Monday, December 27, 2010

Crowning the Freestyle King: Japan's Ultimate MC Battle

Ultimate MC Battle 2010
New UMB Champion 晋平太 (Shinpeita) breaks down.
Saturday night was the final of the 2010 round of the annual UMB - the Ultimate MC Battle, Japan's unified freestyle title.  It was the culmination of a yearlong process that selects 16 regional champs from Hokkaido to Okinawa, with long battles in each region. This year's final winner was Shinpeita, from Tokyo (represent!).

I was totally blown away.  As a non-native Japanese speaker, many of the punchlines and wordplay passed me by, but the scale and sophistication of the event itself was truly stunning.  It was held in Kawasaki, maybe an hour outside of Tokyo, apparently for reasons of accessibility. The location, Club Citta, is a huge box that was holding, I would guess, about 1500 fans. The stage was spectacularly lit, divided between blue on the left and red on the right.  The red side was also referred to as the 'senpai' or senior position, one of the many ways that traditional familial/workplace hierarchy surfaces in Japanese hip hop.  Each of the MCs was introduced by his own three-minute biographical 'trailer' video, of very polished production, projected on a huge screen behind the elevated stage.  This was clearly a high-dollar event.

The competition itself was amazingly rigorous.  Five DJs were lined up along the back of the stage, and at the beginning of each round the MC who had drawn or earned the red side of the stage selected from two or three tracks offered by the various DJs.  The MCs then traded rhymes for four rounds of 16 bars each, with mics that descended from the three-story ceiling.  Then there were two rounds of judgment - one by audience applause, occasionally measured by an overhead sound meter, and one by a panel of judges, whose picks were again projected on the huge overhead screen, using an NFL-style animation.

I had some camera issues, but this should give at least some idea of the pomp and circumstance:

I was honestly not super hype about the outcome - the winner was Shinpeita, who seems like pretty much a straight battle MC, pretty forceful but not graceful.  I'm not sure he'll come up with much of an album, but he did win my heart when, completely overcome by his victory, he broke down crying.  I would probably have done just about the same, considering the stress of the setup, as well as the payoff - a bunch of nice equipment and a check for Y100,000 - something like $12,000.

Still, he wouldn't have been my pick.  The three guys who stood out to me and my crew were D.D.S. from Okinawa, R-Shitei from Osaka, and Jag-Me, from northern Honshu.  D.D.S. made it to the final four, and even though he was way too thuggish in attitude for me to easily get behind him, he's got a really interesting flow.  It's disappointing he didn't do better, and he's definitely one to look out for.

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