(Originally published in The Huntsville (Ala.) Times “Life & Leisure” Section, pages C1, C4, July 8, 2004)
Most people who drive by the Bench Warmers sports bar in northwest Huntsville do just that, drive by.
Perched on the edge of the Northwood housing projects on University Drive, it looks like nothing more than your average Southern watering hole. The names and colors of all twelve SEC football teams are printed on small awnings on the building’s exterior and the faint sounds of country music and southern rock flow out from under the door.
But on Sunday nights, Bench Warmers’ crowd is decidedly hip-hop. The parking lot is filled with large Cadillacs, Chevy Caprices and SUV’s, many of them sporting shiny chrome wheels that cost more than the vehicles resting on them.
Inside, twentysomethings in baggy jeans, throwback sports jerseys and (of course) Nike Air Force One sneakers bop their heads as DJ Profit (government name: Rashad Dulan) offers up the latest songs from hip-hop artists like Mobb Deep, J-Kwon and Twista.
Young ladies occupy most of the tables in the center of the room. They’re dipped from head-to-toe in the latest fashions, trying their best to look pretty and ladylike in hopes that one of those Cadillac owners will buy them a drink or two.
The reason for the sudden switch from cowboy hats and Lynyrd Skynyrd to fitted Yankees caps and Jay-Z? This is Freestyle Sunday, Huntsville’s only weekly freestyle rap battle.
The contest is the area’s answer to Detroit’s fictional “Shelter” in the 2002 film 8 Mile, in which rapper Eminem plays a young “MC” trying to break into the music game. And like Eminem’s character “Rabbit”, aspiring Huntsville MC’s come to Bench Warmers each week to test their skills against other area wordsmiths head-to-head.
Started by local DJs Joski Love and DJ Cee-O of Music House Entertainment, the event is going on its tenth month. At first the two jocks held the battle every other Sunday, but in late February they decided to do it weekly and have been going strong since.
“There was a need for a place for local artists to push their music,” Cee-O says. “A place for all the real MC’s, artists and DJ’s out there to get their shine.”
The battle is set up in round-robin format, something like a middle school basketball tournament. Each contestant gets to rap against two or three other contestants and one or two are eliminated each round.
The rappers have 30 seconds to “spit” original rhymes over popular song instrumentals. Their topics usually range from why they’re the best rapper in the building to how ugly their opponent’s outfit is. Standard trash talking, in other words.
Three judges decide the winner of each battle based on the cleverness of their lyrics and, to a certain extent, the crowd’s reaction. The last MC standing must battle the champion, last week’s winner, for the title.
The talent on this night in early June is not overwhelmingly good, but a couple of contestants stand out.
The early favorite is Wildfire, a 5-foot-6 rapper wearing a black headband, a bright gold chain and a plain black t-shirt nearly as long as him. He can’t be more than 18 years old and is smaller than all but one of his foes, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in confidence.
He laughs and makes faces while his opponents stumble and stutter and proceeds to win the crowd over with his high-pitched enthusiasm and cutting lyrics when it’s his turn. He impresses celebrity judge Ox (of the 1997 film Belly, a hip-hop cult classic) so much in the second round that Ox tells DJ Profit to run the instrumental for an extra 15 seconds so Wildfire can rap again. “I wanna sign you to a record deal right now,” he says.
Wildfire would fall in the semifinal round though, and the final battle would feature a tall, shifty MC in a backwards cap and the reigning champion, a skinny 19-year-old Bench Warmers veteran known as Assassin.
Clearly overmatched by Assassin’s clever wordplay, the man in the backwards cap can barely rap for his entire 45 seconds. The crowd howls when it’s Assassin’s turn. “You don’t belong here,” he spits, “so pack up your wack lines and take yo’ a** back to Breaktime [a pool hall across town]!”
It’s a relatively easy victory for Assassin, his ninth straight. He says he’s been coming to Freestyle Sunday since its inception and can’t even remember how many times he’s won, besides his current streak.
Born Brian Kellum here in North Huntsville, Assassin seems mature beyond his 19 years as he talks about graduating from Lee High School and breaking out after his one year at Miles College in Birmingham. “It didn’t work out,” he says simply.
Kellum started taking hip-hop seriously two years ago and has released an album as a member of the group SGC (Southern Gangsta Cartel). SGC is no longer together and Kellum is currently working on his first solo album, “Running Through My Mind”.
He has no job, saying he is hoping to get by on sales from his album, which he wants to release in mid-August under local management company G&G Enterprises. “I definitely want it on the streets by the end of the summer,” he says.
Kellum’s also working on traveling to Atlanta for a series of shows during the summer to try and gain some exposure.
“The goal was to take over Huntsville first, and we’ve done that,” He says, “So now it’s time to expand. Take it national.”
The talented Assassin may have to retake “the ‘Ville” first though, because a week later his streak would end. His first loss in over two months would come to an out-of-town ringer named Chaos visiting the area from Chicago.
Assassin says he’ll be back for his title though.
“I’m number one, so I’m gonna come and get it.”