bay Area's own Locksmith, who earned his slot by besting about a hundred competitors in an event sponsored by SF radio juggernaut KMEL. The MC officially represented his hometown of Richmond, a city so lacking in name recognition, New York hip-hop luminaries such as DJ Clue confused it with Los Angeles or San Francisco.
In New York City, many of the East Coast artists showed up with flashy entourages, but Locksmith arrived accompanied only by Left, his partner in the hip-hop duo known as the Frontline. Unknown and unheralded, Locksmith was paid little attention, much less considered a threat. "Me being from the West Coast, I was kinda like the one estranged, kinda different cat," he recalls. "I just tried to stay focused."
Yet being low-profile may have worked in his favor: "Nobody had time to prepare for me," he adds. Impressing a panel of judges that included ten-time Grammy nominee Kanye West and platinum producer Just Blaze, Locksmith easily breezed through the round of 32 to make it to the "elite eight" semifinalists, who'd battle it out live on-camera at MTV's famed TRL studio overlooking Times Square. In addition to the hundreds of people literally in the house, hundreds more watched from the sidewalks via the station's myriad big-screen TVs.
Locksmith recalls that some of his wannabe rap-star adversaries exulted in naive optimism about instant fame, but "My insight was a little bit different," he says. "I knew this would be a stepping stone." He and Left, who are both in their twenties, planned to use any momentum generated by their MTV exposure to establish themselves as independent artists, "and hopefully take it to that next level." Nor did the bright lights of the big city go to Locksmith's head. Although "Some people froze up" when they saw the glitzy set and rows of cameras, "I was mentally prepared," he maintains. He blew easily through the first two rounds.
The championship battle, pitting Locksmith against NYC rapper Reignman, took place in a mock boxing ring, complete with hooded robes for the contestants and Angelo Dundee-esque corner men played by rappers Keith Murray and Noreaga. Locksmith won the coin flip and elected to go second. He remembers that his opponent "had excellent presence, but none of his rhymes were really disabling."
So when Locksmith's turn came, "I just went straight at him." With the crowd's excitement adding to his adrenaline, "from beginning to end, it was just like attack after attack. I felt like I was on point." When he finished, "The crowd was in hysteria. Even the judges, you could see the look on their faces: it was like, 'Oh my God.'"
But to decide the victor, MTV turned not to the judges, but to phone and Internet voters. And though Locksmith felt he had clearly won, Reignman was announced as the winner, although the polling numbers and percentages were never shown.
"I was a little surprised, but actually I expected it," Locksmith says. "Everybody kinda felt like there was a bias, which there was."
Still, that experience didn't deter the MC, who was more determined than ever to bring glory and honor to his region. "I just felt like, 'This ain't about me no more, this is about the Bay Area, repping the Bay, and letting people know that we got all facets of this music down.'"
So, after returning to Richmond, Locksmith and Left wasted no time, hooking up with veteran Oakland producer Ea-Ski and recording what would become the Frontline's breakout signal, "What Is It," which became an anthemic call to arms for what the upstart underdogs had optimistically called the "New Bay" movement.
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