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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Producers Take the Spotlight at the Miltown Beat Down

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Six years ago, one local producer fed up with Milwaukee's segregated rap scene decided to try to unify the community through a beat-battle competition. And the Miltown Beat Down has done just that.

Founder and emcee Jordan Lee, aka DJ Madhatter, ostensibly fostered the relationship between local producer Reason and rapper Dana Coppafeel through the annual competition. Last month, Coppafeel released an eight-song EP, Know Flight Zone, with Reason.

"They're coming from a different part of the scene, but they all want to make good hip-hop together," Lee says. "That's the bottom line."

Not only has the event brought together artists who never would have collaborated, but it's inspired producers to showcase their talents at making hip-hop beats. Each showcase tends to bring innovative beats that get the crowd moving.

Sure, the idea of two producers standing in front of an audience and pressing "play" sounds boring on paper, Lee admits, but each performer's personality seems to emanate when they're out there pitching their beat to the audience.

"Some of the producers are a little more animated," he says. "They're hype men, like a Flavor Flav-type guy. And the ones that do that tend to get a lot of crowd response."

The overall competition heats up the night as well. When egos compete, sparks are sure to fly.

"That's where the theater of it comes in," he says. "Three beats each; you go head-to-head, back and forth. So, here's my beat. The other guy has to re-up that guy. And it's all about if your beat demands attention."

The Miltown Beat Down hosted four preliminary rounds at the Wicked Hop's Jackalope Lounj over the past month. A total of 32 producers were whittled down to eight. The remaining eight have been seeded based on their qualifying performances. Judges give points for sound quality (25), originality (25) and crowd response (50). On Friday at Turner Hall Ballroom, the eight square off to determine who is Milwaukee's best producer.

The tournament-style bracketing sets an interesting challenge for producers, as they need to assemble many beats that might not even be heard in the competition. For those that advance to the finals, however, their best material is key.

"I tell people that if they're not prepared to play a possible 20 super-banging beats, they shouldn't enter the competition in the first place," Lee says. "So, if that becomes a factor for them, they didn't have the right strategy. You never know what's going to happen. Some of them plan and some of them don't. That's part of the competition. Some sports are based upon making plays and some sports are based upon going and doing it. This is a combination of both."

Lee brings in a popular producer to act as guest judge each year in order to contribute an industry insider's perspective on each DJ's set. Notable past judges include De La Soul's Maseo, The Roots' ?uestlove, Rhymesayers' Jake One and Diamond D. This year's guest judge will be Young Guru. He's mixed albums by Jay-Z, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Talib Kweli, T.I. and Ludacris.

"He's the perfect judge for this event," Lee says. "He is a DJ. He is a producer. But above that, he's an engineer. An engineer's job is to listen to rap beats all day and make them sound good. He's been the engineer on 10 of Jay-Z's 11 albums. He's engineered some of the biggest hits. He has Grammys for Jay-Z songs. So, I feel like if anyone can judge whether a rap beat sounds good or not, why not get a Grammy Award-winning DJ from the best rapper in the world?"

The Miltown Beat Down starts at 7 p.m. Friday, June 10, at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. Fourth St., and features Reason, GoodWill, 40 Mil, TradeMark, White Russian, Audio Pilot, Sam Winters, Champ and a guest DJ set from Young Guru.