Hip hop is the only genre of music you will ever hear described as a game. The way people talk about “running the rap game,” you’d almost think it was a sport. Here’s the thing: it is, kind of. Or at least, it kind of started out as one. And here in Richmond, some of the most talented artists, creatives, movers and shakers are working together to keep the competitive side of hip hop alive and well in the central Virginia rap scene.
Radio B is the founder of RVA Rap Elite. The group, which started a few years ago under the name Lyricist Lounge, includes a whole passel of Richmond rap leaders. They all come together to put on events that feature the most talented emcees and producers in the city, competing through things like ciphers and rap battles to impress a tough crowd and prove who has the skills necessary to get the acclaim as the best in the city.
The first big event of RVA Rap Elite’s 2022 season will be taking place this Sunday, January 23, at Tang & Biscuit. Not only will it feature a headlining set from Norfolk-based hip hop collective Geau Lagoon, it will see teams led by local hip hop luminaries — in this case, Ant The Symbol and Skinny Hendrixx — battle it out in a team cipher. Plus, there’ll be an open cipher featuring over 20 emcees, and a producer’s lounge hosted by Radio B’s AGM compatriot, NameBrand.
But let’s say not all these terms are familiar to you. Let’s say you’re not even sure what is going to be happening at this show on Sunday. If so, don’t worry — you’re not alone. That’s why RVA Mag’s John Reinhold sat down with Radio B for an extended conversation recently, to learn all the ins and outs of RVA Rap Elite, from the basic rules of the game to the intricacies of keeping what amounts to a citywide sports league made up entirely of musicians on track in the midst of a global pandemic. Read on and get informed.
John Reinhold: You’re a busy man, I know you have your hands in a lot of different things and moving parts. I figure let’s start at the beginning. How did RVA Rap Elite start?
Radio B: Rap Elite originated at Strange Matter, I believe in 2017. It started out as RVA Lyricists Lounge, in honor of the elements of the original Lyricist Lounge, started by [Anthony] Marshall and company in New York. [It] was created to honor MCs, lyricists, and people that really cared about bars and the elements of rap that we came up on: the cypher and the battles. The competitive aspect and spirit of hip hop. Wanting to not only give a voice to those MCs, but also reinvigorate that element and that energy.
I felt that we had gotten to a point in hip hop, as a whole but especially locally, where artists, just because of social media, the internet, artists were taking a quicker route to becoming rappers. The title of MC was just not relevant. And that bothered me. There was a time when I was coming up that you really had to go out in public to prove yourself. It wasn’t just image. You couldn’t just create a persona or social media handle, take some pictures, shoot a video, record a song in your house, and say, “Hey, I have a SoundCloud, I’m an artist now. I’m a rapper now.” That was impossible then. That’s just not how you did that.
You had to first establish the fact that you could rap. You had to go out in front of someone who would be typically critical of you, if you were not good. You had to impress upon them that you, in fact, can rap. And then they would validate that. That could be the barbershop, it could be the school cafeteria, it could be the football game. It could be a cipher, an open mic. It could be anything where hip hop was, where the culture was. You would have to go out there and brave that insecurity, have your voice heard. And in that process, something would happen within you, as you got that validation from the people.
John: So you wanted to bring it back to almost like a workshop.
Radio B: Yeah, to the grassroots element of it all. And I say all of that to say that is how we got the biggest superstars in rap that we’ve ever gotten. The Jay-Zs, the Nas’s, the Eminem’s, the DMX’s. The reason we got those artists was because they came up in that environment, where you had to repeatedly go out in public and impress crowds, groups of people that were not easy to impress! And win them over, and make them react to your bars. What you wrote, how you rapped it, how confident you were when you rapped it, what you looked like when you were rapping it. All of that mattered.
Every time that you went out and did that, your confidence grew, your chip on your shoulder grew; you were becoming somebody, as far as the craft is concerned. That’s what you took into the studio as you began to become a recording artist, that level of confidence. That you knew, like, “I’m that guy.” That’s what being a rapper, being an MC, was. Once these artists got into the studio, they started to make these incredible songs, they had this longevity, and such layered amounts of talent in the music. It was because they went through that process. It’s a hardening, it’s a crystallization of the craft. I wanted to bring it back to having to go through those rites of passage, go through those trials, go through that criticism. Having the determination to come out and prove yourself.
John: So it started at Strange Matter in 2017, and then evolved into Rap Elite?
Radio B: Well, it probably would still be at Strange Matter if it never closed. We have become a gypsy platform — not by choice. We’re pretty loyal; as long as you’re loyal to us and you’re open, we’re gonna be there. If you’re good to us, we’re going to stay. We brought something valuable to every venue, but we had to move around. I would say if anything, we’ve had tough luck, but we’ve been pretty resilient. One thing that I knew about trying to create a platform like this in 2017 was that you couldn’t just have an open mic, like back in the day.
John: It needed some more structure in order to move it forward?
Radio B: It needed to be modern. There was a reason why that type of rap wasn’t being preferred. You weren’t going to say, “Hey, come over here and rap now.” How do you make this appealing to a newer generation that never experienced this? That was one of the things with Southpaw Battle Coalition, [which] preceded RVA Rap Elite [and] RVA Lyricists Lounge — everything gets filmed. All the battles get filmed, [and] you distribute them on YouTube to promote them. So having gone through that process repeatedly through Southpaw, it was like, “Oh, if we add that element to the ciphers, to the live performances, we can provide that video content.” When people need to see themselves perform, have that footage to do with as they please through their social media. Everybody wants content in 20-whatever, right? So that was kind of my hook for this generation, to bring the old to the new. I think that’s one of the things that has helped us be able to bridge that gap.
John: Can you tell me a bit more about Southpaw Battle Coalition, and the difference between Rap Elite and Southpaw?
Radio B: Yes. They are two different platforms. Southpaw Battle Coalition started in 2016. It is a traditional battle rap platform: no beats, just like you would see on Smack/URL: one MC versus another, head up, for one or three rounds. It’s pure battle rap: no ciphers, no music, just bars. Just straight “I’m at you, you’re at me” dog bite type of situation.
We’ve had some of the biggest battle rappers in the world grace our platform. We’ve done hundreds of thousands of views on that, on [the Southpaw Battle Coalition] channel. It’s definitely been culturally impacting; it’s changed battle rap culture in Richmond. It’s exposed it and bridged it to the music scene. When I first came upon the battle rap scene in Richmond, I was kinda astounded by the fact that the hip hop scene and the battle rap scene really knew nothing of each other. A lot of the battle MCs really weren’t involved in the hip hop scene, and they didn’t really know many people, even myself, moving around in those events. And no one in the hip hop scene knew that these battles were even happening. I’m just like, “Wow — this is not something that should be.”
John: So how do you even bridge the gap between them, to get them in the same room and exposed to each other?
Radio B: The first thing that I did… Well, I wasn’t going to start a league. I had an itch to battle in this format. When I used to battle back in the days, it could happen any time. Like, you rapped, I rapped; somebody is going to be like, “Yo, y’all should battle.” It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t filmed. You didn’t prepare for that. You rap with what you had, or you freestyle, you know what I’m saying? Whoever was there to see it saw it. That’s how battle rap went when I was coming up. I really wanted to try my hand at that element of battle rap, because I’m a very competitive rapper. I started rapping because of the competitive aspect of it. So I’m like, all right, I’m in — shout out to LOC, League of Champions. They were the league that was going on originally in Richmond battle rap. I was going to the events and I was just like, who is “the guy” over here? The guy, the man, you know. Whoever that is, that’s who I want to battle. That was my thought process at the time. I wanted to be that one time, but it needed to be the best guy.
John: So you’re going to the top, and you’re pinpointing the top. You’re like, “I’m gonna take the head off the top.”
Radio B: And [then] I’m out! That’s that. “I’ll help y’all bridge this gap to the hip hop scene, because I feel like you all should know each other.” That was my goal. But when I got there, there wasn’t somebody specifically that was that person. Everybody was good, but there wasn’t somebody that was head and shoulders [above the rest]. You know, battle rap is just getting to a point where we’re doing a lot of judged battles. Back at that time, MCs battled, and the audience, or whoever watched your video, decided for [themselves]. You could tell who won by reactions, but it wasn’t a “crowned-winner” type of thing. You couldn’t go by a champion or anything like that. It didn’t exist.
The league owner, though, was Bravo, and Bravo is a legendary MC from our city as well. I was very familiar with him. I knew that he had the chops to probably be the best guy over there, but he wasn’t an active battler. He was the Vince McMahon, so to speak. But when I was at the event, he put a challenge out: he wanted to battle.
John: That’s like the sensei. The sensei goes, “Who’s stepping up? Who’s going to step on the mat and do this? Who wants to be the first?”
Radio B: And it wasn’t like he was saying that day or anything. He was just saying, in general, he’s ready to come back. And no one seemed to be the first, right? No one seemed to be too antsy about that. That struck me as, “Oh, that‘s ‘the guy’.” So I set my sights on Bravo, and I let him know that that’s what I wanted to do. And we’re friendly, you know. He’s like, “I don’t know, do you want to do that?” I’m like, “I am so sure of this.” But it took a lot to convince them to do it.
We ended up doing it. We ended up calling it Legends Never Die. We didn’t have an undercard, anything like that. It was literally the biggest battle in Richmond history. I mean, we probably put like 300 people in there in one battle, you know what I mean? We ended up putting a couple other battles on it, but we didn’t promote them. It was literally one battle promoted: just me and him. But it was promoted for a good eight, nine months.
John: There’s a lot of lead-in time for that one, then.
Radio B: A lot of lead-in time. it was huge. It was an amazing battle. Definitely go check that out. Ultimately he ended up leaving LOC, and I was still very focused on wanting to make battle rap, and Richmond, better. We decided to come together — myself, him, Nickelus F — and create The Southpaw Battle Coalition. So our first event was Legends Never Die Two, in which I battled a super legend in this game named JC. Nickelus F had his return battle to battle rap with Danja Zone at the Broadberry. That was the beginning of what is the Southpaw Battle Coalition. And RVA Rap Elite rapidly came down the line.
John: So Rap Elite is much different; it’s not based on the battle, it’s based on the ciphers and the judging, correct?
Radio B: Yeah, it’s more cipher-focused. The live events are a mixture of the group cipher battles and one-on-one battles. We do have one-on-one battles..
John: But those events have music with the cipher?
Radio B: The cipher battles do have music. Sometimes we do have Southpaw battles at those leagues. It’s the same culture. We also have live performances, where people come in.
John: Yeah, I noticed you have an element of the live performances mixed in with the ciphers to make it a full event.
Radio B: We have the Producer’s Lounge and all of that. We consider Rap Elite a live, variety hip hop event. You’re going to get a little bit of everything from the culture.
John: So what year are we on now?
Radio B: We are on Season Five, starting January 23rd.
John: How did COVID affect it last year?
Radio B: When COVID hit, we were coming out of season two. We just got into The Dark Room [at the Hofheimer Building] towards the end of season two. We were selling out The Dark Room every month, faster and faster. Our show would start at 6:30, and like by 7:30, you’ve got people on Facebook like, “I can’t get in.” We were in the conversations about moving to the larger room at that point, The Loft. My whole thing was, “Just let it keep packing out for a couple months, and then we’ll move to the larger room. Because we were really enjoying it.”
John: There’s like an intimacy in that room. Like, you’re a part of it.
Radio B: Yeah, the intimacy. I love the aesthetic inside the Dark Room. And also, it’s supply and demand. You want that demand.
John: Yeah, I get it. You’d rather have a room that can fit a hundred people packed out than a thousand-person venue with a hundred people.
Radio B: And you’re like, “By the time we move in there, everybody will be ready.” That was what I was looking for. And the shows were getting crazy. The energy was just unlike anything that we had experienced up until that point. We were just coming into a new space with that, and COVID hit. Shut everything down, just like everyone else.
We were one of the first people. I was probably the first promoter to shut the show down for COVID. When we canceled our first show, I think there was only, like, one person in Virginia that had COVID. I could see the writing on the wall, and at that point, it was so scary. We didn’t…
John: Yeah, we didn’t know. Like, is this the end of the world?
Radio B: Literally! I didn’t want nobody getting sick and dying because they came to my shit. That was my thought process. I knew people were having events for weeks and weeks after me shutting my event down, but that just wasn’t… you know, it wasn’t all going to be on my conscience. So that was very, very difficult.
John: It’s like, you built up a head of steam, and then here we are.
Radio B: We worked hard for that. We were already on our fourth venue by the time that happened, so for us to build that momentum and go through the closing of two venues and one not working out, and still being able to maintain momentum.
And a name change, mind you. Because we changed the name in the second season, that stunted our brand for a second. I didn’t think it was going to be that… you know, it’s the same Instagram. I didn’t get it. People didn’t automatically transition to it. It was interesting. We had to clear up some confusion around that.
So between the venue changes, the brand changes, to get to that point of that momentum and then to have it halted at that particular moment? Because there were some other opportunities that were coming around at time with Something in the Water — a lot of things were going on. Yeah, it was tough.
We did this thing called Rap Elite Madness. Right as COVID was kicking up, maybe the first month, this was the first show we were going to have when we started the first event back. [It] was an online battle tournament. We did a signup for 64 MCs to do video submissions.
John: Well that’s pretty cool. It’s interesting, the way that COVID made you switch gears, and then find new elements by need.
Radio B: Right? The social media behind it, the video content. Zoom. There was no fucking Zoom we knew of. We didn’t use it. It was like, Twitch and all that.
John: Twitch went through the roof. It became a thing for many.
Radio B: And IG live, you know. It took the surge in those things, and we’re like, “Damn, if we already used some of these tools, wow!” Shit was still live. It would have been crazy to have, promotion-wise. But it was like hindsight is 20/20, you know? A lot of the things that came about, even Producer’s Lounge, because we started this Rap Elite Live, and we were doing different types of content every day. But man, it gave a huge energy. It saved us, you know? We would’ve been like every other platform. Nothing would have been going on.
John: Do you think COVID forced anybody, artistically, to be better? How do you think that affected the art for people?
Radio B: I don’t know, man. There was so much jarring shit that occurred in that space. There was a lot of spiritual shit that went on with folks. Emotional reckoning and identity crises.
John: And of course we had the monuments and the marches and everything as well.
Radio B: Yeah, and then we went right into that. It just was one of those times. It got real. It was real crazy.
John: It felt to me like a reckoning, where it’s like, “We’re going to deal with this.”
Radio B: Yeah, because there was never, ever anything that affected everyone at the same time. There had never been in my lifetime. Nothing that made everyone sit down. I don’t care if you’re rich, you’re poor, if you own the planes or you fly on the planes. All of you guys sit down. You gotta deal with it. It’s affecting you. Not something you know about, this shit. We all knew about 9/11. We might’ve been emotionally affected; some people weren’t. Some people were like, “Fuck it. I went to work today. Damn, that sucks that happened.” And they went about their business. They could do that. This? You couldn’t do that. You can’t just go about your business. That was impossible. That’s dead. A lot of things had to stop.
So it definitely simplified life. And those that could adjust to that simplification found peace. Those that were running from that stillness had the biggest problems. I was used to stillness. I was my mom’s caretaker. So what I realized was, I had already become a recluse. You know, for me and my mom, that was like, oh shit…
John: Yeah, we have that in common with moms. We’re in this already, we’re just going to have to change a couple things.
Radio B: Everyone else is having this crisis. It’s like, “Shit, I want to go outside.” I’m used to only going outside for events. Like, my shit, the work, every now and then I got out, but it was difficult. I always had to make reservations to get out. So it was jarring, because I’m like, “Damn, my life has not changed that much.”
John: For me, it was almost like a realization: maybe I’m not as social as I act like I am. I can be social at the right moments, I already kind of knew that about myself, but COVID made it more real.
Getting back to Rap Elite: can you explain the way that the ratings for individual hip hop artists’ ciphers are done? Also how are rankings calculated month to month heading into the final, to the top 20?
Radio B: We have what is called The Road to MVP. All the tracking is done using Stat Central, which is tracking stats for MCs month by month, as they progress through each particular season. Those numbers come from their individual scores each time they perform in a cipher. For instance, in episode 35 an MC is Mila Mansa. So she goes up and she wraps her two minutes in the cipher. At the end of her performance, she gets a score from three judges: myself, Nickelus F, and either Easalio or Spielburg, depending upon who our third judge is at that particular moment. That score is between one to 10, with the option of point fives in between, or whole numbers. The collective score of the three judges is what is that MC scores for that episode.
The MC with the highest score for that episode is that episode’s champion, [unless] an MC is less than a full point ahead of any MCs behind them. A 0.5 or less difference sends them to a sudden death. That sudden death round is a one-minute a capella verse from each MC. They get scored again. And any difference from the top point, that top MC wins. Whether it’s 0.5 or anything, if their ahead there, they win. If there happens to be a tie again, they rap again and get judged.
John: Where did you get the point system from? How did that get decided?
Radio B: The concept of the scoring came from myself and my cousin Frank, who runs Stat Central. What we’re looking for is something that’s been generated between myself, Nickelus F, and the other judges. That’s really based on all around performance from that particular MC. We will take into account things like moments. So for instance, if an MC does have a freestyle moment where they capture something that occurs and it really moves the room, those are things we take into account. But overall: lyricism, cleverness, performance, uniqueness, style, confidence. Everything that you’re looking for from an MC, everything that you’re looking for from a dope verse. You know what I’m saying? How did you command that cipher? That’s the framework of what we’re looking for when we give those scores.
John: So how many months does a season last?
Radio B: Most of our seasons are somewhere between 8-10 episodes. This season, season five, will be from January to October, so it’ll be a 10 episode season. It might be our longest.
John: So at the end, you tally the scores and start announcing your placements?
Radio B: Yeah. So each episode, there’s a champion, and that champion receives a custom hoodie with their name and the number of the episode that they won. They also receive a free item of their choice from Mama Jo’s Collection. Then they also receive a free studio session with Michael Millions, where he records, mixes and masters one song for them. They also get a free pass to the cipher for the rest of that season. And of course, a win tally in the season so far. The first element of who would be the MVP would be who has the most wins, if those wins are close, and there’s other [related] stats. Then we started to look at other statistics and rankings…
John: I watched that full video and it was fascinating to me because I watch fantasy football articles out the wazoo. I hear people discussing placement of athletes and why they’re ranked here and it’s because, well, they did this well. I already geek out on that kind of stuff, so watching you guys go over the ciphers and talking about moments, I thought that was really dope. I didn’t necessarily understand the point system, but I thought it was cool to see the discussion of it.
So wins is obviously the most important statistic, but the content and moments also matter.
Radio B: Right, right. We have point average. What was your point average for the season, per cipher. [There’s] your total points, but then also things like how many ciphers were you in. Someone’s point average could be high [but] if they were in three ciphers, you were in nine, your degree of difficulty and ability to maintain that average is probably a lot more challenging than someone did three times. We take all of those different things into account, different moments, and impact. Impact is a big piece of where your placement is. Like, how does it impact the platform? How long did we talk about that particular performance? Stuff like that.
John: It’s 2022 and the new season is starting. Tell me a bit about the kickoff show on Sunday. Give me a quick rundown for people.
Radio B: You brought the fantasy football thing up, so it’s a good segue to talk about the draft. [We had] our draft live at Brewer’s Cafe on January 18th. We basically have 10 influencers from the Richmond hip hop community, those are the team’s GM’s [general managers]. We have seven returning GMs and three new ones. The GM’s draft different MCs for every episode. So therefore, you know, sometimes you may have the champion on their team, or may not.
John: So they draft for every episode. Gotcha. Who gets the first pick?
Radio B: We do a lottery, because different MCs sign up every month. So they’re pulling from the 30 MCs that have signed up, once the cipher maxes out. In the past, the cypher was maxed out usually within a matter of days. This one’s taken a little long, but I think it’s just so much going on slowing people down. We got about five slots left as it stands right now, [but] by the time this airs, it’ll be maxed out.
This first event is going to be on January 23rd. We have our open cipher, the Producer’s Lounge segment with NameBrand and the different producers that are highlighted for that particular month. Also our season finale champion — not our MVP, but our returning champion from the last episode that we had last year — his group will be performing live. We’ll go from there to the cipher. Before it was like five on five MCs. One thing that is different about this one is the captains of these teams are actually producers. So the producers themselves will be producing with that cipher, assembled their own team of MCs to basically rap over their production. We have Ant the Symbol vs. Skinny Hendrixx, and they’ll produce their ciphers. I’m extremely excited about adding that element to the cipher. Ciphers usually are captain MCs picking other MCs, and other characters. [This] gives the producers an opportunity to show their range. Not only their production, but in going head to head, how they pick the MCs and what pull they have with artists to be able to come out and represent them. It’s a very stylistic thing, because everybody’s gonna have their own style, and each producer is going to like a certain style.
RVA Rap Elite’s Season Five premiere, featuring a performance by Geau Lagoon, cipher vs. cipher competition between Team Ant The Symbol and Team Skinny Hendrixx, and an open cipher featuring over two dozen rappers, will take place on Sunday, January 23 at Tang and Biscuit, located at 3406 W. Moore St in Scott’s Addition. Tickets for the event are $15 and can be purchased here or by going to rvarapelite.com.
Interview by John Reinhold. Intro by Marilyn Drew Necci.
Photo’s by https://www.tillinfinitymultimedia.com/