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Battle Royale

February 1, 2008
photo of people at Red Bull Big Tune

Three decades ago, Jamaicans would gather hundreds deep in front of giant sound systems while two MCs rocked it over the same instrumental. When it was time to pick a winner, it was the crowd that decided who had the “biggest tune.”

With that spirit in mind, Red Bull Big Tune, a series of regional DJ battles held throughout 2007 in San Francisco, L.A., Houston, Chicago, Seattle and New York, brought the finals back to Seattle on Nov. 2, as 12 regional winners battled for beat supremacy. The format was straightforward: Two DJs each play two original, 60-second beats, and the audience decides who moves to the next round.

“I expected people to bring a lot of heat, and they did,” says winner Sabzi of hip-hop group Blue Scholars. “There were no wack beats played because everyone won their own hometown.” Inspired mostly from either the circus-creepy synth lines of Eminem; the Lil Jon, crunk/hyphy school of party-starting; or the horn-blasted funk of Just Blaze (who, with De La Soul, performed between rounds), it was evident that were some of the most creative cats in the game in the room that night.

Sure, there was no actual live creation of music (contestants popped beat CDs into a Pioneer CDJ), but every battler, from the acclaimed (Marco Polo and Beat Junkies' DJ Babu) to the unknown, tried to win the crowd over, acting as his own hype man. Judging by the crowd, though, the music seemed to rightly win out over any theatrics. Sabzi estimates he spent more than 100 hours working on his beat ammunition for the contest, which acted as a showcase for all the contestants' finished selections.

While including two people from the host city in a competition judged by the crowd may have led to an unfair advantage, winner Sabzi's mix of diverse beats clearly would have held their own anywhere in the country.

“Some peoples' beats had sort of the same vibe to them,” he explains, when asked about strategies for winning. “I tried to bring stuff that was varied across the board so I could pick the right kind of thing to match up with somebody else.”

Started in 2004 by program director Jonathan Moore and producer/DJ Vitamin D, what was once a local, bimonthly event is now a national competition, with regional battles taking place across the country. The reward may be good for Sabzi (Genelec speakers and an opportunity to work with Young Buck, Redman or Talib Kweli), but it's even better for the slightly forgotten yet crucial art of the DJ battle.

Red Bull Big Tune regional battles continue in 2008. Check for more info.

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