Total Slaughter

[EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW] Poison Pen Talks How He’ll Judge Total Slaughter, What Makes A Superb Battle MC, and Why Loaded Lux Will Never Lose

Poison Pen Interview

Battle rap as we know it today might not exist without Poison Pen. The BK-born spitter made his mark in the Blaze Battle competition of 1999, eventually moving on to host sessions of Da Cypha Emcees Battle after hurting one too many feelings. From there he forged a career as a recording artist, linking up with C-Rayz Walz, Immortal Technique, and Breez Evahflowin’ to form the Stronghold clique. He helped organized Grind Time and SMACK/URL. He’s done songs with MF DOOM. Fuck battle rap – the guy is a rap music god amongst men.

This Saturday, Total Slaughter recognizes his legacy with the recognition of being named a judge for all four battles at Hammerstein Ballroom. We got on the phone with Poison to talk about what makes a superb battle rapper, how it’s different judging in a room versus on video, and why he thinks Loaded Lux can never lose a battle.

Tell me about Joe Budden’s difficulties being a judge on “Road To Total Slaughter.”

It seemed to me like the judges didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It appeared like they were going through the motions. Even Crooked I, it seemed like he just went with what everybody else said. It didn’t even seem like he wanted to be there half the time.

As far as Joe, he had input, but I know a lot of people were on the fence with his judging of Arsonal against Daylyt. Budden is the one that actually voted against Arsonal, and a lot of people in the community were saying that he made that judgment due to the fact that he and Arsonal had words or whatever previously.

Honestly, in my opinion that particular battle could have gone either way due to the fact that they were both clean. That was one of the only battles that didn’t have any chokes or anything, so that battle could have gone either way. I wouldn’t have been mad if either one had won. I wish it went to a sudden death or whatever because sometimes it’s hard to judge off one round. The person who went first, they don’t have time to rebuttal, they can’t get the crowd back in their favor because there’s only one round, so it’s hard to judge one round battles. When it comes to one round battles, someone has to go hard. Like T-Rex. T-Rex went hard the whole entire show, so judging his battles are fairly easy because he’s just blacking out on everybody.

I plan on taking a lot of notes and making sure the right decision is made.

How is it different judging a battle in a small room like that versus in a huge venue like Hammerstein Ballroom on Saturday?

First of all, a lot of people tend to count punchlines or things of that nature, and obviously punchlines and hard-hitting rebuttals are the backbone of what we do, but at the same time it’s like…just because someone had more punchlines than the other person doesn’t mean their punchlines were effective. Someone could have had more punchlines but if they didn’t land properly, the other person can still win.

It’s a totally different environment. The MCs have to tailor their bars for a giant crowd. It’s totally different from rhyming in a room of 15, 20 people. When you’re in a room with just diehard MCs and diehard fans, you don’t really have to dumb things down. You don’t have to worry about projection, but if you’re in a concert hall or on a big stage, you have to make sure you present rhymes for that crowd. A lot of people that battle now, they tend to try and create a bunch of riddles or complex patterns, which is cool, but at the same time, if you’re in a room with a thousand people and about 200 of them will get it, it won’t make much of an impact, so you have to really structure your rhymes totally differently than you do in a small room.

How is your approach to judging going to be different than how they did it on the TV show?

I’m down the middle. I don’t have anything to gain by playing favorites. Obviously Total Slaughter, it’s a Slaughterhouse vehicle, but when you’re judging someone you’ve had words with in the past, it can get difficult. I don’t think Joe Budden judged that Arsonal and Daylyt battle out of spite, but it’s still kind of difficult to decipher what’s what. Everyone has their favorites and what not, but you have to put all that to the side and straight up judge what’s happening right then and right there, not what’s been said in the past. You can’t judge it like, “Well, I’ve seen him do better in this battle and I know he can do better.” Nah, it’s not about that, it’s about what’s happening right now.

You have to pay very, very close attention because there are gonna be a bunch of rhymes that may go over people’s heads. You have to decipher how [the rappers on stage] engage the crowd, because if you don’t captivate the crowd, nobody’s gonna care. You have to be crystal clear with how you spit. You can’t rapidfire through it because ain’t nobody gonna hear what you’re saying. You have to pace yourself. You have to learn how to pause at the right times for reaction, for the crowd to calm down, for the proper impact of your bars. It’s a science. We have to pay attention to every little nuance, from the body language to the bars to how the crowd is engaged.

Do you think Total Slaughter picked the right judges for the battle Saturday?

Drect has been around from the Grind Time era, he helped create Grind Time and I was a part of that. I don’t think there could be anyone more impartial than Drect or myself. I know Kid Capri is a huge fan of the sport. As far as personally, I don’t know about judging, but I don’t see him making any…I can’t speak on him. He’s a big fan of the sport, so I know he knows what to look for, I can say that. He works hand in hand with a bunch of battle rappers, he’s working on a battle rap album right now. I’ve never seen him judge a battle, but he knows the scene enough to have an educated opinion.

You said in an interview for UW/High Stakes that fans would never let Loaded Lux lose. What ‘d you mean by that?

Ever since the Summer Madness battle when he battled Calicoe…you gotta understand, these fans will rip you apart for every little thing that you do. Loaded Lux is the only person I’ve ever seen that choked, outright choked, like forgot what he was saying, forgot where he was at, everything, choked, and then bounced back and rhymed for about…I don’t even know how many minutes, close to 10 minutes. And most rounds are usually 3 or 4 minutes. But the presentation, once he got back on point, it was flawless, it was amazing. He’s like battle rap’s savior. Ever since that battle you got Jay-Z and Shaq and all these mainstream people championing him.

He deserved it, Lux is a premier lyricist so let’s not misconstrue what I’m saying, I’m not saying it in a negative way. But he’s one of those guys that no matter what he does, his fans are gonna ride with him until the wheels fall off. And if he did something wrong, they’re gonna say he meant to do that. Just like when he choked. “Oh, he did that on purpose.” No he didn’t. He choked! {Laughs] His recovery was amazing and he went on to put on one of the best performances in history. Only person that’s had a chance to choke and people still say he killed Calicoe. Calicoe did a an excellent job, it’s just that Lux went above and beyond after he recovered. If you know a Lux fan, you’ll never hear a Lux fan say Loaded Lux has lost. To me, there’s not one, not one person in the world of battle rap that can’t be beat, and if someone said they’re undefeated, that just means they haven’t battled enough. There’s not one person that can’t be beat.

Outside of stumbling and choking, what else should battle rappers be penalized for during their performance? 

If I see anyone pull out their phones, they’re losing. Their round is automatically lost. This is supposed to be the upper echelon of battling MCs. Total Slaughter is supposed to be the top MCs in the entire country. And if you look at the show….everyone choked spitting a 90-second verse, which is unforgivable in my opinion. The average battle round is three to four minutes and they’re straight rounds, so that’s between nine and twelve minutes of raps. For the show, all people had to do was spit one 90-second rhyme. Now that’s approximately half of one standard round. And if you look at these guys track records as elite battle rappers, and only three people had a clean performance, it’s kinda fucked up.

If people are flipping through the channels and they see the show, they’re not gonna think these dudes are the best. If the best dudes are choking after 20 seconds of rapping, the other dudes must be horrible! So I think people need to take it a little more serious because it doesn’t reflect well on the scene as a whole.

Who do you think won the Hollow Da Don vs. Loaded Lux battle earlier this year?

I think Hollow won. To me, Lux is like a method actor, he dives into a role and he plays up to it to a T, like he did that whole Black Panther presentation. Honestly, I only watched it once because I don’t like watching bootlegs. I feel it’s kinda disrespectful because coming from myself, I know how I felt when people bootlegged mine, so I try not to watch bootlegs.

Lux is a way more intricate writer. His schemes are way more concise. Lux can rap circles around 95% of the world, but it’s not all about just being able to rap well, so I think Hollow’s bars hit harder and he actually had a rebuttal of something from the Calicoe battle when he brought Calicoe’s pops out. I thought that as pretty ill. So I’ll say Hollow won, and when we were there live, [Hollow] was getting more reaction, the crowd was more into what he was doing.

Sounds like you might prioritize live reaction over actual bars when judging battles.

No, I’m just saying that he got more reaction there. That doesn’t mean that made it better, but facts are facts. And the live element is a major element of the battle. People are like, “Oh on video it looked like this and that,” but at the end of the day when you were there, did it hit hard? So you have to be able to captivate the people live.

If someone has a round on the same level as Lux vs. Calicoe or even an Aye Verb vs. Hitman Holla, could you ever see yourself scoring it as a 10-6 or 10-7? Because Budden has gone on record to say he thinks those types of rounds should be scored as knockouts.

Knockouts….? I would only consider it a knockout if….somebody had a ridiculously stellar round and the other person just totally choked and just didn’t respond at all or had to resort to looking at their phone or whatever.

I don’t think there are any knockouts. I could see a 10-8 or something. A knockout is just when someone can’t withstand, can’t fight back, can’t do anything. That’s what a knockout is. But if they went toe to toe and the other person was better, alright. Still not a knockout. It can be a decisive win without being a knockout.

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