Mike Atkinson

Interview: Youthoracle

Posted in interviews, LeftLion by Mike A on February 3, 2014

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.

Named as Don’t Flop‘s 2012 Best Newcomer of the Year, Youthoracle has garnered over half a million YouTube views and was recently invited to Toronto to battle in King Of The Dot World Domination 4. He’s rumoured to be taking on a three-time Don’t Flop champion at the Nottingham event this April…

When preparing for this interview, I was warned it would be hard to find much information about you online, as you don’t want to provide your fellow battlers with material that they can use against you. Do you have to be really cautious in what you say?

Yes, I don’t really bring up anything about my personal life – as much as I’d like to, because obviously music is a way of expressing yourself. I know a lot of people that battle, and they also expose their personal lives in their tracks, and then they moan when it’s brought up against them.

So if you had talked about some tragic childhood experiences, or coming from a broken home, they would have no qualms about going in?

They wouldn’t have qualms about anything. There’s been some really horrible things said, but I do have a limit, as to where I go. I’d never bring up someone’s kids, but people do. I’ve seen a guy pull out a picture of another guy’s son, and stand there, name-calling and saying stuff about his son.

When I watch these battles online – and maybe this is because I’m not so familiar with the whole culture – I can’t completely work out what’s going on. You’re going in really hard against each other on one level, but on another level, it also seems totally friendly. Is the atmosphere there genuinely friendly?

It is, to an extent. There’s a lot of us who are really good friends, but there’s a lot of bad vibes in there as well. You get a lot of people who have feuds with each other, so they usually call those grudge matches. But really it’s just entertainment most of the time.

While your opponent is doing his round, what goes through your mind?

I just try and zone out and not really pay attention to what they’re saying, so I don’t get annoyed by anything. Sometimes they’ll finish their round, and I haven’t listened to anything they’ve said. Usually, I don’t worry too much. Nobody knows anything about me, and I can’t see a way that they would, because I’m a very private person in real life. So there’s no way, unless they’d been stalking me, that they’d know anything about my life.

Is there any scope for picking up what was said in the previous round, and using it there and then? Or is everything pre-prepared?

It’s not all pre-prepared. I’d say 90% of people listen through the whole round and try and pick up on something, so they can flip it, and do a rebuttal. I’ve started to do it recently, but I’m not the strongest freestyler, so I’m very nervous. I get pins and needles down my arms. I’ve literally stood there, feeling like I’m going to cry. So half the time, I don’t really dare do a rebuttal.

If we were sat here and just doing it now, and I was comfortable, I could reel off rebuttals all day. But when there’s a crowd of 600, I don’t want to chance something I haven’t pre-written.

You were recently battling in Toronto. Was that tough in terms of dealing with a different culture, where they’re not going to get your references or your accent?

Yeah, because I’ve got one of the strongest accents in Don’t Flop. Even in England, nobody really understands what I’m saying half the time. I’ve only realised since being in Don’t Flop how strong my accent is. I get pulled up on my accent constantly. I reckon that’s the number one thing that I get done for. In Canada, I didn’t do any British references. I kept my accent, but they didn’t understand a word that I was saying, so my battle didn’t really go that well.

How did you first get involved with Don’t Flop?

My friend Bru-C [MC with The Afterdark Movement] rang me one day, after the Mark Grist & Blizzard battle came out, and he said: watch this battle, it’s a teacher versus a student. [The battle went viral in early 2012, earning nearly 4 million views.] I’d been doing music for a good eight years at the time, but I’d never really done that much, and I was starting to lose the love for it a bit. Bru-C was going to do it, and my little brother was going crazy at me, saying: you need to do it, you’ll do well. But I didn’t want to do it, and I said that I really wasn’t up for it.

Then I went to Bru-C’s first battle, and I realised what that vibe is like: everyone’s actually friends, there’s no bad vibes. That’s when I thought: I’ll do it. So I went up to the organiser, and showed him a few lyrics. He said to me: if Bru-C wins his battle, then you’ve got a try-out, but if he loses, never contact me again, ever. And luckily Bru-C won!

How important is it to win? Does it make a difference to where you go next?

There’s no actual structure or hierarchy, but it does make a big difference. I’ve just beaten an American who’s very big out there; he’s been doing it for about eight years. That means my next battle will be really big. If I lost, it wouldn’t be as good.

With each new battle, does every bar have to be brand new?

You can’t reuse anything at all, but a lot of people use a catchphrase. There’s a guy who says “I’ll bring them bars right back!” at the end of every rhyme, and then the whole crowd shouts it. It is lazy. You only get three minutes [per round] at most, so if you’re going to waste 20 or 30 seconds on doing a catchphrase… I’ve done stuff like that, but only to take the piss.

Are the rhymes always acapella, or is there any scope for doing them with beats?

That’s only on the odd occasion, when we’re trying something out. There used to be, back with 8 Mile and stuff like that, but there’s less chance you’ll flop if you’re off the beat, because acapella you haven’t really got to keep up with anything, it’s all in your own time.

How does the judging work? What are you being judged on?

It depends on the individual, but usually there’s a way of judging it in terms of punch count. With every punchline you hit, or every good metaphor, they can put a mark and tally them up. But I don’t think that’s fair, because one punch could really overtake a whole battle. As soon as you bring something quite personal up about someone, or expose them for something, you’ve won really. Unless they expose you back, or they flip it; that’s the only way you can get out of that situation.

After the Mark Grist versus Blizzard video, the other moment where rap battling went into the public consciousness was with the whole James Arthur debacle. What was your take on that? Was he unfairly treated, or was he an idiot?

At the end of the day, a person in his position shouldn’t be homophobic, really. He can’t do it. That’s what happens when you’re in the mainstream. Whatever we do in Don’t Flop, we’re not at that level, so anything goes. There’s been worse things than homophobia brought up in Don’t Flop.

Some of your own punchlines can sound quite homophobic. As a gay man, should I be concerned?

No, not at all. I’m not homophobic in the slightest. In battles, I don’t feel half of what I say towards someone. It’s just lyrics. It’s just for the crowd reaction. All of us have an understanding at Don’t Flop. There is no homophobia. None of us are homophobic. There’s even a gay battler.

I’ve had loads of racism, and I’ve been really racist in my battles before, as well. I’ve said some really, really bad things. At an event in Birmingham, I went against a mixed race lad, and I said a few things that were quite touching the line. A guy came up to me afterwards and said, you need to watch what you’re fucking saying, and he had a go at me. But this mixed race lad had gone against a black guy before, and used loads of racism towards him. So it was to make the point of: if you’re so comfortable having a go at a black guy, and you’re mixed race, and I’m mixed race myself, then I’ll have a go at you about that.

But in terms of homophobia, one of the battlers, one of our friends, came out about being gay. Then one of the biggest battlers said as long as this gay guy can battle, he’s not battling any more. So Don’t Flop said, fine, don’t battle then. And this battler who’s gay, he isn’t a big battler, he doesn’t get many views, but at the end of the day it’s about the principle. He still battles now, all the time. There’s no actual homophobia or racism, it’s just…

Perhaps it’s like watching a boxing match. You enjoy the match, but you don’t go home and start punching people.

Sometimes, it can go over the top. Two years ago, a lad was against a guy from Liverpool, and he said something about Rhys Jones, the little boy that got killed. That opened up the question of where the line is drawn, because he definitely understood after that. He got death threats, and he still gets death threats now. He can’t really battle outside his city any more. But if you see something in the news, it’s definitely going to get brought up. It’s actually clichéd to say something about Jimmy Savile now. It’s just like: yeah, boring, we’ve heard it before.

Your EP Flash Floods was released last year. In terms of your music making, what are you up to now?

I’m recording Flash Floods Volume 2 at the moment, and I’m looking to feature some people from Nottingham; I’m not quite sure who yet. I’m hoping to drop it on March 8th, as Don’t Flop Nottingham is on March 7th & 8th.

The tryouts on March 7th will be a night time event, and there are some big old school Nottingham hip hop people on there, like Karizma. Some of the other ones are kind of grimey: there’s A9, and a really quirky guy called Evans who I found myself. Then Kane Ashmore is going against Sam Moore; they’re doing an acoustic guitar battle. It’s gonna be good. I’m really, really looking forward to having somebody else from Notts as part of the league.

Through Don’t Flop, I’ve found out that we’ve got a big scene in Nottingham.  There’s a lot more rappers in Nottingham than in other places, where they don’t get the kind of views, and the buzz, that the Nottingham MCs do. The Nottingham buzz that’s there now, they’re all the younger MCs. This new generation are all really tight, and they all do music together.

I do think Nottingham as a whole has changed. It used to be a lot more ghetto, back in the day. There’s nothing much happening now, whereas [when I started out] it was just constant, absolute dramas, guns everywhere. No one really did clashes or battles, because it would have just turned into trouble.

Maybe social media has helped to heal the beefs. You’ve got to be friendly with lots of people, and you have to support each other, because that’s the way it works; that’s how you get your views.

Yeah, back when we used to do our music, we didn’t have YouTube or Facebook or anything like that. I think you’re right: social networking probably has stopped them… but you wouldn’t think that, with the comments that people can leave!

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