I spent Saturday evening bobbing my head to two rappers in discourse. That’s right, rap battles, as they are often called, have somehow worked their way up from Brooklyn and into the Hamilton neighborhood – this time into Utica Street Café.
I was fortunate enough, or unfortunate depending on how you handle confrontation, to see these two lyricists sway from a battle of words to a battle of fists. Okay, maybe not fists, but there was some pushing and shoving. The exchanges became so intense that, for a brief moment, The Fresh Mandeezy (senior Matthew Iandoli) and Muffin Burger (junior Tim Phelps) broke into a small tiff.
“I’ve never seen a fight like there was just now,” Muffin Burger’s partner, Puff Pastry (junior Chris Johnson), told me. “I think it shows you how seriously a lot of these rappers take their music. I mean, in the beginning it was for fun. It was sort of a joke. But when you start making your own beats and experimenting more and more with writing lyrics, you say to yourself: this can be something kind of cool.”
Puff Pastry is right. More and more kids of our generation are turning to the world of music production. In the last two years, DJ software and hardware companies like Traktor, Beringer and Ableton have seen their sales crack the roof open.
Of the three MCs I interviewed, only Muffin Burger could play an instrument – the guitar. “You don’t really need to know how to play an instrument to make beats and rap over them,” Phelps said. “I’ve actually never even used my guitar to make a beat for one of my songs… there’s definitely more of an emphasis on the performance side of things. 0 could do what we’re doing musically, but to stand up in front of people and have flow and have your words resonate is harder than you think.”
Puff Pastry and Muffin Burger began writing rap songs just a year ago. Now juniors, they continue to produce music and are slowly transitioning into creating all of their “positive rhythms” from scratch using Ableton software.
As Muffin Burger fished his computer out of his backpack to show me how the program works, I couldn’t help but notice that these kids looked nothing like “rappers.” Puff Pastry, tall and lanky, wore cargo pants and dirty running sneakers. He adorned his neck with a plastic chain he says he bought at Price Chopper. The pendant was not what I expected: a large Euro sign. He also wore a flat-brimmed Phillies hat.
Muffin Burger wore an unzipped puffy North Face jacket which, with each sudden movement, would briefly unveil Biggie Smalls’ frown. A Newport cigarette was lodged behind his ear. But he, too, wore cargo pants, and on his feet were thin flip-flops.
The Fresh Mandeezy, who started rapping in high school, wore plain black shades with a loose-fitting purple flannel.
“We definitely dress with a sense of humor,” Iandoli said with a grin. “Part of this is a complete joke. Look at what we’re wearing … I knew I could never become a professional rapper; I mean, obviously. But I always liked listening to hip-hop and rapped for the fun of it anyways. It’s weird, I know. It’s like stand up comedy fused with rapping. Think of Weird Al. It’s like that, except a bit more serious.”
It makes sense. If this was all just comedy, I wouldn’t have seen such heat between Muffin Burger and The Fresh Mandeezy.
Most of the battling is playful. “I got stars in my heart,” The Fresh Mandeezy said for example, “and they sharp like sharks and mark my art, like pointed darts … you eat fruit tarts for lunch and get stuck inside golf carts, cryin’ out for tea carts that don’t come ’cause of ya loud farts.” An “ohhh” echoes from the crowd.
This place never fails to impress me. Sometimes, especially on those dreary work-filled Sundays, as I trudge up through the thick snow to Case Library, I can’t help but think that life tends to repeat itself here. Each week is another. Classes, work, nights out, again and again. People start to look like machines, hardwired to walk down the Persson steps at 1:15 p.m. exactly, just as you’re walking up them. And when all seems finally coordinated, when you think the dust has finally fallen, you discover pockets of eccentricity as if hidden and meant to be found.
Who knew that a small group of students was meeting to unleash a sea of street rhetoric unto one another in strange garb? I walked out of the café that evening feeling very much awake and pledged that I would destroy my “blinders” and live in my periphery.
Contact Matt Levitsky at [email protected]