Hip hop culture is uniform in its appeal worldwide, so on this balmy Jozi evening, 33 de Korte Street (Grayscale) can easily pass for Leopold, Sedar Senghor in Dakar (Pikine), or 5 Parkway in Camden Town, London (Jazz Cafe). The race dynamics may differ a bit; the weather in certain regions may linger at sub-zero temperatures, but the vibe and the feeling – the emcees kicking a cypher at the entrance while trails of ganja smoke linger in the air, the banging beats, the kids on the balcony mumbling dumb shit after enjoying one too many sips from a brown-bottle – that is very much a universal element which ties the movement together, irrespective of locale.
Outside Grayscale, a group of black and coloured kids stands on the balcony overlooking the enclosed carpark while consoling one of their own who has just lost a battle due to fumbling an entire verse. “I literally froze, I couldn’t believe it!” He tells them, this young, dynamic troupe so mixed in their post-’94 awesomeness; an almost-tangible combination of denial and disbelief underlies his mannerisms. Concurrent with the consolation process, another section of the group is busy calling out a dude hollering all kinds of racist shit behind the steel enclosures of the carpark. “Msono wa nyogo!” They cuss him out. He keeps trying to holler, something about battles, but the kids curtly ignore him. We get back inside to find the Cadence vs One L battle underway. The latter lost to Tumi last time around, and from just one line from Cadence, “I’ve got 99 problems but One-L ain’t…” while the audience shouts “ONE!” in unison, proves that he does not stand a chance tonight either.
According to the event’s website, Scrambles4Money is “an independent South African hip hop battle circuit” which has been “established with the aim of putting South African battle elements on the world stage.” The Grayscale Gallery in Braamfontein hosts the bi-monthly events which have adopted a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is approach where the winner gets a cash prize his efforts. The battles are filmed, edited, and uploaded onto the Scrambles4Money Youtube channel for public consumption. “We’ve got people who’ve shot documentaries for National Geographic working with us.” Informs Gin-I-Grindith, a veteran emcee who has been involved in hip hop for, as he says, “over twenty years.” He introduced himself as Dave when I went over to chat to him about the event.
This year, the stakes have been raised a notch higher; the overall winner will accompany Gin-I-Grindith to a battle tournament – the King Of The Dot World Domination 4 – in Toronto, Canada later on in the year. I ask Gin-I what the reference point was for Scrambles4Money. “I’ve been watching battles for a long time, plus we’ve been cyphering and freestyling since we were kids. We know how battles are supposed to work.” He says in collective speak – the universal ‘we’ – which characterises the rest of our chat. “Leagues like Grind Time [which] was the biggest battle league in the world kind of set the standard. And then you’ve got the URLs and you’ve got King Of The Dot. I think King Of The Dot kind of took it to a new level… production-wise. They just upped the level completely.”
So the organisers behind Scrambles4Money, the ‘we’ Gin-I keeps referring to, not only possess the street smarts of having participated in battles, but have also advanced the idea beyond a street-corner Saturday activity into a well-produced event with reasonably high stake prizes on the hook. And people seem to be paying attention. As Gin-I states: “I speak with the guys from King Of The Dot because I was invited to go and battle there last year already.” Although he could not go for ‘legal reasons’, he keeps close contact with the Canada-based premier rap battle which started out in 2008. “A lot of stuff that’s happening they help us out.” He says, then defines it. “Not with infrastructure or anything like that, just advice.”
South African hip hop is littered with stories of events which had good intentions, but later tanked due to various circumstances. Prod further and you discover tales of organisers who were more interested in putting themselves first before the craft; tales of strained friendships, tainted visions and mishandled funds. So what makes Scrambles4Money any different to, say, Art Of War which went under because: “the dude that was running it said he wanted to shack up with Grind Time.” Gin-I thought it was a bad idea, but the organiser still went ahead. “Grind Time started, the battle didn’t even come out. There was no ways a league that [couldn't] even survive in the States, is gonna survive anywhere else in the world.” He asserts.
The hip hop community is notorious for directing vitriol in the way of any initiative dedicated to the betterment of the movement. Too often progressive initiatives are brought down and mis-labelled as ‘a destabilising force, the antithesis to progress and development’ – even though most heads will outright refuse to admit to such poisonous practices. Gin-I comments that, “you’ve got a bunch of trolls on the internet, they just chill online and jump on to any bit of hate,” while also noting that, “the human race is a naturally hateful breed. The human race will always focus more on something that’s bad or negative than anything that’s good, ultimately.” The trolls in questions include a certian Kopskiet Beats who commented beneath the Tumi-One L video that “this is kak whack sit die naaiers op ‘n beat of is kak praat dan nou ‘n spectator sports?”, unfortunately exposing his level ignorance in the process.
Gin-I however acknowledges that bad decisions have at times been made by the judges. “It’s all part of the parcel.” He says.
Gin-I-Grindith also goes by the graf name Curio. He’s had to put that side of his craft in order to focus on Scrambles4Money, an event which he says has put him at the centre of its followers’ disapproval at times. “If there is a wrong decision, I get blamed for it! If there’s a wack battle, I get blamed for it. If the event doesn’t pop off, I get blamed for it.” No one else, not even his crew – the all-inclusive ‘we’ – receives even a dollop of that hate. “I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, dude.” He says in a hardened tone which suggests countless times of having to face up to the bullshit inherent in organising hip hop events. “I honestly couldn’t give a fuck what cats think! We do this shit to the best of our abilities and if anyone thinks that they can do it better, then they can try.”
Although Gin-I is not so keen on widespread media coverage, “I don’t need the shizniz’s to push our league.” He does realise the potential benefits of teaming up with a broadcaster to license Scrambles4Money episodes. “The only time I’d ever go on the TV side is if we can get the battles licensed; like UFC, we get them licensed per event.” He observes that in that way, everyone gets a cut of the money. “The emcees are gonna get paid more, everyone will get paid. It’ll benefit everyone! Plus it will just push the culture so much more, you know?!”
Scrambles4Money started in 2012, and I am curious to know, sixteen battles later and counting, what Gin-I’s highlights have been. “I think the Tumi-One L battle was, it was a crazy battle.” He says with a bit of apprehension. “It just did so much for the scene, it was nuts!” From a production stand-point, however, he gives it to the Cash On Delivery event, saying that, “all the battles were just on point!”
Back at Grayscale, it is refreshing to see an audience of hip hop heads which is not afraid to let loose, not afraid to smile, curse out loud, or cheer for excellence at a show. A herd of heads smiling, laughing, and being alive and present in the moment. Still, there will always be that unforgiving bunch in the audience’s midst. With comments such as, “you suck!” to one rapper whose lines weren’t hitting home. At other times the crowd fills you with pride as they outright reject the sexist, racist and xenophobic rhymes of some participants (references to ‘Zimbos’ and ‘darker than those bastards across the border’). It is increasingly apparent that a new conversation needs to be had in hip hop. This conversation should, for all intents and purposes, steer away from obsessions about underground versus mainstream and evolve into a reflection on rap music’s deep-seated love with machismo and hence a knee-jerk hate for anything deemed mildly feminine.
*All images © Ronals Jacobs and Anthony Duckit / Scrambles4Money.