Records aren't the only things spinning at Rhyme Calisthenics: There's also the "Wheel of Skillz," a six-foot-long wooden contraption. A hybrid of a game show and a freestyle open mic competition, the event runs aspiring emcees through the gauntlet, testing every skill it takes to be an expert wordsmith.
"I think that's why we called it Rhyme Cal," says David Hughes, a.k.a. Thelonius Stretch, who created it with fellow local musician James Armstead Brown. "All these cats are like working out to be ready for the wheel. Anything can happen."
Sixteen participants -- both local and regional -- will face off by completing the Wheel's challenges, like "Mirror Match," where they have to dis themselves in front of a mirror, and "Mackin'," where they must successfully woo a woman in the audience. The winner gets $500 and several hours of studio time.
"We're trying to get people to exercise their vocabulary, their thought process, their rhythm, and it's going to make them a better emcee," says Brown.
Stretch and Brown came up with the idea last summer, after observing the celebrated freestyle and battle circuits in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. They wanted to bring that to Pittsburgh, but through something a little unique. "We knew we needed something visual and a little theatrical," says Brown. The game show aspect came about as a way to get people interested in participating and also to involve the crowd; the Wheel was created in the parking lot of the Robinson Township Home Depot, where Stretch and his uncle sawed away under the streetlights, running in and out for more supplies.
A buzz started up after the first Rhyme Calisthenics last September, and the response has grown with each subsequent event. As recent recipients of a Sprout Fund Seed Award, Stretch and Brown hope to make future installments bigger, with more prizes, and more features surrounding the competition.
But the main mission behind the project is still about building a bigger culture, community and awareness for local emcees. After every event they've had so far, an impromptu group freestyle session has broken out outside of the venue. According to Brown, "the energy that flows and the creativity that's there just takes over the whole night. The rhyming takes on a life of its own."
Rhyme Calisthenics 4 hosted by Thelonius Stretch, with DJ Huggy, Armstead Brown and Shade Cobain, and special guest Big Zoo. 9 p.m. Fri., October 3. Shadow Lounge, 5972 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. $10. 412-363-8277 or www.7thmovement.net
- Big wheels: James Armstead Brown with The Wheel of Skillz