Where does poetry stop and hip-hop begin? Are poets just dry boring MCs, or is hip-hop just an immature subcategory of poetry? This was the debate that was played out on stage at the Concorde 2 last Thursday night, in the annual event Poets VS MCs, a lyrical pantomime which has become an established fixture in the Brighton calendar.
Since the first show in 2003 Poets vs MCs has grown exponentially, having to change venue several times. Judging by the level of attendance on Thursday, they may have to up-size the event yet again – it seems it has almost outgrown the Concorde 2, attracting numbers you’d be shocked to find at most spoken word events. This is partly because of its winning formula – it is a cheeky and irreverent competition between two art forms, and manages to be a show that attracts a broader crowd than just poetry or hip hop fans.
The hosts, Tom Hines and Rosy Carrick, both head up their own regular hip-hop (SlipJam: B) and poetry slam (Hammer & Tongue) nights respectively, from which the night’s two teams were drawn. The first part of the event was a showcase, with each act performing one of their pieces, be it a short rap or a poem (it was sometimes hard to tell the difference).
Rosy Carrick was up first, describing a sexual fantasy built around the (non-terrorist) act of train spotting. An odd concept, but it worked to great effect. It certainly wasn’t the oddest concept of the night either – highlights from the poetry team included Michael Clark’s letters from St Paul to the Corinthians in the style of Eminem’s Stan, and Chris Parkinson’s piece about the rise of the grammar Nazis (then they came for the dylexics, and I did not speak out). The award for weirdest performance had to go to the eccentric and drunk Verity Spott, whose psychedelic poetry read like someone had put a political philosophy textbook through a blender along with a large dash of Thatcher hatred. The poets certainly came out strong and got some of the biggest laughs of the night.
Team MC was made up of rappers from SlipJam and Spoken Herd, who performed a variety of pieces, both freestyle and written. The rules were simple – no beats, however Team MC managed to skate round this by employing the skills of beat-boxer Karel Cox. I guess if it’s still vocal it counts. The night’s pantomime villain(or hero) was Spliff Richards – last year he defected from team poetry to team MC, which provided both teams with a narrative for this years event – he was either the poet turned good, or the loser poet who was never good enough in the first place. Bobby Johnson treated the crowd to an angry display, whereas Mos Prob (of Don’t Flop fame) came with a reflective, deep performance. The piece which won the largest applause of the night from either team was Gramski’s British Girls In Bangkok, in which he lays out his thoughts on feminism and the women that are dear to him (you can watch it on youtube here).
After a break and a freestyle interlude by the rappers, it is time for the main event – the battle. Ben Jammin of team MC started the proceedings with a brilliantly written piece on the superiority of hip-hop. Things took a darker and more personal turn when Rosy Carrick took to the stage to absolutely burn Spliff Richards for his defection a year previous. It certainly threw the rapper off guard; he choked and had to be rescued by fifteen-year-old Harry Truman, who exhibited his freestyle skills to rounds of applause.
By now the battle was well and truly under way. Both teams accused the other of whining about politics, whilst whining about politics. Both teams accused the other of sentimentality, whilst being sentimental. Verity Spott came on and performed another anti-conservative piece. Both teams encouraged members of the opposite team to defect. Poet Robin Lawley quit the battle. Then Spliff Richards made his return, and it was a hell of a comeback – a self deprecating multi-persona performance with MC Spliff Richards going up against his poet doppelgänger. All was forgiven for his earlier choke.
Things then started to take a lighter turn – Jon Clark led a team MC effort at reconcilement, before that was answered by Michael Clarke’s own version of Spliff Richards internal battle, culminating in the poet stripping on stage. A crazy conclusion to a crazy night.
So who won? Rather than emphasising the difference between the two art forms, Poets vs MCs was better at re-affirming their similarities. It was difficult to say whether poetry or hip-hop emerged victorious, but perhaps that was the point. As always, the real winner was the audience.