| Boys in the ’hood: Illmaculate (right) and Sandpeople’s Only One (left) in Illmac’s St. Johns neighborhood. |
IMAGE: NILINA MASON-CAMPBELL
You said I’m a little spitter
All right, that gives me even more motivation to mack up your little sister
And if I did, if I get to kiss her
I’ll give her a nipple twister then I’ll scissor-kick her.
By all accounts, Greg Poe was a nice kid. Supportive parents, liked by his teachers, maybe a bit of a class clown.
“It was always, like, in class I was good. I always participated. I always got ‘A pleasure to have in class’ on my report card,” Poe says.
It’s kind of hard to believe if you’ve ever seen him in action. Poe can mock, sneer, revolt and repulse with the best of them—and he can do it with rhythm and artistry.
Poe, better known as Illmaculate, is one of the best battle rappers in the world.
“Most guys have a couple of strengths and a bunch of weaknesses,” says Kevin Beacham, who hosts what is arguably the most prestigious battle-rap competition in America, Scribble Jam. “[Poe] has flow, content, charisma, presence, intelligence and wit. He’s lacking nothing.”
A hybrid of hip-hop and freeform potshots wherein MCs take turns degrading each other in rhyme, battle rap has its own rules, its own fans and its own champs—and Poe is royalty. The 5-foot-5 (with a ball cap on), 23-year-old Portland MC has a closet full of trophies and two oversized rings from the World Rap Championships. Next month he’s headed to South by Southwest, the granddaddy of American music festivals, to jump-start what looks to be the next big thing in rap battling: a Web-based battle network called Grind Time.
“We realized we don’t have to go through filters anymore,” Poe says. The new network is a game-changer, giving creative control to battle rap artists rather than media onlookers.
If you’re not an underground hip-hop fan, your familiarity with battle rap probably boils down to one cultural flashpoint: 8 Mile. In the 2002 quasi-biopic, a pouty Eminem fights reverse racism, poverty and an endless string of battle-rap opponents in order to get his demo tape heard.
Rap battling—and the music industry, for that matter—has changed since Eminem’s formative years. But in a lot of ways, Greg Poe’s story is just as unlikely as 8 Mile.
Poe was introduced to rap at 4 years old, when his grandmother brought a bag of cassettes home from the local Goodwill. One stood out. “It was called Jammin’, ” Poe remembers. “It had Run DMC, Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys on it. I’d walk around spitting in my hands, attempting to beat-box horribly.”
By 11, Poe was wired: Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan took up permanent residence in his headphones. But it was an album from outside the mainstream—Rakim’s The 18th Letter—that would blow his mind with lyrical artistry. That same year, Poe wrote his first rhyme in the back of Mr. Bennett’s sixth-grade class at North Portland’s George Middle School (with a little help from Rakim):
I look into my pocket but there’s nothing but lint
I try to figure out how I could get some dead presidents
So I walk into the bank with a 9 in my hand
Next thing I know the judge is saying, ‘Approach the stand.’
“I was 11 years old,” Poe says, cracking a toothy smile. “I thought that’s what we were supposed to rap about.”
Poe didn’t investigate battling until he heard Canibus, a mainstream rapper with a battle style. “That was a big thing at the time. I was like, ‘What is this?’ I’d never even heard anyone say the word ‘tetrahedron,’ let alone rhyme it.”
Though Poe had never freestyled before, a friend persuaded him to enter a now-defunct annual contest at the Crystal Ballroom called Hip-Hop Tonight, which carried a $1,000 grand prize.
In a field of nearly 200 MCs, 15-year-old Poe was the youngest competitor. He asked his family not to come to the inevitable slaughter. Portland MC Luck-One (see feature, page 31) still remembers the battle. He faced Illmaculate in the semifinals. “He just kept gaining steam in each round. I’ve lost maybe three battles out of hundreds of [competitive circles] I’ve stood in in my life. That was the only one that I can in no way front on.”
“I remember the phone call,” Poe’s mom, 40-year-old Tamra Russell, remembers. “It must have been midnight or 1 in the morning. He was just screaming, ‘I won! I won!’ We were just so jazzed. No one thought he would win, including him.”
Poe’s schoolwork faltered as battling took off. “I knew he was smart; that was never the issue,” his mother says. “When he was going into [Roosevelt] high school they actually did placement tests on him twice, because they thought he cheated when he was in the top 2 percentile in the nation for reading and writing.”
“He just didn’t see the point,” his mom says. Halfway through his senior year at Roosevelt, Poe dropped out. “I was heartbroken,” says Russell. “I’ve come to terms with it, but I still tell him he needs to get his GED.”
What happened next is the stuff of rap-battle legend. Shortly after quitting school, Poe took a job at a Northeast Portland aluminum extrusion plant, working 10-hour days, six days a week, to save money to record his debut album. “It was perfect,” he says. “Not only was I making good money, I didn’t have time to spend it.” But when a friend insisted he attend Scribble Jam ’04, 17-year-old Poe tried to clear vacation time. His boss declined to grant him leave, so Poe quit.
Over its 13 years, Scribble Jam has come to be known as the World Series of rap battles. While the Cincinnati-based hip-hop festival hosts competitive events in everything from graffiti, turntablism and breakdancing, battle rap has always taken center stage. Competitors come from around the world.
The rules at Scribble are carefully scripted: A DJ lays down a beat of his choosing while contestants verbally humiliate one another for 30-second stretches—ideally while staying on beat. It plays out like a boxing match, save that physically touching your opponent is strictly off-limits. And while some rappers come with pre-planned lines (or “writtens”), it’s the free-form, specific insults that send the 8,000-plus crowd into hysterics and get high marks from judges. Because competitors don’t know whom they’ll face until a battle begins, it takes a creative MC to hit his rival where it hurts.
Eminem’s real-life battling career took him to Scribble in 1997, but he lost in the semifinals to a notorious Chicago freestyle MC named Juice.
Poe’s story took a different turn: After clearing an unlikely path to the battle’s final round, Illmaculate faced off against Mac Lethal, a former Scribble Jam champ. When Mac Lethal rapped that Illmaculate looked like “a white version of Margaret Cho” (racial insults are commonplace in battles, but his European-Siletz Indian-Hispanic heritage can be hard to pinpoint by looking at him), Illmac fired back (Disclaimer: These videos are not only NSFW but contain material that may be offensive to some viewers. The views and opinions expressed herein were made in the course of live rap battles and are in no way representative of the views or opinions of WW or its staff.):
Well, that shit was embarrassing
The dopest shit you had was a mediocre comparison.
Poe’s energy level (he bounced around the stage like a Super Ball after downing five Red Bulls) and underdog status helped the then-17-year-old become the youngest champ in festival history. “I liked his story,” 2000 champ and influential MC Sage Francis, who was on stage that day, told WW. “Here’s some kid who left his job to compete at Scribble Jam and now he was going home with the money and a buzz. Hundreds of people attempt that each year, but only one person makes it happen.”
Back at home, Poe’s mom was still getting used to the crassness of the art form.
“I used to just cringe when I would hear the stuff that came out of his mouth,” she says about seeing his early battles. “Now it doesn’t bother me at all. They aren’t just put-downs, they’re thoughtful. They use lots of metaphors and plays on words.”
It’s New Year’s Eve, and in the Hawthorne Theatre’s side bar in Southeast Portland, Poe keeps an eye on his cell phone. He’s 23, but his short stature, spotty beard and oversized hoodie make him look out of place. Tonight was supposed to be a major battle-rap contest, but a combination of bad weather and flaky rappers meant a handful of no-shows, and Illmac is on edge. His longtime partner-in-rhyme, glassy-eyed California MC Peter Morris (a.k.a. The Saurus), is markedly more relaxed.
“The day we linked up as a team was the day we met,” says Morris, 27, with the same sharp SoCal enunciation that carries his raps.
Individually, these are two of the most decorated competitive rappers in the world. As a duo, they are the most recognizable tag team in battle-rap history, having torn undefeated through two seasons of British hip-hop website Jumpoff’s World Rap Championship, a competition with divisions around the world.
What gives opponents nightmares about Illmaculate and the Saurus isn’t the avalanche of multisyllabic insults that pour from their mouths or the acrobatic fashion in which they deliver their punch lines. What’s scary is that they can turn an opponent’s words against him and play off of each other’s verses. In battle with Hom (skinny) and Piff James (not-so-skinny) in the early rounds of a 2006 qualifier, the super-duo’s chemistry was formidable:
Illmaculate: You talkin’ bout McDonald’s fries? I’ll smack you black-blue
What a surprise, the fat dude is referencing fast food
That’s OK, I’ve had enough, I’ll smack you up
As for this dude, he’s fat as fuck
Fast food isn’t even fast enough.
The Saurus: You better run for the border
You two look like opposite ends of an eating disorder
Here’s where anorexia starts and the hunger ends
Stand closer together, you guys look like the number 10.
Illmaculate: Who’s losin’? You know it ain’t me
You can stand close together and look like a lowercase b.
At the Hawthorne, a wide-shouldered Bay Area rapper called F.L.O. pulls up a chair.
“I’ll tell you, as someone who lost to them,” F.L.O. says, “they’ve broken it down beyond a syllable science. If you use boxing as an analogy, right, they don’t jab a lot. They just haymaker. And the filler, no one’s even listening for the filler, because once you know how to freestyle, your freestyles can be just as entertaining as the punch lines. It’ll be like, ‘He said geek! What the fuck is Saurus going to rhyme with geek?’” The table cracks up. “But the thing is, only the masters can spit this shit comfortably. The delivery is as significant as the words.”
Despite his renown, Poe isn’t balling. “It’s not the glamorous life most people would associate with being a rap star,” he jokes. For the past year, he has resided in a nondescript duplex near Pier Park in St. Johns (a neighborhood he grew up in and loves to rep in his music). His house is sparsely decorated with a Miles Davis print in the living room and framed family photos upstairs. The bathroom towels are folded and there’s a shoes-off rule (“I ain’t trying to lose that security deposit,” Poe jokes). There’s no hot tub on the porch (one wouldn’t fit anyway) and no spinners on his ride (Poe doesn’t own a car). “He comes over and I have grocery bags for him,” his mom says.
“There aren’t too many jobs where you can pick up and leave with a couple weeks’ notice,” his mom adds. Without a job, Poe depends on merchandise sales, performances, appearances on other rappers’ albums and his half of the $40,000 winnings from the 2007 World Rap Championships, which trickles in via monthly checks from the U.K.
It’s nearly impossible to make a living from battle rap alone, and very few MCs continue to battle once their music career takes off. Though he hasn’t retired from competition, Poe rarely enters them these days. He never saw battling as a priority, he says; more like “a pedestal to get more notoriety and get my music out there more.”
In late 2005, Poe joined Sandpeople, a 10-member crew that is now the preeminent hip-hop outfit in Portland. His contributions to Sandpeople recordings have been impressive, but he has yet to release a proper album of his own. That will change in April, with Police Brutality, an album that bucks the stereotypes associated with battle rappers. Poe’s lyrics switch from a tough-guy battle delivery and into something smoother—and the album’s most revealing moments are humble; vulnerable, even. Those aren’t qualities normally attached to guys that dish put-downs for a living. On “Carved Initials,” Poe condenses his journey in rhyme:
I know my family supports what I do
But at the same time I know it tortures them, too
To have to tell people that their son dropped out of school
Don’t got a job or go to college, I’ll be honest with you
Shit has gotten to the point where I want to just move
And pack my own things but it seems impossible to
With the fact that I don’t got a product to move
Writer’s block can be cruel, there’s still a lot to be proved.
Even as Poe attempts to step away from battling, he’s becoming involved with the culture in a more profound way with Grind Time.
Florida rapper Drect (born David Williams), a 21-year-old graduate of Orlando’s multimedia Full Sail University, started Grind Time Entertainment (grindtimenow.com) as a way of cutting out the middleman. “I was like, ‘Man, I wish we had something for the people by the people,’” he says. So Drect and his partner, battle MC Mad Illz, began calling up battle rappers across the nation. Grind Time now hosts chapters in five U.S. cities, all run by established artists. Though the young site registers a relatively modest 1,000 to 1,500 visitors a day (“it basically pays for itself” via ad revenue, Williams says), it’s the only site on the Web posting fresh video daily. “I guess it could be bigger than the NFL,” Williams says optimistically when pressed about his long-term goals for the site.
Later this month, Poe will travel to Austin to perform at South by Southwest with Sandpeople. On that trip, he’ll host a Grind Time battle that takes advantage of the concentration of artists in Austin for the festival. Poe sees the fest as a legitimizing factor for the website. “It’s a big step in the right direction for us,” Poe says. “And it’s kind of a cliché, but with so many different companies, investors and people there looking for that next thing—you never know who’s gonna stumble upon it.”
Poe sees his involvement with Grind Time as a way of giving back. “It’s even more rewarding than winning battles,” he says of his role as host and president of Grind Time’s Northwest chapter. “Being able to facilitate cats that deserve to be seen.”
Portland has never been a hotbed for battle rap, so Poe’s formative years as an MC involved frequent trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities with legit battle scenes. While those trips helped him enter a battle rap community (often dubbed the “Fresh Coast” movement), coming home always stirs mixed emotions—relief at being back in the city he loves and disappointment that Portland is still a battle-rap punch line.
But he won’t be leaving anytime soon. “I’m not gonna move to success,” Poe says. “I’m gonna bring it to me.”
An Illmaculate Sampler
SEE IT: Illmaculate performs with Only One (and most of Sandpeople) at Rotture on Friday, March 13. 9 pm. $5. 21+.