Battling it out with razor sharp tongues

JON WELCH They think nothing of standing on stage, hurling insults at one another, but rappers Arkaic and Kulez are actually good friends. Now they’re teaming up to “battle” other rappers in a contest that could take them to Las Vegas.

JON WELCH

Standing toe-to-toe, trading insults doesn't sound like a sound basis for a friendship, but for two young rappers from Norfolk it's all in day's work.

Arkaic and Kulez have faced each other many times in rap "battles", but now they're joining forces to take on other some of the world's best rappers in a televised competition.

They'll be competing in what's billed as the first ever cross-continent hip hop battle league, pitting their vocal skills against opponents from the UK and USA.

In a battle, rappers aim to defeat their opponents with a combination of clever word play, insults and punchlines in what is, essentially, an improvised name-calling contest.

The winner is judged on punchlines and technique. A contestant will ridicule his opponent's clothes, facial features, voice and anything else he can think of in a bid to embarrass him and win favour with the crowd.

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Battling is deep rooted in hip hop culture, from its inception in New York in the early 70s through to its commercialisation in films like 8 Mile, starring Eminem.

Now internet TV station Jump Off TV has launched a transatlantic battle league in which pairs of rappers compete in tag-team contests over a 10-week season.

"This is the first move in a sequence of events to push hip hop battling as a sport in a world where golf, cricket, snooker and many other sports are fast losing relevance with today's youth," say the organisers.

The winners of the UK and US leagues will be flown out to Las Vegas to battle in the final for prize money of $10,000 and the title of World Champions - and Arkaic and Kulez hope it will be them.

The pair, who both live in Norwich, met while battling at Sonic nightclub on the city's Prince of Wales Road.

They've since battled each other a number of times. "I've beaten him every time," boasts Arkaic - real name Sam Shaw - while Kulez, aka Kuda Chikohora, insists honours are just about even.

And while an outsider might assume from the insults they throw at each other that they don't get on, that's not the case at all.

"Yeah, we are good friends. There's no animosity," says Arkaic, 20.

"I haven't battled him for a while, but we were rapping together the other day until four in the morning."

To win a battle, a rapper has to be able to come up with an instant rhyme about his opponent. "First you look at his appearance," says Arkaic.

"You take a couple of things: have they got any features that stand out, like the clothes they're wearing? Then you look at the surroundings: say you're by a bridge, you might incorporate something about that into it. You need to be amusing and make people laugh - that's what people want."

But you need a thick skin as well as a sharp tongue to be a success in the world of battling.

"When you are battling, you shut out the insults," says Arkaic.

"I have heard it all - I've heard every insult going. I get jokes about my nose and this and that, but I wouldn't say anything has genuinely insulted me.

"It definitely looks aggressive. People sometimes see it as negative, but you have to take it all in context."

"Hip hop's a competition, it's a sport: who can rap the best, who can throw the best lines."

As far as insults go, there is only one real taboo, he says. "Racial things are generally off-limits."

Kulez, 16, was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Ghana, before moving to London and then to Norwich when he was about 13.

He's been rapping since he was about 10. "I'd always battled at breaktimes with my mates so it went from there, really," he says.

Like Arkaic, he practises every day, but is he ever lost for words on stage?

"If you've got an opponent who's a fat guy, say, it's easy, but if you've got an ordinary looking guy it's harder. You need to think of the most embarrassing thing to say.

"Occasionally you might dry up and have to fall back on some lines you've written."

Does he ever get offended when the insults fly back at him? "If I do it just urges me on to be even better," he says.

Arkaic works in a mobile phone store, while Kulez has just sat his exams. Both would like to make careers as rappers, and Arkaic has founded his own label, Visionary Records.

The MC Street Battle Pairs League starts on Sunday at www.jumpoff.tv