Buttonpush: The Battle for Sound System Supremacy
About a month ago, two of hip-hop’s biggest producers surprised fans by live streaming a friendly, impromptu competition. For nearly three hours, Swizz Beats and Just Blaze — who have respectively produced hits from Jay-Z, DMX, Beyonce and more — engaged in a battle of the beats, taking songs they previously produced and constructing new beats over them in real time. Reminiscent of hip-hop’s formative years, the event has already been hailed as one of the year’s best moments in music, and has set the stage for future battles between well-known producers.
With Saturday’s upcoming Buttonpush Beat Battle, Stacy D. Smith — better known as the intrepid emcee Reach (and to some by his producer handle, d’Jawnz) — aims to bolster Kansas City’s hip-hop culture by showcasing a few of its architects. “Producers are the hidden figures of the hip-hop world, and their work is largely cultivated in obscurity,” he said. “A producer’s end product is almost never consumer-facing. Our goal is to reimagine that paradigm and prop them up in the same way we do conventional performance artists, like the emcee and the DJ.” Buttonpush was originally conceived as a component of Versus, an annual battle of area emcees. The series was retired in 2011. Five years later, Reach resurrected the beat battle as its own entity, taking up residency at miniBar roughly every other month. This new version of Buttonpush would pit a handful of producers against one another, as well as highlight one producer and one musical act in a featured set. The fourth battle, coming up this weekend, is the biggest yet. For this month, the event will relocate from its home at miniBar to the roomier and boomier recordBar. This will allow 16 producers to go head-to-head in a single-elimination beat battle, comprised of four rounds. The contest will be judged by a panel of five, which includes some of the area’s top producers, emcees and instrumentalists. So, what exactly does a beat battle entail? “Imagine a rap battle with two verbal pugilists on the stage. Now, subtract the posturing and lyrics, and replace them with high-energy beats blaring through a PA system approaching its limits,” Reach said. “Each producer will take turns playing one of their musical creations; they're dueling with sound. Think of that iconic image of Aerosmith and Run DMC battling each other for sound system supremacy, and that's a snapshot of what you'll see.” Reach emphasizes that this is a competition in the strictest sense, not a showcase or an opportunity to shop beats to artists. He encourages producers to bring their most aggressive, energetic beats to the table. “You’re trying to one-up the next producer. This’ll require you to provoke the rawest reactions possible from the judging panel,” he said. “Beat battles aren’t soliciting cool points — they’re shoving you off your stool, destroying your chill and forcing you into face-mangling contortions.” The hope is that this will draw attention to these integral hip-hop sound selectors, shying away from the emcees and DJs who often take center stage, but also opening the door for collaboration. “If we can help producers build a platform that adds visibility to one of the culture’s lesser known aspects, we’ll have done the local beat scene and those within it a great service,” Reach said. “Many of these producers would remain in the shadows if not for this event, and we’re aiding emcees by introducing them to the production talent right in their backyard. Artists are constantly shopping for beats. What better referral program is there than seeing and hearing the works of their peers in real time?” Tickets for this weekend’s installment of Buttonpush are available here. And hear a Spotify playlist curated by Reach, comprised of songs from producers who have influenced him: Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, Jake One, Khrysis and No I.D.: —Michelle Bacon writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge, plays drums with Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds, bass for Heidi Gluck & the Pony Show, and whoever else asks. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @michelleobacon.