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Monday, June 13, 2011

Miltown Beat Down 2011 Finals @ Turner Hall Ballroom

June 11, 2011

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Battling is an aspect of hip-hop that dates back all the way to the culture's earliest days, one that runs through each of the movement's core modes of expression. Whether at an organized event or some informal gathering, contestants engage in fierce competition to prove themselves as the top MC, DJ, break-dancer or beat boxer often with no other prize aside from bragging rights and the opportunity to hone one's skills. Even graffiti, the least performance-oriented of hip-hop's five original facets, is charged by this competitive edge, with pieces being painted over by upstarts who think they can do better.

It seems only natural then that producers, whose role in the hip-hop world expanded as the technology for beat-making became more widespread and affordable, should have their own arena in which to do battle. In Milwaukee, that arena is the Miltown Beat Down, which each year draws dozens of area beat-smiths, all hungry for the recognition, exposure and valuable prizes that come with winning the top spot. Preliminary rounds had been going on at Jackalope Lounj for months before Saturday's final contest, narrowing the field down to eight producers (as well as four more who received honorable mention by being tapped to compete in a separate wild card battle), all of whom seemed eager to prove themselves, while still maintaining an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual support.

Hosted by local fixtures Kid Cut Up and DJ Madhatter, each round consisted of two producers trading three one-minute beats, after which they were assigned a score (out of 25 possible points for creativity, 25 for sound quality and 50 for crowd reaction) by an esteemed panel of judges. The high scorer moves on to the next round, one step closer to being the last man (or woman) standing.

On the whole the tracks were all of an exceptionally high quality, as one would expect from those good enough to make it into the finals. Producers are so often invisible to the general audience, so often toiling in anonymity, that it's truly refreshing to see them and they're work take center stage. These competitors represent a cross section of the insanely talented people working in Milwaukee today, and though the competition was intense, the vibe was more about pride in their city and scene than about ego or vitriol, even when the victorious Reason edged out runner-up Audiopilot to clinch the title.

And yet, the event wasn't without its problems. Perhaps the biggest is the unavoidable fact that watching someone push play on a laptop and then wave their hands in the air isn't exactly riveting to watch, even when that someone is Young Guru, renowned engineer and tour DJ for Jay-Z (as well as a judge at tonight's battle), who took the stage for a 30 minute set just before the final round. This also served to compound the other issue, which was that the show was more than a little over-stuffed. If you had shown up when the doors opened at 6 p.m. (when the kids from True Skool were showing off their skills) you'd have been there for about six and a half hours, which is a long time to do anything. You can't really fault the organizers for trying to pack so much in, but a little expediency would have heightened the night's inherent drama.