(This article appeared in The Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker in the August 9, 1993 issue)
The hip-hop nation was in the house and was chilling patiently, even though the New Music Seminar’s D.J. Battle for World Supremacy was very late in starting. The delay probably had something to do the slow rate of ingress at the door of the Sheraton New York’s Imperial Ballroom, where extremely large young men in black T-shìrts were checking the credentials of arriving audience members and frisking them for weapons. Fear was not palpable: the attitude of security men and crowd alike was more genial, stylized bellìgerence than genuine menace.
The Imperial Ballroom was packed, and a standìng-room-only crowd of music-industry entrepreneurs and aspirants lined the back and sides of the auditorium. The profusion of sartorial hip-hop styles was well represented by athletic shoes (Adidas, Champion, Nike, Reebok, Puma), headgear (kerchiefs and baseball caps worn backward, sidewise, and regulation), and T-shirts with slogans (“Legalize It,” “Bungee Frogs,” “Kill ’em All,” “Triggers Got No Heart,” “Recycling the Unsalvageable,” ‘Tm Living Fat”).
The D.J. Battle finally got under way when the creator and promoter of the event, D.J. Clark Kent (of Supermen Producńons), appeared onstage and took the microphone. After some prelirnìnary comments (“Will you turn that spotlight shit off?”), he went over the ground rules of the contest. He was flanked by two tables, each with two large Technics SL/1210MK2 turntables, where the hip-hop d.j.s were going to spin their disks. Behind him, seated at a dais draped with red cloth, were the five judges, all of them d.j.s themselves, and all of them glowerìng under the bills of their baseball caps as they slumped low in their chairs. A sixty-second countdown clock stood in front of the dais; sixteen d.j. finalists faced a four-round elimination.
“As you know,” DJ. Kent told the crowd, “d.j.s don’t get no kind of recognition.” Rap artists, he explained, were stars, while the brilliant d.j.s who sampled and mixed the beats and the music that accompanied the rappers were the anonymous rhythm sections of the hip-hop sound. In a world gone digital, they were arcane masters of the lost art of analogue record-spinning, scratching, and disk-juggling. “Hey yo, this is a message to the contestants,” he concluded. “The first two rounds, you only get to spin once, so y’all got to flip your best shit.” Then he turned the mike over to Kid Capri and Red Alert, two New York radio d.j.s.
The first round begun with DJ. Supreme, from Washington, going head-to-head against JMD, of the Bronx. Supreme’s minute in the spotlight was a nimble ballet of record-swìtchíng, tonearm cuing, and fingertip manipulation of his twelve-ìnch singles. His efforts produced an artful cacophony of scratches, squeaks, heavy-metal guitar chords, booming bass boats, and crashing percussion. Hc was rewarded with a big round of applause. His opponent was not so fortunate. JMD, a young man with a shaved head, sunglasses, and a Phillies Blunt cigar in his teeth, played a more restrained set that was loudly booed. Supreme won.
The first-round winners included Tone B Nìmble (from Illinois), Mr. Sinister (Queens), 8-Ball (San Francisco), Yoshi (Japan), and Rectangle (San Diego). The audience was enthusiastic and intent but highly discriminating. A d.j. whose set seemed spectacular to the uninitiated would receive polite applause, but other d.j.s were able to tap a mysterious current of excitement in the crowd, and hundreds of baseball caps would begin nodding t0 the beat, uplifted arms would begin waving, and hundreds of people would leap to their feet and cheer wildly.
The high point of the scmifinal round was 8-Ball’s battle with Rectangle. 8-Ball, a slight twenty-onc-year-old Filipino-American who wore a black Kangol hat, amazed the audience with a set that ended with a repeating sound-splice dìssing of his opponent: “Rectangle … fucked it up … Rectangle … fucked it up.” Kid Capri was incredulous. “How did he do that shit?” he asked. “He went out and recorded a record?”
S-Ball, whose real name is Cesar Aldea, Jr., and who learned to mix records when he was eight years old, faced Mr. Sinister in the final round. The judges and the audience were clearly in love with 8-Ball. He won the championship jacket and gold ring with another remarkable performance—one that featured his ability to play melodies (“Yankee Doodle,” “Frère Jacques”) by manipulating the speed of a hearing-test recording of a single long tone. 8-Ball posed for a group photograph with the other contestants, all of whom adopted prìzeñghter glares for the camera. When the photographer ñnished, 8-Ball’s expression reverted to the dazzled smile of joy and disbelief of a beauty-pageant winner. He was mobbed by admirers and record-company scouts as a security man with a bullhorn ordered the crowd t0 clear the room.
— HAL ESPEN