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Born Freestyle

This area's most talented verbal shock troops cut each other down to size for your amusement at the Serendipity Project's incredible freestyle battles

By Mike Connor

For better or for worse, Eminem brought the hip-hop freestyle battle into the mother brain of the mainstream in 8 Mile. But unlike some nauseatingly artificial commercial representations of hip-hop culture, the Eminem flick actually does a decent job representing the art of freestyling.

"It's like a sword fight of wit," says vocalist Knoble of the Serendipity Project, a live hip-hop/funk/jazz band that's been hosting monthly freestyle battles in town. They credit 8 Mile for piquing people's curiosity about battles in general, which in turn led to bigger turnouts. Judging by the four battles I saw--two at the Mediterranean, one at the Aptos Club and one at the 418 Project--they're are about as predictable as a tornado, and a whole lot more fun.

Essentially, it goes something like this: the DJ drops a beat while two MCs take turns in a verbal sparring match, doing their best to cut one another to shreds with off-the-cuff rhymes. In most battles, the audience decides the winner, who advances to the next round, and so on until there is one single winner, who gets a hundred bucks.

Three out of the four shows I saw were well-organized, entertaining and full of those amazingly talented human beings who have that unfathomable talent to rhyme and be witty (see The Rock Show, Feb. 4). If this week's battle at the 418 Project is half as good as the last one they hosted there, satisfaction is all but guaranteed. A broad range of styles and skill levels led to some interesting match-ups--some were so brilliantly unbalanced, you couldn't help but be embarrassed for the winner. Other battles pitted equals against one another, and the resulting flows--inspired, hilarious, cruel--were sometimes too close to call.

In a way, it was the polar opposite of the one free-for-all battle the Project hosted at the Med a few months back. Not only was the sound garbled, but the MCs all sounded drunk, and for some reason Knowble--one of the hosts that night--seemed to be trying to battle everyone in the room. On top of that, the racial slurring got so bad in one of the battles that the band's drummer, Random Mysticks, disqualified them.

Sitting with the Serendipity Project in the living room of their house months later, I enquire about that fateful night and the MCs who got disqualified.

"They were being completely negative, and not even being good MCs," explains Random, "Their whole premise was being negative about each other's race."

And it turns out that Knowble flew off the handle because he caught one of the MCs using pre-written rhymes. How did he know? The guy's buddy was lip-synching right along with him for two full bars. When the guy and his buddy denied it, Knowble tried to battle both of them just to get them out of the running. My new hero.

But one dark night aside, the dominant vibe at these battles is one of friendly competition, where the contenders throw (verbal) fists and touch gloves.

"I can remember one battle winner who was really stressing about the hundred dollars," says guitarist Itay K. "When Stanley Vanigan won, he bought drinks for the whole bar."

The Complete Jam

Starting out a 1 1/2 years ago as an ongoing, informal jam session of as many as 14 people, the Serendipity Project trimmed itself down to six core members--Random Mysticks on the drums, Finn on bass, Itay K. on the guitar, Dave Moilanen on keyboards, and both Dustin Loranger (a.k.a. D.L.) and Knowble on vocals. They came from all over the country and with all different musical influences.

And here's the ironic twist: among all the vicious put-downs of the hip-hop battles they host, the Serendipity Project makes incredibly positive hip-hop music. Their first album, Accidents Happen ..., has all of the booty-shaking optimism of funk, the raw power of rock and the subtle sophistication of jazz.

"For me, I grew up listening to pretty much every fuckin' style of music," says D.L. "The hip-hop influence was the from the East Coast rappers. I took the structure from that, how they write about their experiences and their life. But I've been through a mostly positive life, so I write uplifting types of things."

Knowble credits Jay Z as his primary influence, and waxes poetic on his role in the band.

"I'd never even been to a live show," says Knowble, causing my jaw to drop. "I've been kicking freestyles and beatboxing since eighth grade. I got caught up in the hype of hip-hop, instead of the culture of the music. But the live music brings out the purity in it, you've got these people with instruments playing the music in their heart, and with me being their medium and spokesman, it's a damn beautiful thing."

Ray Brown and Some Bands Of Renown

For Moilanen, on the keys, the journey started with the Digital Underground, but he got some help from Cabrillo college instructor Ray Brown along the way.

"Ray Brown changed the way I played," says Moilanen. "I was learning jazz and seeing how it's [at the root of] hip-hop, only hip-hop has a different beat, a rock beat almost."

Moilanen had a hard time finding a drummer good enough to work out the blend of jazz and hip-hop he had in mind. But thanks to a bit of--yes, serendipity--he met the drummer of his dreams, Mysticks.

Rounding out the band, Finn brings the funky-ass bass (a la Fishbone), and Itay K. on guitar, well, he cites mostly classic rock and some rap--Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Doctor Dre--as primary influences. But one silver-gloved figure looms high above the rest.

"Michael Jackson's always been a big influence in my life," says Itay.

Yeah," says Dave, interrupting. "He makes a trip to Neverland Ranch once a year."

Right, well, in between trips to the Ranch, the Project apparently made enough connections in town to book themselves and other bands besides, in both SC and S.F. The band is still jazzed about its recent tour with Spearhead human beatbox Radioactive, who they hope to tour with again soon. In the meantime, they're hoping for a little help from local radio stations to help them build up the freestyle battle to the point that it's big enough to fill the Catalyst.

Uh-oh! There goes the neighborhood.


The Serendipity Project hosts an all-ages freestyle battle at the 418 Project on Wednesday, March 31, with live performances from members of Thunderhut and D Labrie. Tickets are $5, doors open at 9:30pm. They also perform at the Catalyst, with Lost and Found Generation and the Moonies, on April 4. Tickets are $5 for 16 and up; 21 and up get in free; 9pm.

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From the March 31-April 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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