Adam Ferrone aka Rone comes out on top at King of the Dot's Blackout6ix

Adam Ferrone aka Rone comes out on top at King of the Dot’s Blackout6ix

Spit flew and the crowd roared as emcees squared off at last week’s two-day rap battle event, Blackout6ix. Organized annually by Toronto’s very own rap battle league King of the Dot, this year’s event featured big name emcees including Dizaster (LA), Pass (Oakland) and title match opponents Illmatic (Portland) and Rone (Philadelphia). Emcees faced off in front of a packed house at 99 Sudbury where for three rounds a match, they pulled out all the stops. From unadulterated and blatantly offensive aggression to dad puns and Disney references, they came from Scarborough, Detroit, LA, Chicago, London, and elsewhere to battle for credibility, respect and cash money.

After a sweltering Day 1, event organizers finessed their set up and pulled together an impressive Day 2  packed with high calibre performances. Standout battles include the winner takes all money match, where Psychosis (LA) and Gjonaj (Detroit) put in $1,000 each and went for the jugular. In front of a hyped crowd and a panel of judges holding the cash prize, Psychosis set off lyrical fireworks paired with crowd-pleasing gimmicks while gravel-voiced Gjonaj paced the ring like a savant prepared to destroy. The savant came out on top, winning over the judges 3-2.

While some emcees had months to map out their opponent’s demise, Realiztic and Bonnie Godiva (NYC) had all of a week after a last minute drop out had Bonnie, the only femcee of the event, added to the bill. Realiztic targeted Bonnie’s gender straight out of the gate. “It’s a man’s world Bonnie, you just live in it,” he intoned. While Realiztic unrelentingly took aim at her womanhood in shockingly offensive terms, Bonnie nodded her head with a small smile on her face and came back hard, smart and with a lot of playfulness. She made it clear from the gate that he was hardly a worthy opponent, joking, “I’m a lion with no worries, hakuna matata” (one of many well-placed Disney references throughout the night that had the crowd going buck wild).  Bonnie’s victory was unmistakeable and left the audience wanting more.

The night culminated with the Title Match – challenger Rone vs title defender Illmaculate. Rone came out swinging, and with his blistering machine-gun pace charged Illmatic with inauthenticity and claimed himself to be the next king. Illmaculate built to a climax in round 3, addressing Rone’s white privilege, calling him out on past racism and homophobia while still finding time to reference Norm Kelly and Meek Mill. Ultimately, the judges crowned Rone with a 4-1 decision.

Watching the battles, there is no getting around the identity-based digs. Race, gender, weight, nationality, family – it’s all considered fair game. Like in comedy, there is an implicit, communal agreement on what’s considered clever and funny versus just plain derogatory. Defenders of rap battle might say that it’s all part of the art — but maybe that’s changing, as the crowd at Blackout6 seemed to sour at the more offensive bars. As the young woman next to us said after Scarborough emcee Knamelis delivered a series of rapid fire jokes about his opponent, Big T’s weight, “That’s rude, tho.” Past a certain point on the spectrum of acceptability, the audience’s response became less raucous and the material came across as not only ignorant, but lazy.

If you were willing to suspend your politics, it was a sight to behold. The venue hummed with energy and the battles were gladiatorial, full of pun acrobatics and verbal sparring. At it’s peak, you were part of a community of five hundred people getting the same inside joke, delivered at over 140 words per minute by a smart alec emcee. At it’s worst, it was alienating and you were left hoping that the emcee falling back on offensive material would have his mic cut out so that those with something to say could step up.