GET FAMILIAR: Memo
Memo is a battle rapper from the Boston area these days, but he used to rock shows — and win battles — around BTV as Memaranda, back before adulthood caught up with him. He’s always been funny, down-to-earth and a careful student of the game, so I figured this would be a solid interview. It turned out much better than that: this is a hella informative conversation about battle rap culture, politics and tradecraft.
And a lot of 802 history along the way, too. Dig it.
VTHH: As soon as you came out -- and we're talking "Rap It Up," here -- you had bars on tap and genuinely funny punchlines. Which, frankly, I have always resented you for. Did you always have your sights set on battle rap or did something grab you along the way?
Memo: Right around the time I was recording music and doing shows (about 10 years ago now) S.I.N.siZZle started hosting the King of VT freestyle battle tournaments. I had been freestyling since a youngin’ so I figured I’d give it a try, and I believe I got to the finals of the first tournament he held, eventually losing to Learic. I ended up competing in over a dozen of them, and won at least 5 (pretty sure Learic won all the others). Towards the end of the competitive freestyling run, I started following the art of “written” battle rap after being introduced to it by my buddy/ fellow MC Fullafekt.
After watching a few “classic” battles that were suggested to me, I quickly became addicted to the clever writing and charismatic performances. But at the time, I just couldn’t get in to the idea of rapping with no music behind it. I always felt one of my best traits as an MC was the way I could flow over all different types of beats. Shit, I could kill a fire freestyle over a Beethoven track and transition right into a Garth Brooks and Celine Dion instrumentals. I believe it was around the summer of 2015, when S.I.N. eventually threw the first VT “written” battle event and paired me up as main event against Learic (inevitably).
I remember locking in the matchup about a month before it went down but not actually writing for it until the week of. While I definitely rushed my material and prep, I ended up actually killing it without stumbling at all. The judges voted me the winner, but of course something happened to the footage and none of the battles from the event were ever released. I’m still holding on to a glimpse of hope that one day S.I.N. is gonna find the dude that’s been holding the lost footage hostage and drop our battle out of the blue. Fingers crossed.
Anyway, shortly after that battle with Learic, Tom (Fullafekt) introduced me to the 413 guys in Mass who got me on the winter 2015 tryout card, and the rest is history. 3+ years later, I’m 20 written battles deep and considered by many as a top battle rapper in New England.
VTHH: Having done plenty of both, do you think audiences pay more attention to your writing in a rap battle context than they would at a regular-ass rap show?
Memo: 100%. This is honestly the main reason I haven’t recorded/ performed music in so long. Don’t get me wrong, I loved making music and miss the shit out of it but these days, people don’t even appreciate real hip hop music. Look at guys like Learic, S.I.N. and Lynguistic Civilians who have all done hundreds of shows around New England and hustled for years, but never got the respect they deserved. All everyone wants to hear these days is the mumble rap bullshit. I feel like being lyrical and witty is a downfall these days. Its really sad to be honest.
I guess that’s why I fell in love with “written” battle rap. I’ve always been a creative writer but never felt people fully listened to the metaphors, entendres and similes I would layer in to my writing. At a live hip hop show, people nod their heads and listen to you rap but most people aren’t really listening to what you’re actually saying. At a rap battle event, the whole crowd literally circles around you in silence and listens to every word you and your opponent have to say for 20 minutes straight. There’s honestly no better feeling in the world then getting a huge reaction to a bar/ rhyme scheme that you worked hard to come up with..
On top of that, you get the pleasure of it eventually being released on YouTube a few weeks later where the footage lives forever. One of my battles has 6,000+ views. I don’t think I had a single song with over a thousand views on YouTube or Soundcloud, etc. Either way, reality is that writing for battles takes a lot of time, and being a dad/husband/full time worker, I don’t have time to keep pushing my battle rap career and work on an album at the same time. In a perfect world, I’ll keep rising in the battle rap ranks till I become a household name, at which point people should want to hear and buy my music. Hopefully I can get to this point before I’m 40.
VTHH: Approximately how many gun hands have you had waved in your face, at this point in your career? Does that ever get old, or is it just as much fun, every time?
Memo: Shit, probably hundreds at this point.. And yeah it does get old, but not usually with my opponents. The great thing about this form of battle rap is that you typically get paired against opponents that make sense to battle you. If you watch URL, dudes are pullin’ out imaginary guns left and right, but luckily I usually get paired against fellow scrawny white dudes for the most part, so I’m usually safe from these violent gun hands you speak of.
But nah, in reality, gun bars are awesome if they’re done right and not abused. I pull them out in a satirical manner quite a bit to be honest. There’s just so many good slangs for guns that can be flipped in so many different ways (ratchets, hawks, eagles, cans, biscuits, etc.) Also, one of the greatest parts about battle rap is that people can rap for 20 minutes straight about shooting each other with every type of gun imaginable but end up sharing a drink and spliff right after the battle ends. Out of the hundreds of thousands of “written” battles that have ever taken place around the world, there has never been an actual gun pulled out in a battle (that I know of) and there’s maybe a handful or less cases of hands being thrown – (See Dizaster vs Math Hoffa).
The best part about written battle rap that a lot of new people to the culture don’t understand, is that wins/losses don’t really matter, aside from the occasional inner-league title matches. In a regular battle, you actually want your opponent to do well so that the footage has better replay value. A lot of people don’t even write personal bars, and treat the sport as a competition of who has the better “bars”. I personally always try to get under my opponents skin, but you better believe I’m shaking their hand and buying them a beer after the battle..
VTHH: Do you think the proliferation of battle leagues is a good thing for the scene or does it over-saturate the fanbase?
Memo: I think it’s good for the culture to a certain degree, but can cause some friction on a local level. Obviously in theory, the more leagues there are, the more opportunity for new talent to be seen. At the same time though, it does make it harder for the big leagues (KOTD/GZ and URL) to find talent as there are so many damn leagues to study and pick from. Luckily, I battle for 413 battle league who is the longest running and probably the most respected league in MA. Shoutout TD3 and Vorheez!
When I first moved to Mass a few years ago, there were probably about 40-50 known battlers on the scene that would get cycled around 3-4 different leagues. Now there’s at least 10 New England leagues with a few hundred battlers in the scene. Unfortunately about 90% of them are trash.. Anyway, all in all, having more leagues creates more competition and helps grow the sport and spread awareness so I’m all about it.
But there’s no question that it also creates drama within a particular region. For instance, you’ll often see leagues that are right down the road from each other purposely throwing events the same night in spite of each other, or leagues claiming battlers as their own roster members when they were brought up and groomed by another local competing league, and the list goes on. That’s definitely the one thing that I don’t like about battle rap, is the unnecessary drama and politics…but I guess you have that in all facets of life these days.
And yeah, to the second part of your question, there are now so many leagues releasing footage that it’s hard for some people to know which battles to watch. Luckily the real ones know what leagues and battlers to look out for, but if I was just getting in to the sport now, I wouldn’t know where to start. To all new fans though, start with KOTD/URL, any battles with Pat Stay, Rone, Illmaculate, B Magic, Chilla Jones, Danny Meyers, Pass, Charon and Carter Deems to name a few.. And that dude Memo from VT is fire too. Check out his battles with Laugh-N-Stalk, Uno Lavos, CJA, Colly C, T Sawyer and Blackademiks.
VTHH: What advice do you have for kids reading this who will be prepping for their own battle debuts in the next 12 months?
Memo: If you’re not comfortable in your own skin and aren’t good at adapting to different environments, this isn’t for you.If you get easily offended and aren’t very good at taking criticism, this isn’t for you. If you’ve never rapped before, there’s a good chance this isn’t for you, although there are rare occasions of battle rappers who never rapped prior to battling and have thrived in the scene. Blows my mind, but it can be done.
My biggest advice would be to BE YOU. No one wants to see a scrawny white dude rap aggressively about how he could kick your ass in a super gangster voice. I made the mistake early on in my career of occasionally trying to sound like other battle rappers and would spit aggressive, angry sounding bars.. Watching the battles back, I could quickly tell that I looked out of character doing that, so I switched up my formula early on and now I just go up there, be myself and have fun.
I obviously have occasional “I’m gonna kill you” bars but I try to keep even my most threatening material pretty light and say everything with a hint of sarcasm. Obviously, if I grew up in the streets, then people would enjoy me spitting struggle bars and if I was a pimp, people would enjoy me spitting bars about all my hoes but nah, I’m a just a mid thirty year old, married white ass dad with an office job. Let’s be real. Figure out what you do best and stick with that formula. For me, it’s dad jokes, food schemes and 90s references.
Another important thing is to be patient. During my first year or so, I would hear quite often that I was trash, had a bitch voice and an unconfident demeanor, etc. There were definitely many times that I thought about just quitting cause I didn’t have the patience to try to please all the whiny fans. But I stuck with it, made a point to improve every battle and eventually worked my way on to KOTD/GZ and top of the card on pretty much every local event I’m on. I’ll never have a great voice but I try to make up for it with clever writing and references that the battle rap community can relate to. As we all know, you can’t please everyone, but if you’re at least captivating the audience in the room while having fun doing it, then you’re doing something right.
Last advice I have for any new battlers is to not underestimate the importance of prep.. Try to finish writing your material by at least a week before the battle. Go through your rounds every night for a week straight, and record yourself rapping them so you can hear which parts need to be tweaked or re-worded, etc. A bad choke can ruin a battle in the room and kill the replay value of the footage. If you’re going to battle, take it seriously so you’re not wasting the fans time or your own time. Nothing worse than writing your ass off for a month just to put on a forgetful performance.