When producer R.H. Valentino Sweeten, better known as “KontraX,” hosted the first Beat Lounge Beat Battle at Clifton Heights’ Baba Budan’s, he says he saw himself as a “people person” wanting to integrate local Hip Hop and not as a promoter. A relatively new concept for Cincinnati at the time (similar battles happen in Canada and Atlanta), the hardest thing was explaining the beat battle. But the basic concept was simple — producers battled each other by playing their beats in front of an audience and judges.
After the first Beat Lounge’s successful turnout, the bar booked the event every third Saturday for two years. The battles moved to The Greenwich in Walnut Hills last year, and KontraX saw the event’s following grow because the battles were fun for competitors as well as fans.
“The main purpose is to connect the producer with their clientele,” KontraX says. “But at the same time, you got people that just want to be entertained and have a good time.”
Overall, it’s a light-hearted atmosphere where fans, tastemakers and producers commingle. For Joshua Disney, who battles under the name “Kidd Dirty,” it’s not even about winning.
“I don’t compete to win,” Kidd Dirty says. “It’s never been my goal to go there and leave a beat battle champion. It’s always been my goal to connect with everybody, to let other producers hear my beat, meet the other producers, meet the people and get the feedback. I have beats that I thought were great, but the feedback wasn’t and that led me in a better direction as a producer.”
“(After the battle) people stay and network and get to know each other,” KontraX says. “I pushed that aspect since day one. Don’t sit around and look at everybody; talk to each other, because we’re here together. We gotta learn to co-exist and get our industry thriving.”
At April’s battle, incense smoke, sweat and perfume hung in the air as Hip Hop producers paired and faced off with beats.
The discerning roomful of onlookers either bopped like animated toddlers to beats that struck instantly or barely reacted at all. An eerie electric guitar riff turned off one woman. “That sounds like demonic porno music!” she said to her friends. Her friend co-signed that the beat almost put her to sleep.
The R&B round restored the energy. KontraX challenged producers E-Maq (of Rap group Crack Sauce) and Natown to play “the laptop track” that would produce “the most moisture from the ladies,” and Natown’s slow-grind banger immediately woke up the women, who whooped and hollered in appreciation.
Mysterious, King Justice Allah, J. Lee, Mr. Rogers and Young Ex of Atlanta also competed, introducing their versions of trap beats. Though trap music is considered a “Dirty South rap” sub-genre, Cincinnati’s proximity to the South fuels popular opinion that influences come from the Queen City. With tempos in the 70-80 beats-per-minute range, trap beats seem simple because of their marketability, but are intricately layered with sharp brass stabs, pizzicato strings, bass kicks and rapid-fire hi-hats played up and down the scale.
Maurice Moss (aka DJ M-N-M) says he sometimes just comes out to enjoy the crowd.
“Tonight to me was a slower night,” says M-N-M. “(But) it’s exciting seeing the guys go at it, whether it’s personal or just in fun.”
M-N-M’s favorite contestants were Natown and E-Maq, who ultimately won the competition and a silver trophy. In the two personal “main event” bouts that followed, Young Ex beat DJ Black, while King Justice Allah beat Mysterious.
Kidd Dirty shares perspective on why certain producers fare better than others, explaining that the beat should introduce changes by the fourth measure or the crowd gets bored. He also finds that presentation is an Achilles’ heel for some producers.
“You are a composer, but you also have to be a conductor,” Kidd Dirty says.
“Most producers are behind-the-scenes people,” KontraX elaborates. “The first time they (compete), they might stand there and they don’t know what to do, and I’m like, ‘Well, there’s a lot of elements in your music that people don’t really hear until you point it out.’ ”
Onstage, producers stress these nuances with sweeping hand gestures, or by wiggling their fingers on time with the sound effect.
Producers are especially judged on consistency. In each round, both producers must present two beats of equal merit to the varying panel of judges, who, according to KontraX, is anyone qualified to give a professional opinion about music.
KontraX dedicated April’s beat battle to his brother, producer Kenneth Lee Gardner (aka Sleazy Cheese) who died in 2008. Sleazy Cheese’s work in local Hip Hop dates back to the late 1980s. KontraX began producing music professionally at 17, working with groups like P.F.L. (Players 4 Life) of North College Hill, who released 1997’s Playin’ 4 Real.
Having worked with Elementz’ Hip Hop Youth Center on battles in the past, KontraX and Kidd Dirty plan to eventually host Beat Lounges for kids to enter.
“We’re definitely trying to reach the youth,” KontraX says. “That’s the future.”
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