Verses Versus Verses

TWO SUNDAYS BACK, I schlepped down to the Central City Theater (at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Lake Street) with the purest of reportorial intentions. I would soon be consecrating a new column, a new print beginning, and this jaunt presented a perfect chance to shuck off any lingering New Journalistic pretensions. Here, I would dissolve my indulgent, obtrusive self in a bracing pool of professional objectivity. Cowering honorably beneath this respectable veneer, I would become a sympathetically vibrating tympanum, registering musical meanderings about town and transmitting them to the larger world--unfiltered, unbiased, untouched.

Okay, so I should know better than to bring a notepad to an MC battle. My anonymity was shot from the get-go, as organizer Toriano Sanzone declared the Third Rule of Mic Night from the stage: "If it's your first night, you must get on the mic." I murmured a mousy "hi" as the microphone passed my way. Figuring I was safe, I then lounged among the two dozen or so in attendance as a nattily attired street rhymer named John Gotti boasted, "I got money up my ass"--only to have Sankofa, a visiting Cali Caucasian, answer with, "Then I suggest you see a proctologist" before reeling off a dazzling series of free-associative semi-sequiturs.

Next came the poetry section of the evening. (No surprise that Mic Night carves out a preserve for slam poets as well; Sanzone is one of the founders of the successful local verse-and-music event Red Lights and Poetry.) Searching for volunteers to read, MCs Agape Love and Sankofa spied my scrawling and thrust fingers me-ward. "You a poet?" Sankofa asked. I emitted some weak pip in protest that shame saves me from remembering. "You an MC then?" I slouched deeper into my chair. "What are you then, a journalist?" I assented feebly.

Sanzone, a musician, poet, rapper, and all-purpose scene ringleader, acts as host, performer, and judge at Mic Club, now in its third week. A visit last year to the Nuyorican Poets' Café in New York, where wordslingers hone their skills in raucous stage combat, inspired him to duplicate such a proving ground here, focusing on the time-honored hip-hop MC battle. Sanzone thinks big: He eventually foresees four rounds of battles on each Mic Night, with a grand prize of a hundred bucks.

That Sunday night, though, he instead forked over a handful of CDs to Sankofa, the evening's champion. The West Coast MC showed great determination in triumphing over his four adversaries after tossing abstract rings around a formidable hometown rhymer named Phat D. To be fair, D was spent from winning a wearying war of attrition: For the past quarter hour, he'd rhythmically bludgeoned a fearless wisp of a white kid with a shaved head and an unpracticed, jagged flow who refused to lie down when he was beat.

Mic Night's unique status on the weekly calendar may have already passed--Lyn-Lake café Java Noire has recently begun a similar contest on Wednesday nights--so let's hope it marks a revival of impolite artistic discourse hereabouts. Missing in the circled-wagon politesse of rock and even the hip-hop community is the notion that you can support your friends' creative grasps without unconditionally coddling them. The small but newly refurbished space is just the right outlet for a huddle of word-drunk exhibitionists to mangle and maul and caress the grain of the language, a potential for an unruly art willing to defend itself against all comers.

You've got to respect a performer who is willing to risk psychic exposure onstage. And anyone willing to let a stranger dis his clothes in public can only benefit from the experience.

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