NEW YORK — Hanging backstage with the eight finalists at Saturday's MC Battle felt a lot more like kicking it with a crew of old friends than observing fierce competitors vying for a $25,000 cash prize and lucrative Def Jam recording contract.
The "elite eight," as they were known — Red Dott, Big Ace, Tru-Mac, Locksmith, ILL, Nite, Reignman, Marvwon — gathered around a conference room table before the show, trading insults and laughing off their jittery nerves together. No doubt they'd bonded over the weeklong skim-down and spotlight.
"Don't listen to him, he's just on his period," said Nite, under her fedora hat, of ILL, an Eminem type of troublemaker. This back-and-forth exchange just hyped the group up even more as ILL scurried to find a clever comeback.
Many of the MCs had already had brushes with fame: Marvwon had battled the real Eminem on the "8 Mile" DVD; Reignman had walked out on an earlier MTV show, P. Diddy's "Making the Band"; and ILL had been a former battle champ on BET's "106 & Park." Others, like Locksmith, skirted the 1,000-person audition line by winning an on-air radio battle and sailing into the smaller roundup of just 32 wannabes. He'd won San Francisco radio station KMEL-FM's contest.
"The Bay Area scene is filled with more backpackers than on the East Coast. It's more street and hard here," Locksmith said of his cross-country verbal commute.
Tru-Mac, who'd once called Cali home, agreed: "People in California kind of worship the art of hip-hop more. Out in New York, you gotta come more gritty and cocky."
Locksmith also added that he'd been star struck when popular Bay Area rapper E-40 called him up to wish him luck on winning the contest.
The two standouts of the group were Nite, the only female, and Reignman, a quiet presence who sat away from his cohorts in the corner of the room and talked on his earpiece.
"I'm not intimidated by being around all guys," said Nite. "They make me laugh and calm all my nerves." Nite also cited poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou as inspirations to her rhyming and lyrics.
Moments before the MCs were to take the stage for the live show, the jitters seemed to be kicking in hard.
"I think you can see my heart beating through my shirt," ILL said, looking down at his chest.
Nite closed her eyes and took deep breaths, and Tru-Mac revealed, "I'm feeling the butterflies now."
Red Dott complained when he overheard the audience being taught the correct way to boo an MC. "That ain't right," he said, shaking his head and pacing the tiny backstage corridor.
The rowdy audience was multiracial, boys and girls, but mostly teens. Nicole Roark, 16, from Manhattan, was acquainted with rapper Double AB, an alternate in the battle. "We came to Tuesday's battle, which was long but fun. I'm picking Nite or Reignman to win it." She and her friend Fabiola Ormeno, 16, from the Bronx, sometimes head downtown to Manhattan's Pseudo nightclub to watch MCs battle at an open-mic night.
"It's more grimy at the club and it usually ends up in a fistfight," Fabiola said. "But I'm rooting for Nite today 'cause she's a woman."
"Yeah, she's repping for the ladies," Nicole added with a smile.
To win the battle and advance the "final four" second round, the contestants had to impress three hip-hop heavyweights: rappers Method Man and Ludacris and Def Jam CEO Kevin Liles.
"This kind of promotion for an up-and-coming rapper is definitely better than being on a mixtape," Method Man said backstage as he tried on high-top Nikes to go with his green and yellow Oakland A's jersey. "I'll pick the MC who amuses me enough to make me smile. The one who gets me to make the ugly face," he said, scrunching his face up as though he smelled something stinky.
Liles revealed some essential elements to making it big in the hip-hop business as a rapper. "You gotta have charisma and your own vibe. Your delivery and flow have to be tight, and I want to see you interacting with the crowd. You can find a star on the street corner or at an event like this, but the point is that you can't make a star. He or she is just born that way."
Ludacris, wearing red, white and blue Girbaud, said he was happy to be at the event because it brought back fond memories. "I feel like hip-hop history is repeating itself with these battles. Watching MCs battle with punch lines and metaphors and competing against one another is what this game is all about. Hip-hop is a competitive sport. Even getting your song on the radio means battling other rappers."
The only controversy during the show was when Nite got ousted for using a banned word. During commercial, the crowd and judges all showed their disappointment with loud groans and grumbling. "My potty mouth came out in the heat of the battle, but make sure you write that I killed them," she said, wandering in the crowd and getting hugs from admirers.
When all was said and done on the mic, Reignman was crowned the battle's champ. The fans, other contestants, judges and coaches were all pumped up with applause and ready to give him pounds of congratulations.
"Hey Reignman, where we going to eat?" yelled Red Dott from the crowd, laughing and cheering.
The newly minted Def Jam rapper made his way offstage and the whirlwind continued as it would with any celebrity.
"I'm damn near about to cry. I'm gonna keep it real," said Reignman, still shocked. Asked whether he was more excited about spending $25,000 or recording an album, the instantly famous MC from South Fifth Street in Philly answered, "To be honest, I'm really just looking forward to going home and seeing my girlfriend."