Rachod Green had all the trappings of the rap game. Baggy clothes hanging off his tall, thickset body. Bling-bling in his ear and around his neck. Cool name -- "Gifts," an acronym for "Got it from the streets." He'd even mastered the perpetual scowl.
What he didn't have was a record -- not one you could buy at Sam Goody, anyway. His promoter, Johnny Dukes, would brag that Gifts would be on the Billboard Top Ten inside of a year. But Dukes was also Gifts's half-brother, and the first step to getting on the Billboard Top Ten -- scoring a major-label contract -- had so far eluded them.
Which is what brought Gifts to the Spy Bar for a rap battle. Among the raucous crowd of struggling rappers, he would have a chance to make his bones, to get his name out, to vault to the front of the long line of wannabes with their hands out. He would also have a chance to win a $500 prize -- a princely sum for a man still living with his mother.
To prove himself, Gifts would have to beat more than a dozen of the city's best battle rappers in lyrical combat. They were insult artists, guys who had honed their skills in playground put-down contests. They could size you up, cast a harsh spotlight on your nappy hair or dusty shoes, and instantly concoct a line that would have the whole joint laughing. And they could make it rhyme.
Three judges would pick the winner, but the real arbiter was the crowd of fans. They were like a riot in progress, surrounding Gifts not three feet away. Their laughter could swallow him. If they were laughing with him, it was like winning the Superbowl. Laughing at him . . . well, it was better not to think about that.
One of Gifts's early opponents had forgotten to iron his shirt. "My style is critical," Gifts rapped. "And just like his shirt, his style is wrinkled."
The crowd's guffaws signaled that Gifts was the winner. With victory came the chance to take on the next challenger.
Another contender, dressed in red from head to toe, took the mic. Gifts dispatched him with ease: "You look like a big red Twizzler!"
Gifts had been rapping since he was nine, but in recent years, the 25-year-old rapped mainly to amuse friends when they were drunk. He had never battled in a real competition before. Yet already he was proving himself to be a formidable foe. His shirt bore an image of a tidal wave, and his wordplay seemed equally overwhelming to his opponents.
But just as he was getting his confidence, he found himself facing Drastic. Basketball-tall, with the cocky smile of a man who has never known nervousness, Drastic was reputed to be one of the best battle rappers in the midwest. "That's Drastic," one of Gifts's friends warned. "He don't play."
Gifts knew exactly what he was up against. "He done won every battle," Gifts thought to himself. "He might do me."
The rules are simple. Two competitors face off. Each has an allotted period of time -- usually 30 to 45 seconds -- in which to degrade his opponent with a freestyle rap, over a soundtrack provided by a DJ.
"In your mind, you're trying to pull out everything you ever thought of," says Poohmanchew, a hip-hop promoter who throws Kings of the Iron Mic battles several times a year. "You're going through your Rolodex: 'He's got three teeth in his mouth, I'm gonna say that. I saw him with that fat chick at the bar, I'm gonna say that.'"
Cleverness is prized as much as viciousness. Local rapper Siege won raves at a 2001 Columbus battle with a reference to an opponent's Ecko T-shirt. "In this battle, you're getting abused/I'll use your own shirt against you: You lose . . . you lose . . . you lose," he rapped, echoing the punchline as if it were coming from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Cash prizes as high as $500 are rare, but victories pay dividends in respect. "Word of mouth spreads," says Snub, another local rapper. "You can be an unknown, and you battle somebody and eat them up, and people are like 'That's Snub. He's slick.'"
Because the bar is so low for entry into the rap game -- no need to learn guitar or drums; the ability to rhyme in English will suffice -- battles help separate the next Jay-Z from pretenders. "Winning a battle is the easiest way to get exposure, if you're a rapper trying to get on and trying to get noticed," says Jonathan "Gotti" Bonanno, a music editor at The Source magazine who oversees the Unsigned Hype column, which tracks promising new artists.
Battles are even more important in Cleveland, where aspiring rappers have few outlets to showcase their skills. Local hip-hop stations are notorious for neglecting home-grown talent ["Hip-Hopcrisy," August 28, 2002], and the city hasn't had a national star to carry its banner since Bone Thugs-N-Harmony imploded some years back.
"We don't have a slew of people getting signed from this city," says Poohmanchew. "We don't have any major labels here. I bet, if you go to any city, there's a scene like this. But in Cleveland, it's the only thing."
No wonder local rappers take battles so seriously.
"It goes beyond being nervous," says Siege. "I have to win this. My world would crumble if I don't win this. It's almost like you're fighting for your life."
Compliments don't come easy in the world of battle rap, where insults and bravado are the coin of the realm, but if you ask who's the best battle rapper in Cleveland, one name comes up again and again: Drastic.
"I haven't seen him lose," says Poohmanchew. "And he wins by landslides. Dudes he beats, you never see them again. He puts them in seclusion. I seen him retire cats."
"Drastic embarrasses people," says Snub, who has known Drastic for four years and compares their friendly rivalry to that of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. "Drastic eats people up."
A videotape of a competition held March 2001 at the Grog Shop makes clear why Drastic wins such high praise. "This is Drastic two years ago," narrates Paulie Rhymes, another hip-hop promoter, who screened the tape for a visitor. "This is 18-year-old Drastic. This isn't even Drastic today."
Drastic has an easy smile and a confident demeanor. He's not one to brag, but he gives off the aura of someone who doesn't need to -- he has impressed enough people that there are others to brag for him.
Onstage, he towers over opponents. He wears a backpack, as if he has stopped in on his way home from school. He bobs his head to the thumping bass, carefree as he listens to young men insult his mama. When he takes the mic, it's as if he's pulling each audience member aside in a crowded bar to tell a joke. Often they start laughing before he's finished the punch line.
"Even with bifocals, you couldn't see my flows," Drastic says of a man wearing a camouflage safari hat and cargo pants. "Why you got me going after a reject G.I. Joe?"
"This little kid kills me, man," Paulie says with a chuckle.
Drastic, whose real name is Dustin Davis, began rapping six years ago, when he was 14. Two years later, a mutual friend passed along phone numbers for two guys who called themselves Radius and I-Dub. They were as enamored of freestyle rapping as Drastic, and the three became fast friends. Radius and I-Dub lived about 20 miles away, so they kept in touch by phone, rapping for each other nearly every night.
"It was the summertime, we were 15, 16 -- no job," Drastic says. "It was just like a hobby. Nobody knew how good we were. It was just for fun."
Drastic took to his hobby with a workmanlike intensity. He kept an audio journal on a karaoke machine, preserving freestyle raps laid down over any beat he could get his hands on. With Radius and I-Dub, he formed a rap crew called Mach 3.
Soon Drastic was entering rap battles and roundly outclassing opponents. At the Grog Shop battle, which was only his second tournament, he found himself facing his friend I-Dub, who took the stage wearing a vest and a Kangol hat.
I-Dub laid down a serviceable rap -- nothing flashy, but hardly an embarrassment. Then it was Drastic's turn. What happened next has since been christened "The Death of I-Dub."
"I love you man," Drastic told his friend before beginning in earnest. "But it's not fair. Check it out . . .
"All right, I'm about to rip you in front of everybody, they about to see the drama/ Take off this vest, you ain't the Unabomber," Drastic rapped to a chorus of laughter.
"When it comes to flows, he runs back/Hold on, also take off that Rerun cap," he continued.
"I'm gonna make your back twist," Drastic said. He spun I-Dub around and pointed to a Warner Bros. patch on the back. "Show the crowd. He's a silly rabbit!"
When the drubbing was over, I-Dub was so humiliated that he never performed under that name again. He grew his hair long, changed his clothing style, and started calling himself "Jack Burton." "It was like a three-punch knockout, and I was pretty much done," Burton says, adding that he holds no grudge against Drastic. "Me and him are tight. We like Siskel and Ebert, when one of them was alive."
So Gifts had good reason to worry when he saw that his next opponent at Spy Bar would be Drastic. If Drastic was willing to rip his good friend I-Dub, what would he do to someone he didn't know?
Gifts didn't have to wait long for his answer.
"You play my family, now you wanna play me," Drastic rapped. "Why you look like Sinbad from the 1980s?"
Gifts didn't offer any punch lines nearly as clever. But his rap was consistent; he didn't stumble. He also had the crowd and the judges behind him -- they were used to seeing him win. And Drastic's rap wasn't the showstopper "The Death of I-Dub" had been a year before; his assault on Gifts seemed half-hearted by comparison.
Whatever the reason, the judges chose Gifts as the winner. Gifts noticed a change in the crowd's tenor immediately. Now they were really rooting for him. He had the prestige of a giant-killer.
"Do your damn thing!" shouted a man in the crowd. "Come hard, nigga!"
And come hard Gifts did. To an opponent with dreadlocked hair, he rapped, "When you hear me flowing, give me respect/They came to see the show, not Das FX."
One tall, goofy-looking fellow lost his train of thought in the middle of his rap -- an utter embarrassment. But Gifts wasn't about to let him off easy. "You sweet like candy," Gifts rapped. "Looking like Lurch from the Addams Family."
Gifts was having fun now. The nervousness had been washed away by adrenaline. He struggled less with individual opponents than against the marathon pace of the consecutive battles. Cottonmouth had set in.
Half an hour after taking the mic, Gifts had seemingly beaten everyone in the bar. He could almost plan how to spend his $500 prize.
Then, from the back of the bar stepped Suave Gotti, the godfather of Cleveland hip-hop. If anyone got more respect than Drastic, it was Suave. He didn't compete often -- preferring to work behind the scenes to promote others -- but when he did, he almost always won.
And he was coming for Gifts.
At 32, Suave has been in the rap game long enough to talk about what it was and what it should be. He can switch styles from Run DMC to DMX in the same verse. His dedication to hip-hop, coupled with his battle skills, have earned him the respect of his peers.
"He's the elder statesman," says Paulie Rhymes. "He's been doing hip-hop since we were little kids. We love Suave."
"Suave is, like, the master," Snub says with reverence. "He's definitely someone I can honestly say I look up to."
Suave doesn't look the part. He has the weary look of a man who has survived his share of scraps and isn't eager to repeat them. He lives in a cluttered house with his wife and his mother. On a recent day, he wore a dirty Polo sweatshirt and jeans.
His real name is John Davis, and he still remembers writing his first rhyme. It was back in 1981, when he was 11. He had just completed sixth grade, and like most rappers, he wrote what he knew: "It's your first day of junior high/you pick up your books and say bye-bye."
By age 15, Suave had discovered freestyling. Back then, rap battles were informal affairs. Guys met up in school or at the park and spit rhymes to capture the attention of passersby. Suave was initiated into battling one day in study hall, when several of his buddies suddenly turned on him.
"All I remember is they said I had dirt on my elbow," Suave says. He tried to insult them back, "but what I was saying wasn't funny. I couldn't do nothing."
The lyrical assault inspired Suave to step up his game. He challenged himself to come up with rhymes for everything he saw. If it was a tree, he might think: "Me, she, we . . ." He bought a rhyming dictionary and studied LL Cool J, and then tried more complex rhymes. Now, if he saw a tree, he might think: "Personality."
Suave kept battling. By the end of the school year, he caught up with the guys from study hall and beat each of them with his vastly expanded vocabulary. But no sooner had he avenged himself than he made a new adversary: Bango, the B-Boy Outlaw.
Bango looked like a teenage version of Big Daddy Kane and carried himself with the same self-importance. Suave was holding court in the park one day, demonstrating his "big-word rhymes," when Bango challenged him to a battle.
Bango quickly won the crowd's favor with simple yet devastating punch lines. For all Suave's polysyllabic gymnastics, he wasn't nearly as funny.
"So everybody was laughing at what he was saying, and I wasn't getting any laughs," Suave says. "I went from being the center of attention to being the butt of the joke."
Suave didn't give up. He kept practicing and kept writing. When he ran into Bango again, about six months later, they battled to a stalemate that led to violence.
"He made me think that he was so angry that I thought it was beyond rap now," Suave says. "I kicked him, but I only kicked his leg. It didn't do anything but just make him mad. So I ran, and he chased me, but he never caught me."
Bango finally did catch him a few years later. By then, Suave had put out a single that he was selling around town. Suave ran into Bango at a mall and braced for a fight. But to Suave's surprise, Bango simply congratulated him on his success.
"That's when I learned what hip-hop really means," Suave says. "It's about putting your skills up against someone else. If you put 110 percent into whatever it is you're doing, whether it's breaking, graffiti, turntable, or MCing, and if the person you were up against does the same thing, whether you win, lose, or draw, you've made a friend."
Gifts was surprised to see an old head of Suave's stature entering the Spy Bar contest, but he wasn't going to let that shake his confidence. He rapped first and zeroed in on Suave's smile, which could have benefited from a few thousand dollars of dental work.
"I'm not gonna let you beat me, I'll unleash the beast," Gifts rapped. "I'm not gonna let you beat me till you grow some teeth!"
Then it was Suave's turn. He took the mic with a confidence born of more than a hundred battles.
"Ya'll ready?" he asked the crowd. "Check it out. Here we go.
"I'm about to come at you with a full clip," he rapped to Gifts. "I'm astounded by your minute of bullshit." The crowd laughed.
"Your black ass stink," Suave continued. "Don't worry about the $500, I'm gonna buy you a drink." Now they were guffawing.
Gifts had asked his friend to videotape the show. It was supposed to document his triumph, but Suave turned it into the instrument of his humiliation. "Nigga, you an amateur/I'm a manager/here to damage you," Suave rapped. Then, waving to the Camcorder, he said, "Hi everybody on the camera!"
The next lines were drowned out by uproarious laughter. The judges awarded Suave the $500 prize.
Gifts had beaten something like 17 guys in a row. Suave beat just one. It hardly seemed fair. Seemed more like a setup.
Suave sensed the hurt feelings and pulled Gifts aside. He led him back to a private room."I ain't gonna give you the whole $500," Suave said. "But I'm gonna break you off. You pretty good."
And with that, Suave gave Gifts $250 and -- more important -- his blessing.
The battle at Spy Bar last summer wasn't the last time Gifts and Drastic squared off.
To celebrate the premiere of Eminem's 8 Mile, Cleveland hip-hop station WENZ-FM 107.9 held a call-in contest to determine who was the city's best battle rapper. The winner would earn a ticket to Detroit for a national tournament.
Drastic called the station and rapped, "Don't enter the door, you might as well stay out/I'm the type to run eight miles and not get played out."
The deejay told him he was a shoo-in for the trip to Detroit, Drastic says. But Drastic didn't count on Gifts. Not long after Drastic and another competitor from Akron called DJ Eddie Bauer, so did Gifts.
"When it comes to rapping, Eddie, I got this," Gifts rapped. "Go ask that boy Drastic, who spit that hot shit/You can ask anybody at Spy Bar, they know I'm a captain/ And the other dude, fuck him, he was born in Akron." (The station bleeped out the curses, Gifts says.)
A week later, Gifts had plane tickets and hotel reservations. At an industry party in Detroit, he met rappers Eminem and Xzibit, and actor Mekhi Phifer. In the tournament, which was later shown on MTV, Gifts finished a respectable third.
Drastic hated losing, but the fact that it was to Gifts, who had also beaten him at the Spy Bar, made it even worse. "I was like 'I done been cheated again. And he was involved in it,'" Drastic says.
Otherwise, Drastic has few complaints. He recently met Obie Tryce, who was discovered by Eminem, who was discovered by Dr. Dre. Hoping to add his name to that illustrious train, Drastic rapped for Obie and slipped one of his associates a CD. Drastic later got a call from one of Obie's people, who asked to hear more. So Drastic has been hitting the studio, recording tracks for a demo, in the hopes of eventually making the difficult transition from battle rapper to platinum seller.
It's far from a sure thing. Canibus and Supernatural -- two rappers renowned for their battle skills -- never found mainstream success. Both recorded albums but failed to capture the energy of their live battles.
"The rap battle is a good place to start, but it wouldn't be the end-all-be-all," says The Source's Jonathan "Gotti" Bonanno. "It's really the beginning."
Local rapper Siege agrees: "Freestylin' is like the dunk in basketball. If you dunk, people know you and know about you, but it doesn't mean you can play basketball. It doesn't get you the championship ring."
As for Suave, he hosts a weekly show at The Basement called the Spitboxer's Freestyle Exam. It features rap battles as well as a gantlet that rewards rappers for its challenges the way Boy Scouts hand out merit badges for survival skills.
It's Suave's way of trying to vault Cleveland's hip-hop scene back onto the national stage. Nothing irks him more than a guy who wins a battle one week, loses the next, and then drops out of sight for a month.
"People gotta get used to losing," Suave says. "'Cause a real champion can lose and respect the person he lost to, and come back another day and win. It's the losses that help you get better, not the wins."