It's Friday night and a curious mix of booming hip-hop beats and cheesy game-show music can be heard echoing from East Liberty's Shadow Lounge. A colorful game-show rama wheel occupies center stage, where 16 local emcees take turns on the microphone, spitting out punchlines aimed to amuse the audience and judges while embarrassing the competition.
As in any tournament, multiple rounds narrow the field until two final competitors remain to vie for the $500 cash prize and free studio time. The capacity crowd watches the last two combatants deliver blow after verbal blow until, finally, one emcee remains standing.
This is Rhyme Calisthenics, founded in 2007 by host Thelonious Stretch and hip-hop producer Armstead Brown. They sought to branch out from traditional rap battles, placing more emphasis on creativity and versatility.
Competitors spin "The Wheelz of Skillz," a game-show prop with 12 different rap challenges. Each category tests a unique aspect of an emcee's repertoire. There's the "grab-bag," in which rappers must freestyle about random items (such as video games or fuzzy dice) they blindly pull from a satchel. Then there's the "cameo," where lyricists must improvise a verse that fits in with the hooks and themes of a popular song. There's even a "mirror-match" that forces emcees to stand before a giant mirror and insult their own reflections on the fly.
The evening climaxes with a classic battle between the top two performers. It's a fitting end to one of the more frenetic live music events in town.
Rhyme Calisthenics takes place only two or three nights per year. But some of Pittsburgh's best underground talent participates in the tournament, with a pool of regulars confronting fresh faces.
The most recent show, this past January, ended in a bizarre twist. Dueling for top honors were emcees Real Deal and Mista Scrap. Considering that one emcee is white and the other black, it was no surprise when some racial jabs resulted. But it was a surprise when two of the visiting judges stormed from the club mid-freestyle.
In a rap battle, little is taboo. No one in the audience flinched when Mista Scrap called Real Deal a "white-ass cracker" or "trailer-park trash." Nor did the mostly black crowd object when Real Deal mocked the size of Mista Scrap's nose and -- searching for a rhyme for "utopia" -- jokingly freestyled, "I didn't know they had rappers in Ethiopia." But the judges, who were African American, were not so forgiving.
"There were so many bright moments in the competition, so it was unfortunate it ended on a lower note," four-time champion Real Deal said afterward. "I like Mista Scrap, he's dope. All I can say is when you're battling, your objective is to tear down and totally discredit the opposition." The audience likewise seemed stunned that the judges [who were from New York] took a simple dis so seriously.
Real Deal and Mista Scrap ended up working it out like gentlemen, splitting the winnings and exchanging a sporting hug. These co-champions and a slew of other familiar challengers will compete in Rhyme Calisthenics #9, slated for May 21.
Rhyme Calisthenics #9 10 p.m. Fri., May 21. Shadow Lounge, 5972 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. $10. 412-363-8277