Features & Columns
Fear the Beard
DESPITE RAPPING in San Jose clubs for more than a decade, Dirtbag Dan can walk the streets of his hometown without turning a single head. And yet, when he flew to the Philippines in December to perform, he was recognized everywhere he went, even though it was his first time in the country.
Filipinos stopped him on the street, in the malls and in restaurants, even though the language barrier made some initially hesitant, not wanting to insult a stranger by invoking his stage name.
"They're like, 'Can I call you a dirt bag?'" Dirtbag Dan remembers. "I said, 'Yeah. It's OK. I am the dirt bag you speak of.'"
Long a part of the South Bay rap scene both as a solo artist and as a member of the Counter Productive collective, the 27-year-old Dirtbag Dan has just released a solo mixtape and will perform at its release party this Thursday at VooDoo Lounge in San Jose.
Perhaps this performance will boost his local profile to go with the international fame he has earned thanks to his dominance in Grind Time, the largest American battle-rap league. Although battle rap has yet to penetrate the American musical mainstream, the a cappella rhyming competitions have gone viral around the rest of the world, spawning leagues in several countries. Dirtbag Dan has battled in more of them than any other rapper.
"Without being a bragadocious, I would say that I am easily top 10 in the world," Dan says. "I've always made it about where I'm from. If you noticed, I scream 'The 'Zae, baby!' every time they introduce me—as a tribute to San Jose."
Anyone who has seen him perform knows that Dirtbag Dan is, in fact, bragadocious. He's impossible to ignore, having one of the weirdest rap personas. As his name suggests, he sports a thick scraggily hobo beard—and a loud, over-the-top swagger.
Artfully exaggerating his personal style, Dirtbag Dan comes off in competition as a foul-mouthed, arrogant carnival barker. He mixes clever jokes with lowbrow insults, and he wins most of the battles in which he competes. His act is purposefully polarizing—people either love him, or they love to hate him.
Dirtbag Dan's brash style can be seen in the video he posted to YouTube before leaving for the Philippines:
I will be traveling to Manila in the Philippines to battle Anygma, the host and president of Fliptop Battles. Leave it to the hardest-working battle rapper on the planet to bridge the gap to the most viewed battle league on the planet, Fliptop Battles. The Zae Baby! Raaaaaaaa!!!!
It's true. While the Grind Time videos in the United States have a growing underground following (each video averages 50,000–200,00 views on YouTube), the league in the Philippines is huge, with views into the millions. Some videos have received as many as 8,000,000 views on their own. And this league, called Fliptop Battles, is still only in its first year.
In December, Dirtbag Dan became the first non-Filipino battle rapper to compete in Fliptop Battles, along with Luck Loosh, another San Jose rapper, who accompanied him. His trip to the Philippines made it five leagues in five countries in which he's now competed.
"The street kids would just swarm the guys that were battling," he says of Manila. "They want autographs and everything. I was getting stopped in the mall every 20 feet. I just made one video blog, and that's the kind of attention I was getting."
Dan describes his opponent Anygma as "a few notches below Pacquiao [the celebrity boxer]" in terms of notoriety and support from his countrymen. He didn't stand a chance with the judges.
Back in the USA
Grind Time hasn't gotten the views that Fliptop has, but it has gained a significant audience since starting in early 2008. Madd Illz, co-creator of Grind Time, says hip-hop fans respect the purity of the format.
"We planned for it to get big, but not so fast," he says. "The movement was started by battle rappers with the participation of other like-minded individuals across the nation. That is the reason it grew so quickly."
In other words, the fans appreciate the fact that there are no big companies between them and the battle rappers. There's nothing to water down the competitions.
"The corporate element is removed," Dirtbag Dan explains. "The companies that run these battles are run by battle rappers. They let the people know they are the people. It's a very grassroots situation. That's important."
Battle rap began in the East Coast underground in the late '70s and early '80s. Mainstream audiences were first exposed to it through Eminem's freestyling in the movie 8 Mile. Hip-hop historians speak with authority on the greatest battles ever recorded, which according to The Book of Rap Lists includes Kool Moe Dee squaring off with L Cool J, Dre and Snoop against Luke, and Common vs. Ice Cube. While the megastars are battling in the studio, up-and-coming rappers are often freestyling outside their shows, drawing crowds around them while they trade lines and cut each other down to size. That's the phenomenon that Grind Time and the other leagues around the world have built on.
The format is simple enough—two MCs take turns hurling insults at each other. But unlike traditional battle rapping, which is freestyled, or improvised, and done over a beat, Grind Time is a cappella, and the MCs get to know in advance who their opponents will be. They're encouraged to write out their verses, which has allowed their battle rapping to evolve into something more theatrical.
"You make a character for yourself," Dirtbag Dan explains. "And you've got to play that character. The real successful battle rappers are the ones whose characters are not far off of who they are. You are real, but at the same time you're a cartoon."
Dan has created a character that's sparked controversy in the battle rap world. He's part standup comedian, part gregarious MC and very cocky.
"He tells dick jokes and compares himself to Jesus. If you ask him, he's the best thing since sliced bread," says Luck Loosh.
The Internet is already cluttered with message boards arguing over whether Dan has earned his celebrity status or not, part of a long-running hip-hop concern with authenticity and credibility. Dan often chimes in on these boards and responds directly to his fans and his haters.
With an impressive Grind Time record of eight wins to only two losses, his victories only drive his detractors crazier. Some of Dan's tactics have been debated heavily, like the one he used in a battle in Oakland against Canadian rapper, Jack Shitt.
"I was playing this tongue-and-cheek über-American thing like I was Bill O'Reilly," said Dan. "I ended my second round by saying, 'I'll be hitting the parking lot screaming America! Fuck Yeah!'"
The whole audience shouted, "Fuck yeah" along with him, which was what he hoped would happen. Right after, they started up a loud, energetic "USA" chant that lasted over two minutes, something he didn't anticipate. The chant went on so long, it was cut out of the YouTube video. He took a lot of flak from people outside the Bay Area who thought he was gaining favor from the judges by playing on their American pride. Rapper Immortal Technique criticized him on his blog, saying it was a cheap move and he didn't deserve to win.
"They didn't get it," Dan says. "They didn't understand. We were from California. Maybe that would be serious in middle America. Here we are so fucking joking. But the fact that I was playing it against him [Shitt] was hilarious. I got the audience to say the punch line with me. I don't think anyone at that point had ever had 500 people scream the punch line with them."
The controversy shows why Dirtbag Dan is such a big name in Grind Time. At that point, most of the other battle rappers hadn't yet figured out how different this new format really is compared to traditional battle rap. But even from his early battles, Dan understood that battle rap is as much a form of melodrama as music. He is skilled at stirring up crowds, letting their oohs and ahhs resonate, and using them to his advantage.
A Dirtbag Is Born
Dirtbag Dan was born in San Jose as Daniel Martinez. He first got onstage when he was 14 years old and saw LSP (Kung Fu Vampire's old group) perform at Java Stop in San Jose. At the end of the performance, they invited the audience onstage to freestyle. His friends, knowing he liked to rap, coaxed Dan to try it.
"It was the coolest thing ever. I was like, 'I am definitely doing this. This is my thing,'" he recalls.
He got his name years later at 19 when his buddy Mario saw him lying down on the couch in his apartment looking scraggily and unshaven. He said, "You're a fucking dirtbag, Dan."
The nickname stuck. "You never pick the cool names. People remember Dirtbag Dan because nicknames are designed to stick to people," he says.
He continued to freestyle or battle rap whenever he could. "When I was a kid, there was no option to record an album. Nobody had studios or shit like that."
Though he could hold his own, freestyle battle rapping was never a format that he excelled at, but he was never one to turn down the opportunity to rap onstage. He recorded his first solo album, Dirt 4 $ale, in 2003, joining Thunderhut around that time, then Counter Productive a little later.
Eventually, he left Thunderhut and devoted himself to Counter Productive full time. In 2005, he, Able Abilities & Skylar G found a DJ named Itchy the Killer, and the Counter Productive crew was officially complete.
Grind Time was started in Orlando, Fla., in 2008 by two battle rappers named Madd Illz and Drect. At the same time, King of the Dot was starting up in Vancouver, Canada. Both of these leagues were inspired by an earlier Canadian battle-rap league called Elements, which began in 2006.
"Elements started doing openly written a cappella battles," Dan says. "I don't want to say they're the first people to ever do it in the world. That's totally not true. But these people were the first to say, 'OK, we're openly writing our battles. We're not freestyling off the top of our heads anymore."
Dirtbag Dan's first battle for Grind Time was on Aug. 30, 2008, in Oakland against the Coroner. This was also the first official Grind Time West Coast battle. The event was a spontaneous thing for Dan, and he didn't come with anything written ahead of time.
"It was a terrible battle. But people really liked it. For some reason, it got a lot of views," Dan says.
Dan accepted a second battle and decided to take it more seriously, going in with prepared material. "There was a moment during that battle I realized that this is my thing. I'm good at this," Dan recalls.
Dan quickly became a major name in Grind Time circuit and started traveling all over the United States. He went up to Canada on several occasions to compete in the King of the Dot league. By the time Don't Flop (England) and Got Beef (Australia) were emerging, he was already a top name in battle rap and eagerly flew there to compete. Fliptop Battles in the Philippines came later.
So far Dirtbag Dan is the only person in the world who has competed in all five leagues.
"It blows my mind how much I've gotten to do on the back of dick jokes. I've been traveling the world on foul humor. I always thought it would be some moving song I wrote," Dan says.
Dirtbag Dan's most controversial moment came when he battled Illusion-Z and shaved his beard off right before the battle. Since Dirtbag Dan is known for his facial hair, his opponent completely choked, presumably prepared with nothing but beard-related insults.
"It was an evil ploy on my part. It's one of those things I get harassed for to this day. There was a period of a year or so where people would say to me, 'You shaved your beard, you fucking cheater,'" says Dan.
Generally though, what Dirtbag Dan does is what every other battle rapper does: string together carefully thought-out insults designed with a specific opponent in mind. Dirtbag Dan's greatest skills are his charisma, his comedic timing and his willingness to push invective to the edge and over. Here's an example from his battle against Jewish rapper Soul Khan, following some pointed stereotyping jabs at Dan's Hispanic background:
I like you Khan, I feel like the two of us are friends. But right now it's the Passion of the Christ 2: Jesus Gets Revenge. ... I got a couple of questions: Like how do you get gifts for eight days and still ain't got no presents? How could you live never knowing how great bacon-wrapped steak tastes?
Against husky Floridian rapper Madness, Dan unleashed a fat joke:
Tony here's like a gothic bitch, not because he breeds hate, because when he get sad he cuts himself ... another slice of cheesecake.
Despite how aggressively, even dangerously insulting the format can seem, most of it, like pro wrestling, is just theatrics. When they're done insulting each other, the rappers are usually smiling and shaking hands. Then it goes to the judges to call a winner.
That doesn't mean fans don't take the battles seriously, however. One of Dan's scariest moments was in Hawaii where he went up against Hawaiian native Osna.
"They're a part of the United States, but they're very different. You go there, and it feels like a different country. They're showing me respect and listening to what I have to say, but they definitely don't want me to win. They're rooting for their boy hard," Dan says.
He was taken aback when, for the last few lines during his first round, Osna said, "I'm from Aliamanu, and after this battle, no matter if I win or lose, we all gonna mob you."
"I looked at the audience and it's just a sea of 'Yesses.' No cheers necessary. Just heads nodding—'We will fuck you up,'" says Dan. "Then he went 'Wachee Whoo!' and the whole place erupted. He let out the native war cry, and the whole fucking building went wild. My heart stopped. I looked at my buddy who was my contact out there. He's like this 4-foot-3 Korean kid. 'Wow, you're my only piece of protection in this place.'"
Dan got the message. "That was a reminder. Respect the soil. Know where you're at. You ain't at home. So, I spoke a little pigeon. I called myself a haole. They loved me over there. But they let me know in that moment there was something to fear. If I was disrespectful, it would have been my ass."
In preparing for his trip to the Philippines, he wanted to make sure that the people knew he was coming with respect, even though he was also coming with insults.
"I do a lot of research, not just on my opponent but on the region. I try to let everybody know, 'Look, I know about you. I'm here to show you that I know about you,'" Dan says.
To the people at Fliptop Battles, Dirtbag Dan was a celebrity. "They feel like I'm honoring them by coming out and showing respect to their league. They in turn show me a lot of respect and they cheer for all my bars. It was one of the best audiences I've ever performed for," he says.
Battling for Views
Ever since Dan started getting recognition with a cappella battle rapping, he's used it as an opportunity to promote his music. To correspond with his battle in the Philippines, Dan released a free solo mixtape on Jan. 1, the same day the battle was uploaded to YouTube. Even though it's a Dirtbag Dan mixtape, everyone in the Counter Productive crew is featured prominently.
"Hopefully, I can use it to create more interest in the next Counter Productive project," Dan said.
The mixtape includes the likes of Andy Milonakis, Dirt Nasty, Madness and plenty more of his new battle-rapping friends. He even devotes an entire song to describing his battle rapping experiences.
Already, 40,000 people have downloaded it, presumably many of the same fans who have made the battle rap leagues a viral hit. The leagues can organize hundreds of battles into single channels, making it possible for people to easily access and locate them. The results are staggering. A Grind Time video with 20,000–40,000 views is considered to be unpopular.
"I had a music video that was bad ass, and it got 3,000 views and I hustled to get those 3,000 views. I did one freestyle battle in a ballroom, super spur of the moment with a shitty opponent and it gets 10,000 views right off the bat," Dan says.
This loyalty in viewership is due in no small part to the interactive quality. Dan knows that whether they like him or not, it's the connection they feel to his rhymes and his style that have led fans to make him a breakout star.
"It's the power that the audience has," he says. "They get to express their feelings about the battle right there on the YouTube comments. I got people that straight stalk and harass me about battles saying, 'You should've lost.' That shit lets you know how powerful it is. These people really feel that passionate about it and they have the access and power to actually converse with us. We're not beyond reach."