"Look at this fuckin' sad-faced clown," booms Tut, a Redwood-sized rapper with a voice deeper than Lake Erie, eyeing the baby-faced MC. "Blow-up dolls be turning this bitch down."
A burst of hoots and hollers ripples through the Hi-Fi Club. It's the finals of the Spitboxers Unlimited Battle of the Belts, Cleveland's top rap-battle competition, now in its third year. Tonight, a new contender will hoist the baby-blue-and-gold champ's belt as the city's top freestyle MC. But before anyone gets a chance to revel in the moment, they'll have to withstand the kinds of put-downs and attacks on their masculinity that normally result in bloody knuckles and broken noses.
"Please, talk about a motherfucker's momma, auntie, ugly-ass kids -- I don't give a fuck," hollers Suave Goddi, a veteran Cleveland MC in a fuzzy pink bell cap, who hosts the show. "Talk about somebody's grandmama that's dead -- been dead for 40 years. Hurt them motherfuckers' feelings. I got security, so y'all can talk about each other. Ain't nobody gonna hurt y'all."
True to Goddi's words, only egos get wounded on this night.
"I'm about to whip yo' ass in public," a tall young rapper in an oversized navy T-shirt tells another. "He's so short, he gotta jump up to suck dick." One MC gets compared to Taye Diggs with Down's syndrome, another is likened to a black Chewbacca. Everyone's mom is subjected to more sexual innuendo than you'd hear at a Porky's marathon.
Through it all, Goddi goads the competitors, who lock eyes and feign yawns while their challenger is on the mic.
"Uh-oh, now hold on," Goddi says to a lazy-eyed rapper who's just been savaged. "I think this motherfucker called you a homosexual and said something about your eye and shit. That nigga don't know your eye, nigga. How you gonna let that nigga talk about your eye like that?"
If the rap battle is heated, so is the clash of cultures at the Hi-Fi. A predominantly rock-leaning club with an Iron Maiden LP above the bar alongside a Mötley Crüe poster, a Guns n' Roses tee, and an autographed photo of a topless Marilyn Chambers, the place is less hip-hop than Robert Van Winkle.
Still, it's packed to capacity tonight, full of white boys with ball caps askew and black dudes with diamond microphone pendants swinging from their necks. Girls in brightly colored halter-tops jockey for position in front of the stage, which is so crowded, it's hard to bob along to the beat without bumping into your neighbor. The place is thick with the scent of Swisher Sweets and pricey cologne. The machismo rivals that of an NFL locker room.
At 2 a.m., with the club lights on, the battle finally winds down to the last two competitors: the towering Tut and a smallish white guy from Oberlin named Iron Solomon, who sports a brown hoodie and looks like the cousin of 3rd Bass rhymer MC Serch.
"Look, dog, you can't get with me, dude/I just took a motherfuckin' shit bigger than you," Tut begins to solid applause.
But delivery is just as important as the disses in a rap battle, and Solomon's loud, unwavering flow is too commanding to be bested on this night.
"We up at the Hi-Fi Club/He so ugly, he make it look like the Sci-Fi Club," Solomon yells to a round of guffaws.
"C'mon, I'm ripping this cat," he continues. "So swift with the phat shit/Now you're losing a battle to a midget with glasses."
Shortly thereafter, Goddi kills the music and pulls the shrink-wrapped plastic off the gleaming champ's belt. Solomon beams like a fat kid in front of his birthday cake, as he grips his prize. As the crowd heads to the door, Goddi sums up this year's finals with aplomb typical of the evening.
"When y'all get older, y'all gonna look back and thank God for this fuckin' night, for real," he tells the competitors. "Somebody from out of town come in here and be like, 'Them motherfuckers in there are crazy.' That's what this night is about: Making the rest of the world respect our gangsta. This the leaders in here."