Since September 2003, Rich Seng's Cherry Bomb production company has released 14 free compilations of local music, music videos, and short films, 6 on DVD and 8 on CD. Seng's seventh DVD, a new feature-length film called Rhyme Spitters, documents a freestyle battle-rap tournament held in Wicker Park last July--and though the 31-year-old former seminary student admits that 18 months ago he'd never seen battle rapping in real life, he not only directed the film but organized the tournament himself.
Rhyme Spitters premiered at Innjoy, a Wicker Park lounge, on April 13, and at the end of the month Seng began dropping off 50 copies in each of the local businesses that'd bought advertising on the DVD. He hopes people will be willing to pay for the film at cherrybombusa.com once those free copies have been snatched up, and it'll soon be available from Netflix.
Until early 2004 the Cherry Bomb music compilations had focused on indie rock and pop, but after being approached by the Chocolate Industries label, Daily Plannet, and the Farm Crew, Seng decided to start putting out hip-hop comps as well. The first, released that March, includes tracks by Qualo, Diverse, Family Tree, Single Minded Pros, and Iomos Marad, and he'd go on to release a second in November.
Seng got a whirlwind introduction to the Chicago hip-hop scene, hanging out at the Subterranean Cafe & Cabaret to watch open mikes and freestyle MC battles hosted by Mr. Rexford of the Pacifics. "I was just completely blown away," he says. "I'd only ever seen stuff like that in 8 Mile--I thought it was really cool in the movie, but no one could ever do that in real life. It was just too rehearsed, too clean, too perfect, with none of the uncomfortable fall-on-your-face moments. I'm a white guy from Toledo, Ohio, and seeing this authentic art form, it just came alive for me."
Seng had already been kicking around the idea of making a feature-length movie, and he wanted to make his newfound interest in rap part of the project. His first plan was to film Julius Caesar with battle MCs delivering Shakespeare's dialogue, but he quickly decided to try something less elaborate and labor-intensive. "I thought, 'How about I just put on a big freestyle tournament myself and film it?'"
In the spring of '04, Seng scraped together $7,000 of his own money to cover city permits, promotional materials, camera costs, and the tournament's $1,000 prize. He secured the use of Wicker Park for the last Saturday in July and then spent a couple months posting flyers, passing out handbills, and spreading the word at open mikes and hip-hop nights. "I'd go up to people who were battling, give them a copy of the comp CD, ask for their number and e-mail--I built up a catalog of a couple hundred MCs through that," he says. "But I didn't really even scratch the surface of all the rappers out there."
Seng rounded up a volunteer crew, which included production supervisor Chad Wilson and editor-animator Thomas Horne, both of whom he'd met through the Cherry Bomb DVD series. Four of the seven cameramen used their own mini-DV setups, but Seng also rented three high-definition digital video cameras for a more filmlike look. "I had to take out a half-million-dollar insurance policy on them," he says. Among Seng's consultants on the tournament were MC P.R.ism of the Network Crew, who served as host, and Alo of the Garden Music crew, who helped him settle on the rules: single-elimination, with audience applause deciding each battle and a panel of judges ruling on contests too close to call.
The 64 rappers who competed came from the north, south, and west sides in roughly equal numbers. Seng and company filmed from noon until 7 PM in the park and then, after a two-hour break, until midnight at the Note, where the final rounds were held. The daytime crowd ranged from 80 or so to about 150, and by the end of the tournament the club was packed.
The film attempts to convey the frenetic feel of freestyle hip-hop with split-screen editing that sometimes divides the frame into four or five windows at once. It combines interviews with competitors, fly-on-the-wall footage of sidewalk arguments and judges' debates, and of course plenty of battle scenes, full of foulmouthed diatribes and witty zingers: "I respect your skill and it hurts my heart / To have to get on this stage and tear your ass apart," raps Jitu, an old-schooler whose former group Ten Tray was the first Chicago hip-hop act with a major-label album, back in 1992. T-Scar, aka Mike Fishman, a Jewish teen from Buffalo Grove, delivers a low blow, rapping, "I'm about to rip microphone all tight defiant / And violate the pussy like my name was Kobe Bryant." Tensions often ran high during the tournament. "One guy got upset because people were calling him a wack MC, so he threw a fit and disrupted the filming for 20 minutes," says Seng. "We put that in the film too."
Among the crowd's favorites were underdogs like T-Scar, who almost made the finals, and 14-year-old south-sider EnfaRed, who was competing in his first major battle. The championship matchup was so archetypal it could've been scripted: Vitamen D of the live hip-hop band Small Change, with his dangling cigarette and cocky, nothing-touches-me cool, squared off against Jitu, a blustery powerhouse almost twice his size. The audience loved them both, so after their epic-length battle they went a second round to break the tie--but even then it was so close that the decision went to the judges, who finally settled on Vitamen D as the winner.
Seng and his crew finished the day with more than 30 hours of footage, and the 80-minute final cut doesn't waste a moment of screen time. Much of the film's freshness stems from Seng's curiosity about the scene he was documenting. "My naivete played a big role," he says. "I edited it as if I was learning about hip-hop myself. I figured if it clicks with me, it's gonna click with so many other people who I think would benefit from learning about it."
On top of the money he spent on the tournament, Seng sank $3,000 into a run of 2,500 DVDs. As he does for Cherry Bomb's other releases, Seng sold ads on the DVD's packaging and commercials on the disc itself, but that revenue wasn't nearly enough to put him in the black. "I scrimped and saved, spent the past winter with no heat in my apartment--kept my milk and butter in a cooler out on the porch," he says.
Seng plans to stage and film a second Rhyme Spitters tournament this July 16, again in Wicker Park, and this time he expects a much bigger turnout. "Maybe putting something together like this from the grassroots level would've been a lot more difficult in New York or LA," he says. "The whole thing was only made possible because all the hip-hop people I met here were so friendly. I really felt like I was taken in and adopted by this scene. Chicago hip-hop still has a real spirit of sincerity and generosity. I hope it never loses that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.