Stephen Pennell gives the lowdown on another night in Digbeth.
With no gigs to go to, I cast my mind back to an eventful day out with the first family of battle rap last year…
I’m in Digbeth and all human life is here. During the day, creatives create in the Custard Factory, mods and hipsters hunt down vintage clothes, and blokes in grimy overalls build motorbikes or harvest salvable bits from broken cars.
Later on, things will liven up even more as foodies arrive at Digbeth Dining Club, and Peaky Blinders tourists from all over the world follow Professor Carl Chinn on his guided tour somewhere over by The Rainbow and down Lower Trinity Street, where their paths will cross with locals meeting their mates for a big gig at The Institute, a little gig at Mama Roux’s, or a Northern Soul all-nighter at the Night Owl.
As dusk closes in on the old buildings, the paint on state-of-the-art graffiti murals and ancient ghost signs will appear to be the only thing stopping them from toppling over onto the streets they overlook, and queues of revellers will snake along the narrow pavements outside clubs that look like drop forges, mainly because they’re converted drop forges.
But right about now it’s nine in the morning, and I’m queueing up underneath some magnificent Staffordshire blue-brick railway arches outside Lab 11. It’s a well-known and roomy rave club on Trent Street, where the BBC are filming an episode of The Rap Game UK, a TV series which is like The Apprentice for rappers, with DJ Target as Alan Sugar and Krept and Konan as those two either side of him.
The contestants have been put up in a swish apartment on the 25th floor of the Orion building, overlooking the Mailbox, but for this week’s task they swap Yuppie paradise for the bear-pit of the battle rap arena. The local underground MC community have been asked to stage a battle rap event – a clash – at which the seven TV hopefuls will cut their teeth on this most demanding of rap disciplines. Ghetts is there as a guest judge and Bison Briggs from Premier Battles is the host, charged with the responsibility of keeping some sort of order.
I’m here with the first family of battle rap – brothers Penance and Tydal (currently on an eight-clash winning streak), and their sister Loxy, all-time champion of the long-running battle rap channel King of the Ronalds. I mght be a bit biased here, as they all call me dad. We make the most of the BBC catering – a Brummie has to get some money’s worth out of the licence fee somehow, seeing as how most of it ends up in London and Manchester – and head back into the main room for the curtain raiser, a clash between Tydal from Brum and Termz, who’s come up from The Smoke especially.
It’s a mismatch. Termz is a little bit overweight and Tydal starts with the body shots:
“It must have been hard in school for a fat kid,
You couldn’t do the things that the rest of the class did.
For us it was ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’,
For you it was ‘heads, …
‘Miss, I can’t do the last bit’.”
Termz tried to come back but his punches weren’t landing and he was on the ropes. Tydal moved in for the kill:
“F*** Termz, I ain’t gonna show him respect,
I’d chin him, but look at this prick in the flesh.
I’m not exactly sure which chin I should check,
With his gross man-boobs and invisible neck,
I’ll punch him in the stomach for the ripple effect”.
The hometown crowd roared their approval and waited for the knockout. They didn’t have to wait long:
“You *f***** up Bro, this is my home,
0121, welcome to my zone,
It’s gonna be tragic when your bros don’t back it
Realise in my postcode, ev’ryone savage.
Thought you could come here and war with a god?
I got this s*** in the bag like I’m walking the dog”.
You don’t get knocked out in a battle rap (well, maybe sometimes), but the Brummie definitely won on a unanimous decision. You could sense the relief of the TV contestants that they would be battling against each other, and not against the seasoned pros. A bit like a crew of white-collar boxers walking into Cus D’amato’s gym and finding out they’re fighting that little balding bloke from Accounts, not a fresh-outta-jail next Mike Tyson.
They did okay I suppose; Freedom of Speech and Kico were pretty good, and Smooth won her battle courtesy of Chade choking yet again. Then a massive argument over Lady Ice’s beloved, deceased aunt and a bizzare love triangle involving J Lucia and Krept and/or Konan’s ex-girl kept things entertaining, even if the bars weren’t up to much. The edit made the row look like it soon blew over, but in real time it went on for about half-an-hour. Krept and Konan were proper vex, and the floor manager and other members of the film crew had their heads in their hands – time is money for them I suppose.
When the filming finished we went outside and blinked furiously at the surprise daylight – we’d been in a club for three hours and had totally forgotten it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Our motley crew of MCs headed for Subside, a 24-hour rock club with a punchbag machine and a pool table. One of the bar staff is a member of the Sealed Knot Society and had some of his props behind the bar, and it wasn’t long until some of Birmingham’s finest (and drunkest) Grime clashers we’re running round the pool table wearing chain mail helmets and wielding ferocious-looking broadswords. I wasn’t sure if they were re-enacting the last English Civil War or practising for the almost inevitable next one.
When order was finally restored, Tydal, Loxy, Penance and I decamped to a local homeless shelter just in time for Greggs to drop off the stuff they had left over that couldn’t be sold that day. The shelter is run by local churches, with nuns and priests serving tea and organising activities like chess and draughts.
There is also bingo, which is unintentionally hilarious, but kind of tragic at the same time. The prizes are pretty derisory – a tin of beans for one line, a tin of sardines for two. Then the big one – a pouch of rolling tobacco for a full house. The bingo caller is a stereotypical Anglican vicar, a well-intentioned soul but a complete seventies sit-com cliche. Instead of the old ‘two fat ladies’ vernacular, he called out the numbers thus:
“On it’s own, number four, the apostles. Who can tell me the names of the apostles?” Silence from the parishioners who only really worship Golden Virginia.
“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of course,” said the good shepherd, his enthusiasm undimmed by the apathy of his flock.
“One and two – the disciples – twelve.”
“Four-O, years in the wilderness”.
“HOUSE!” shouts one of the down-and-outs, and the irony of him having no realistic prospect of ever living in one in Tory Brexit Britain is lost on (almost) everyone there. As for the show, I’m not sure it conveys quite how difficult it is stand out as a rapper when there are so many really good ones about. As Lady Leshurr once put it: “I can’t believe it/I can’t believe the cheek/a new MC is born every day of the week.”
Still, it’s an entertaining show, and mainstream exposure for the genre is welcome. It could have easily gone X-Factor Goes Grime, but it steers just to the right side of that and at least takes a much-maligned art-form seriously enough to show the haters that it’s not as easy as they might think.
But they dropped a clanger by editing out the real star, Tydal, and it would have made for great TV had the camera crew followed him and his siblings Loxy and Penance around for the rest of the day. The Rap Game UK has finished its current run and the winner seems to have disappeared quicker than an X-Factor champion after Christmas, but I won’t tell you who that was as I think series one is still available on BBC i-player.