During the summer of 2006, spurred on by “8 Mile” ambitions and a general sense of awe for those who could freestyle, I practiced the underground art during my daily commute to and from my summer job. Vainly desiring a hip-hop handle as much as the actual ability to wax poetic about spliffs, Voltaire and skateboarding, my motives may have been a bit tainted. And yet day in and day out, I would drive across I-96 in my 1992 purple Saturn Twin Cam, attempting to flow over short instrumental breaks.
My friend Dave, a co-worker and fellow journalist, had similar delusions of grandeur. But he never made the effort of establishing and perfecting his style the way I had. And though I’ve all but given up hope, I still have the occasional text-style with my friend Andrew – freestyle battling through AIM, mocking each other’s whimsical and often surreal lines.
But during that summer, as my lyrical prowess grew and was henceforth uncontainable by four bars of Kanye West chipmunk samples, I had to find more extensive pieces that I could spit over. Fortunately, I had long since been a fan of the experimental quartet, Battles.
The summer before my MC dreams, I had taken a girl I was admittedly rather obsessed with to the Prefuse 73 concert at The Blind Pig. I paid for her ticket – a mistake, as we didn’t stay past the first act – and we walked in just before the opening group, Battles, stepped on stage. Their set was incredible. As I tended to my friend, who was having trouble breathing and not throwing up through the satiny smoke of the crowd, I was dumbfounded by the group’s precision and IDM-cum-rock stylings.
The t-shirts they were selling said, “I have Bttls in my life.” I couldn’t help but agree as I ushered my pained date out of the Pig before Prefuse took the stage.
But even though I didn’t get to see the headliner, the groundwork had been set for the ensuing freestyle delusions. When people asked if I had heard any good new music, I’d reply with a resounding “Battles,” describing them as, “Techno played on instruments: very groove-oriented and glitchy.” So when those four-bar chipmunks no longer satiated my appetite, I turned to one of the few vocal-less groups with great beats and grooves that I knew extensively: Battles.
I had Battles in my life. Or at least I’d imagine I did, cutting heads in a ghastly basement, with an inconspicuous DJ and crowd of 10, hell, 200 people, watching and cheering me on, chanting whatever rap handle I would’ve attained at that point in my then-prolific and notorious career. My childish dreams weren’t laughable only because I practiced solely in my car rather than on the playground with all the other kids. But with time, I realized that I didn’t belong anywhere near a microphone and that thinking Battles a legitimate hip-hop backdrop was simply not possible.
Imagine my surprise then, listening to Battles’s latest release, the Tonto EP, when New York lyricist Joell Ortiz drops a guest verse over the remixed “Leyendecker” (from their full-length debut Mirrored). If this isn’t vindication, I don’t know what is. While it’s not a particularly revelatory verse, nor is it even moderately proficient, the fact that it exists is inviting and poses immense possibilities. These mash-ups are the sort of thing Battles seem spawned of and could help revolutionize a hip-hop industry lately devoid of serious innovation.
Tonto even boasts the electronic comparisons I made on my first encounter. A remix of “Tonto” by The Field shows Battles’s Frankensteinian techno connections while Four Tet’s remix of the same track stands as some of its best work since its masterpiece Rounds. All of these various mixes don’t relegate Battles to the realm of resident producer/beatmaker for progressive MC, but it certainly enlivens some discussion, as the last truly relevant mash-up (The Grey Album combining the Beatles’s White Album with Jay-Z’s The Black Album) was sued for more than it was worth.
And yet, I can’t be entirely happy with this situation, because my most reliable source of freestyling beats may soon be hoarded by the likes of Joell Ortiz. I guess I actually do have Battles in my life.