BEIRUT: The spotlight cued on two breathless faces. The flipped coin comes down on heads. A New Orleans hip-hop beat dropped a little American Deep South into a crowded Hamra venue, and Mohammad “Five” Chahine took the mic.
Five, 10, 15 seconds passed. Five murmured a few rhymes that were lost among the rowdy crowd packed, toe to heel, inside Big Shot bar.
Red-faced and choked, he let the backbeat play out and Big Shot’s clientele erupted into a chorus of jeers. Confidence up, rival rapper Ray “Phil Banks” Abou Zati took the mic and rallied the bar to put Five to shame.
“He made us wait an hour and a half just to hear him choke on his s ?,” Abou Zati spat, provoking a feral roar agreement from the patrons.
Five stepped down, defeated, looking as though he was in need of a very stiff drink.
Big Shot is nestled in The Alleyway – once home to a two-star hotel, a sarraf and nothing else, this sleepy off-Hamra zarouba is now crowded with raucous bars.
Alongside February 30, its popular sister spot, Big Shot is in the thick of a four-week rap battle.
Commencing on Feb. 17, the battle gives each contestant two 45-second rounds to rap as seamless a stream of insults and punch lines at their opponent as they can.
By now, sub-par performances over the past two weeks have weeded out eight of 16 contestants. The surviving rappers will take the stage March 10 for the final round. The winner will be acclaimed Big Shot’s Rap Battle Champ.
Big Shot spokesmen say this is Beirut’s first rap battle, and there may be something to this claim.
One Beirut music authority, who wishes to remain anonymous, mused that Strange Fruit – the Wadi Abu Jmeel nightclub that’s since morphed into Music Hall – once held similar battles in the early 2000s.
Big Shot’s battles may not be the first in the country but in its scale, the wise man acknowledged, this rap Armageddon maybe the country’s largest and most protracted.
Big Shot’s competition aims to give a real audience to those youngsters rapping in their basements, said Roni Abou Saab, managing partner of Big Shot. The bar also offered a little cash incentive. The winner goes home with $500.The runner up gets $300.
“But the most important prize is pride and respect, pride’n’spect!” MC Hadi roared into the audience as he welcomed Mohammad “Slayer” Tawil and Walid “Ill Will” Babar – another round of battle contestants – to the stage.
In the event, the Slayer was slain, the bloodthirsty audience taking him down in a moment of tongue-tied silence.
“Oxygen running out ’cause you scared,” Ill Will spat in response. “Have you ever heard of an Ill Will delivery? I guess not. I’m the rhyming boss.”
Completely devoted to rap and R’n’B, Big Shot sets an appropriate stage for a rap battle.
Magazine covers of Jay Z, Lil Wayne and Rihanna paper the walls. An unlikely pairing of gangsta’ rap rivals Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls stare back from a wall-sized mural.
“The whole design,” Abou Saab said, “is to make Big Shot look like a street in the Bronx.”
The bar usually draws an eager, young crowd from the nearby English-language universities, but the rap battle has been selling out to a crowd of a slightly different kind: underground rap enthusiasts, fellow entertainers, media and even a posse of hulking U.S. basketball players, starters with local heroes Al-Riyadhi.
With judges focused, an attentive crowd packed into the space sardine-like and the aroma of fear and adrenaline heavy in the air, each Battle night transforms Big Shot into the hip-hop epicenter it aspires to become.
In spite of this, organizers had to make some adjustments to accommodate Lebanon’s testy sectarian climate. Rapping on religion and politics is strictly forbidden.
“You can talk about his sister, his mama, but don’t you bring religion in here,” MC Hadi warned competitors and audience alike.
The organizers have also enforced a 90-percent-English rule, as they suspect Arabic curses would carry a heavier weight and may devolve into a physical fight – a not-so-uncommon occurrence among Big Shot’s young clientele.
This first battle is a test drive for organizers like manager Elie Harb, who may be herding battle crowds and conducting the show behind the scenes at future Big Shot rap battles.
Harb said this first battle has attracted more interest than they had expected, from established local rappers like B.O.X. to easy young knockouts like Konfe “Bison” Barkel.
Experience hasn’t ruled the game, though. In his preppy red polo and teenage baby face, Paul “MCP” Sader delivered a series of sharp, comical one-liners that ended the first night in riotous chanting – “MCP, MCP, MCP!”
MCP earned his pride and respect – at least until next week.
Big Shot’s final Rap Battle takes place Sunday, March 10, for the semifinals and finals. For more information, call 76-950-940.