It's a Grind 

Rappers trade insult essays at this weekend's Battle of the Bay 5.

Twenty-seven-year-old Nick Carletti Hyams is a swarthy, gruff-voiced, part-Jewish, part-Italian rap artist who rechristened himself with the stage name "Lush One." PhillipDrummond is a twenty-eight-year-old psychology graduate student with owlish glasses and stacks of spiral-bound notebooks cluttering his apartment. (He ripped his radio handle from a character on Different Strokes, and won't give his real name, for fear of Googlability). The two met in an online rap battle forum in 2004, and realized they lived a few blocks from each other in South Berkeley. Their shared passion for a peripheral scene of hip-hop — one based entirely on high-stakes verse sparring — led them to become friends and eventually, colleagues.

Now, the two helm the West Coast chapter of a rap battle league called Grindtime, which imports the art of rhymed insults into what's essentially a WWF championship format. They produce regular events in which MCs try to out-insult each other in a series of timed matches. Lush is president of Grindtime West Coast, meaning he runs the MC battles and hosts the events. As vice president, PhillipDrummond runs the beat battles, steers the marketing, and moonlights as a business consultant (and part-time psychologist, says Lush). At their next event, Battle of the Bay 5 (scheduled Sept. 4-5 at the Oakland Metro Operahouse), they'll have more than fifty MCs go head-to-head in twenty-eight matches, along with eighteen "beat battles" that pit underground producers against one another, in a similar template. The competition is so stiff, says PhillipDrummond, that they've defied the spontaneous nature of traditional rap battles, allowing contestants to research each other and write their verses ahead of time. It's braggadocio for nerds.

Despite being rather improbable rap moguls, Lush One and PhillipDrummond are very attuned to the sensibility and value system of hip-hop. They grandstand; they name-check people who are more famous than them; they meticulously count YouTube hits on the Grindtime web site. Moreover, they seem parochially tied to a particular hood — or rather, a particular part of the country, which Lush One renamed "the Fresh Coast." Lush touts Grindtime as a form of community uplift: "A lot of the people taking notice are from all over the place, and they're acknowledging now the West Coast and the Bay Area as like, a pocket of real, like, true lyricism," he said. "Kinda like, the epicenter of where dopeness is at."

Becoming the epicenter of where dopeness is at wasn't just a matter of having a concentration of talented rhymesayers in one place. It took a college student to commandeer all the rappers, and organize things. Enter PhillipDrummond. Raised in New York City, he got into the MC battle racket while studying psychology at a southern California UC, and persisted after moving up to Berkeley for graduate school. He also makes beats for underground rappers, and supplied all of the tracks for Lush One's new album Music for Dope Runs. The album — which combines autobiographical raps with a storyline borrowed from the movie Maria Full of Grace — has a sense of organization that verges on neurosis. As PhillipDrummond points out, seven tracks are labeled on the CD jacket: a red logo for true stories about Lush; a yellow one for fantasies about Maria. Phillipdrummond says that Music for Dope Runs "doesn't actually espouse or condone dope running;" rather, it's a collection of yarns that tie together thematically. "Full Boat" tells how Lush jacked a kid for a whole bunch of weed in high school. "Luxembourg" details the time he got poisoned by the Russian Jewish mafia. "Skyline Motel" is about his adventures living in a methed-out flophouse. According to PhillipDrummond, such plotlines became grist for Lush's highly literary rap style.

Battle of the Bay 5 will comprise several events: two MC battles featuring such heavyweights as The Saurus and Illmaculate (who joust on Friday, in one of the most anticipated bouts of the weekend); plus a three-round beat battle that requires each contestant to bring in an original synthesizer track, to find a particular type of sample (i.e., polka or mariachi) and cobble a beat from it, and to flip one sample that's been pre-assigned to them. The weekend actually kicks off Thursday night, with a preliminary beat battle outside the variety show Tourettes Without Regrets, said PhillipDrummond. Producers will idle outside the Oakland Metro playing original beats on their car stereos, and let the crowd judge whose music sounds better.

PhillipDrummond said he recently put on a similar event in Modesto, and it went off without a hitch. He likes the authenticity of a car stereo battle, and the idea of taking hip-hop back to streets. All the same, he's a born strategist who loves putting hip-hop to productive use. He's currently working on a dissertation that links hip-hop to group therapy. He loves the idea of battle raps that can be plotted out months ahead of time, with all the raps pre-prepared. ("Just like an insult essay," he said. "Like a diatribe about why the other person sucks"). He particularly loves Lush, since Lush is the type of MC who will Internet-stalk his opponents months before meeting him, call all his friends to get the real dirt, and then come up with a huge arsenal of personalized insults.

"I'm not gonna let somebody metaphorically cut me down," said Lush, hanging out in PhillipDrummond's studio apartment on a recent Wednesday morning.

"Metaphorical castrations," PhillipDrummond interjected.

That day PhillipDrummond was padding around in bare feet — he doesn't allow shoes in his apartment — and a T-Shirt that said "Keep Hip-Hop Blue." Lush sat at the computer in a swivel chair, wearing a sideways cap and a pair of sunglasses clipped to his shirt collar. PhillipDrummond's apartment has a grad student look to it — a claustrophobic hodgepodge of notebooks, papers, vinyl records, sneakers on display above the fireplace, dishes stacked in the sink and a refrigerator crowding one corner. Seeming perfectly at ease, PhillipDrummond began to wax philosophical about his artistic vocation. "The Fresh Coast essentially came to mean a really, really elite group of California and West Coast MCs — including Immaculate up in Portland — that really raised the bar," PhillipDrummond explained. "In terms of battling, in terms of rhyme structure, metaphors, delivery, style of raps ..."

"And just a bunch of cats that are able to have fun with it," Lush butted in. "And not take themselves necessarily as seriously with preconceived images, and just, a bunch of people just being themselves and personifying what it is to just be — fresh."

The whole thing apparently started when Lush prevailed at a 2008 battle in Florida. He's unable to tell the story without getting sentimental. "I felt like I had the whole entire state on my back, and no one even knew it," he said. "This is how lame it was. After I murdered this kid, and we ripped it, and like, we're on stage in Orlando, you feel me? My crew, DelMon [Lush fronts a local rap group called DelMon, short for Delinquent Monastery] performing after I murdered this kid, and I got the whole entire crowd in Orlando throwing up West Coast signs. So I come back, you know what I'm saying? This is how fuckin' corny it was — right? I'm listening to Kanye West on my iPod, or whatever. On the little radio channel, on the thing, with the headphones — right? And the homecoming song comes on. And I'm getting choked up by it. You feel me? Like, they don't even know!" Lush threw his hands in the air with a kind of pneumatic urgency. "Cali don't know!"

"And at that point," said PhillipDrummond, "Florida cats really knew that they had to step their game up."

Lush beamed.

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