Killing rappers with kindness


“I’ll come right to your crib,” raps Dartmouth battle rapper Pat Stay. “Speaking of which, I like what you’ve done with the place. Hardwood floors, new paint, two shades, blue-grey, perfectly matches the duvet.”

The lines come from a rap battle against Philadelphia rapper Adam “Rone” Ferrone at the 2014 Hopscotch Halifax Festival. The three-day event showcases local rappers, dancers and artists every fall.

Most rap battles consist of two opponents who insult and intimidate each other, but more rappers are competing in “compliment battles,” in which they try to outdo their opponents with kindness.

Rap battles are believed to have originated in the eastern United States in the late 1970s.

Compliment rap battles started gaining recognition in 2011 after King Of The Dot, a battle league based in Toronto, gained prominence in the North American rap industry.

Stay claimed his fourth North American title in last year’s King Of The Dot battle. The event was co-presented by Toronto rap legend Drake, who missed the Grammy Awards that year so he could host the event.

Johnny “J Wheels” Wheeler, a 23-year-old rapper from Dartmouth, says his high school English class kicked off his rap career. Instead of writing a book report on Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel The Kite Runner, he rapped it.

He says compliment battles do more than just flatter those on the frontlines.

“Homophobia can be a big thing in rap and  hip hop’s culture,” says Wheeler. “Sometimes I find people will use compliment battles as a way to reverse homophobia.”

Wheeler says some of his favourite examples come from a 2014 battle between Stay and Ferrone in Halifax.

“I get pissed when people insinuate you’re just another guy – I don’t know what’s more developed, your muscles or your rhymes,” Stay rapped.

“Whenever Pat Stay’s with me, nothing compares,” Ferrone fired back. “When he leaves, it’s ‘Pat, stay with me,’ I’m stuck in despair. The hot colour this season? Any colour you wear. I want you to Patrick Swayze, Dirty Dancing hold me up in the air.”

Spryfield rapper Matthew Savary’s passion for rap also started in high school.

When Savary was in Grade 10, he would rap to his classmates to make them laugh. It wasn’t long before people started taking notice and telling him that he had “Major Game,” which is now his rap name.

“I was always good at poetry and making rhymes,” says Savary, now 27. “I had a lot of influence from rappers like Biggie and Tupac who turned their passion into careers, and it was more than just fun for me.”

Mostly rapping about every day struggles, Savary also judged rap battles for 44 Productions, a music video production company in Halifax. But his favourite battles don’t spit the same fire portrayed in Hollywood movies, such as Eminem’s 8 Mile.

“Thinking about compliment rap battles puts a smile on my face,” says Savary. “I think people are still surprised by it.”

Savary says it’s a great way to showcase rappers talent and their ability to battle without offending anyone.

“With compliment battles, you learn to respect,” he says. “But it’s still so hard – sometimes, people say things that are so nice it’s hard not to laugh. But it’s all about entertaining the crowd. Once you’ve won the crowd, you’ve won it all.”

In rap battling, the person who receives the best reactions from the judges and spectators is crowned the winner.

So far, Savary has only participated in rap battles as a judge or spectator. He says his friends have encouraged him to step up to the microphone and participate in upcoming battles across the province.

If he decides to compete in a compliment rap battle, Savary says it won’t be hard to come up with positive things to say.

“I don’t rap about bitches and hoes and money and clothes,” says Savary. “It’s just disrespectful.”

For Michael Christian, rap and hip hop became his passion when he was five after he heard Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s song “The Crossroads” on MuchMusic in 1995.

Now 29, Christian works as the business manager for Loyalty Entertainment Group, a rap group based out of Nova Scotia.

Christian says he appreciates the wit and work that goes into rap battles.

While traditional battles promote violence and negativity, compliment battles promote something not often seen in the industry.

“With compliment battles, you’re not attacking people for their sexuality or saying you’re going to shoot them,” says Christian. “That’s what makes them different, more unexpected.”