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March 1, 2007

Since early 2005, the Chicago hip-hop community has gathered once a month in West Town to witness the Dance to the Drummer's DB beat battle — a competition that has attracted some of the city's most able producers. On Wednesday, January 10, a nearly packed house at the sleek Sonotheque lounge took in the heated and at times confusing Dance to the Drummer's Second Annual Beat Battles Finals.

Grammy winner Rhymefest and a host of local hip-hop vets were in the building to watch the final beatsmiths face off. Judged by established Chicago-area producer/DJs Mike Love, Copperpot, Maker and Andy C, the battle began with Kenny Keys, Tall Black Guy and Radius throwing down for seven preliminary rounds to see who would go against defending champ DJ Rude 1. Keys, who — surprise, surprise — is also a pianist, sat coolly behind his Roland XP-80 keyboard, dropping bottom-heavy yet soulful melodies. Meanwhile, with an HP desktop computer as his weapon of choice, Tall Black Guy was the most animated and well-received contestant, as he often waved his arms to a mix of M.O.P.-worthy bangers and stutter-step tribal funk. Meanwhile, Radius — armed with an MPC1000 — faced repeated technical difficulties but was consistent and delivered the knock-out beat of the prelims.

The competition was close enough to drive host Adad to chant, “one more round!” After a brief deliberation, Keys was announced the winner of the prelims. But in an unforeseen move, Keys decided to concede the win to Tall Black Guy. The confused crowd begged for another round, and they got it. At that point, the usually laidback Keys dropped his hardest beat of the night and wound up moving on to compete against Rude 1.

Using an MPC3000, the cool, calm and collected Rude toned down his usually thumping boom-bap and provided an impressive collection of polished productions for the final five rounds. With his slick, gangster backdrops and classic East Coast heaters, Rude proved to be the crowd favorite. But in the fifth and final round, Kenny Keys was on his feet moving the crowd with his megaton melody. Rude responded with his best beat of the night. The crowd was sure Rude had it — until Adad announced Keys the winner. A mostly stunned audience booed in response, making Keys unable to give his winning speech. Then, once again, the winner shocked the crowd by handing the belt over to Tall Black Guy. But with or without the belt, Keys is the new champ of one of the most respected beat battles in the country.

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