Since September 2008, the guys behind Heavy Gun Blog have used their domain to salute all manner of bad-assery: music, art, movies, videos, people, technology. Heavy Gun also sponsors and organizes events, including a now-annual beat battle to be held at Savvy Salon during this year's Broad Ripple Music Fest.
Think of a beat battle as a brother to the emcee battle in the competitive hip-hop world. And a more demanding brother, because a beat battle asks the listener to devote her attention to craft, to compare superficially similar approaches like a wine connoisseur at a taste test, to shift attention usually focused to a lyricist's rhymes towards a producer's beats. By placing producers front and center before a crowd, a beat battle serves to highlight those whose work is usually executed behind the scenes.
The Heavy Gun Beat Battle runs in a head-to-head format, with 16 contestants competing in a single-elimination format. Keep score by bringing along an NCAA tournament bracket and starting from the Sweet Sixteen. During a given round, each producer plays two different one-minute sections of beats that have been prepared in advance of the battle. Three judges, who remain unannounced until the day of the contest, pick the winner.
Last year's inaugural Heavy Gun battle saw a good-sized, all-ages crowd pack into the now-defunct Northside News. Some oohed and ahhed at complex beats while others, closer to the back, busted out fervent, choppy dance moves. But then, no sooner than individuals really started to connect with a track, the music cut out.
Such was the case for the rest of the night — time and time again, the music abruptly halted just as it started to groove. And such are the demands of the beat battle — although live, out-of-competition performances between rounds by hip-hop acts will offer respite from the battle in the form of full-length songs, most of them several minutes long.
During one of the four rounds, the fan-favorite "sample challenge," each producer will play a one-minute beat that features an '80s-movie quote. 2009 Beat Battle champion Fire — who was known as Firearms until he recently shortened the moniker so that he might set a better example for his son — says that the sample round is his favorite.
"I love a challenge," Fire explains. "This is where I shine. Last year we had to sample a certain artist [the Krautrock band Can]. I spent a couple weeks studying the catalogue of that artist to find the perfect sample. Then I stayed up all night the day before the battle making the beat."
Although beat battles are popular in the hip-hop community nationwide, they're a "rarity" in Indiana, according to local producer and Heavy Gun Beat Battle organizer J. Brookinz.
"So when there is one going on, it attracts a lot of attention," Brookinz says. "A couple of the producers competing are from Bloomington, a couple are from South Bend."
Brookinz handpicked the producers who will compete on Saturday.
"Over the past year I kept my ear open for impressive talent," he explains. "And when I heard something I liked I made sure to keep in contact with that person."
Competing in Saturday's battle are 90 Lbs, AR Mac, Ruse One, Blake Ali, BeachHouse, Dawhud, Defame, El Carnicero, Fire, Hakeem, Joe Harvey, JP from Dirty Thirty, Lonegevity, Motif, Soul Cinematic and Whois Louis.
Unlike an emcee battle, which features ostensibly improvised rhymes, successful producers prepare beats well ahead of time.
"I go through all my previous productions and decide what beats are 'battle' beats," Fire says of his beat-making process. "Nobody wants to hear just a looped sample with looped drums in a battle. I pick beats with technical chops and unidentifiable drums, hybrid drums, deep bass lines, obnoxious sounds, extreme dramatics in orchestration, classic hard-hitting soul, and samples that are un-sampleable." Fire laughs as he corrects himself, "That's not a word."
It's not just beatmakers who take an interest in beat battles. The battle environment also gives emcees an opportunity to window shop for future collaborations or search for a new sound for their next record.