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Local Spoken Word Champ Earns Himself a Nice Retirement Fund

April 23, 2008

Last Friday, April 18, about a dozen mostly local poets and spoken-word artists descended on the 5 Seasons club to compete for a cash prize at Word War 1. Fresh off my stint at the Show Me What You Got MC battle, I was asked to appear as a judge by the event’s organizers, the Baltimore Scene. Despite my misgivings that I, well, don’t know shit about poetry slams, I sat at the judges’ table along with experienced poets and MCs, including Olu Butterfly Woods and Labtekwon, and did my best to give an honest opinion when it was time to hold up a scorecard.

The host of the night was a poet who called himself “Granma Dave” and wore a dress, striking just the right combination of eccentricity and levity to keep the mood light throughout the evening. He laid down the ground rules for the poetry slam: a ban on props, a three-minute limit with point penalties for those who go overtime, and a scale of zero to 10, likening a perfect 10 to “ice cream and orgasms.” At first, it was pretty easy to say that no one came close to either–one poet pretty much guaranteed a low score when he opened with a hackneyed line about how “blood bleeds from my pen.” Others made an emotional connection with a wrenching personal story or a vivid choice of words.

Ultimately, the first round was dominated by out-of-towners: Chicago’s Red Summer stood out from all the overly earnest poets with a hysterical self-help satire, and Ainsley Burrows, from Jamaica by way of Brooklyn, N.Y., was by far the most captivating orator of the evening, and a crowd favorite from his first performance onward.

Although many of the poets were obviously influenced by hip-hop, there was a certain stigma against performers who were also clearly rappers, delivering what sounded like verses from their songs a cappella. In fact, one judge unapologetically gave a score of 0.0 to three performers for coming off more like rappers than poets. One exception who got high scores across the board was Slangston Hughes, the MC/poet who also goes by the names Slick Vic Low and Lyrical Leviathan. As it happens, he’d just announced on a local message board a couple days earlier that he’d be retiring from performing, and would be playing one last show at 5 Seasons April 23. So it was surprising to see him throw his hat into the ring for a competition so close to his early retirement, and he quietly became a dark-horse favorite at Word War.

Spoken word can be a richly entertaining art form, but it can also get a bit intense, so it was good that the rounds of Word War were broken up by other kinds of entertainment. Larry Lancaster, a local comic who previously won the Comedy Factory’s Funniest Person in Baltimore contest, was the kind of hilariously merciless stand-up comedian who makes everyone in the room bust a gut even as they’re secretly nervous that they’ll be the next person he singles out to mock. And the band Natural Remedy, fronted by Word War organizer Chin-Yer, played a strong set of bluesy originals and covers like the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” But by far the most memorable featured performers were Baltimore hip-hop veterans Brown F.I.S.H., as much for the audience reaction as for their charmingly mellow acoustic set. When frontman OOH announced that the group would be releasing a new CD this summer, and that they had $1 samplers available, the group’s die-hard local fan base literally rushed the stage to give the band their money before they’d even played a note.

After the second round of the competition weeded out a few poets who came on strong with their first performance but didn’t have a good second one in them, only three remained for the final round: Summer, Burrows, and Hughes. And even though it appeared earlier in the evening that Hughes’ dense wordplay couldn’t quite measure up to the more charismatic performances of the two out-of-towners, he was the only one of the finalists who improved through all three of his performances, instead of using up his one killer poem in the first round.

After Steve Krizz, a member of the local rap duo the Unstoppable Nuklehidz, was named the winner of Word War’s web site side event–the “online lyricism” competition–Slangston Hughes was crowned the winner. If the rapper and poet does stick to his promise to retire, for whatever reason, the $700 prize money could pay for a hell of a nice gold watch.

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