As the soft blue stage lights abruptly changed to a spotlight, the standing room only crowd hummed with anticipation Friday night. Beneath the light, the ear-wrenching sound of a record scratch echoed through the suddenly silent crowd.
Rabbi Darkside confidently grabbed the microphone in front of him and questioned, “Where Brooklyn At?” as DJ Esquire reverberated the words of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. through the speakers. The two were accompanied by a trumpet player and vocalist who ad-libbed and improvised as Darkside beat boxed and rapped about “notebooks, sketchbooks, wine bottles and hymns.”
“That looked and sounded like Brooklyn to me,” Wes Jackson, executive director of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival told the four-person ensemble on stage almost five minutes later.
Friday night, 83 musicians composing 15 individual and group acts gathered at The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on the corner of Charlton and Varick Streets in Manhattan to compete in the Brooklyn Battle. In its fourth year, the event, put on by WNYC and WQXR, draws musical acts from each of New York City’s five boroughs to compete against each other to be crowned the best emerging artist. The goal is to showcase “an eclectic mix of innovative talent,” according to the event’s website
Within moments, the stage lights once again awakened. Seated in a semi-circle towards the rear of the stage were three women in black ball gowns carefully holding string instruments.
At their feet sat one man with a wooden flute, another with a sitar and a third with two drums placed under his palms, which were freshly covered with baby powder. All were dressed in traditional Indian clothing.
The Indian classical instruments and western classical instruments of the pan-global ensemble Church of Betty Globestra melded together through harmonies sung in Hebrew. Afterwards, Jackson announced, “This band can be Brooklyn too.”
Chris Rael, founder of the ensemble, agreed. “Brooklyn is one of the most eclectic and multicultural places in the universe,” he said.
The idea of bringing together artists of different genres is what inspired Terrance McKnight, a host of the Saturday night radio show All Ears With Terrance McKnight on WQXR and emcee for the night, to create The Battle of the Boroughs, he said.
Along with borough bragging rights, the winner of Friday’s Brooklyn Battle will go on to compete at the Ultimate Battle against the winner of each borough battle. The winner of that competition will receive a concert at The Greene Space, a professional recording session, a Tekserve package that includes iPods, a photo shoot and a music video shoot, and finally the opportunity to perform at Amateur Night at the Apollo, Mallika Dattatreya, publicist for New York Public Radio, said.
The artists that performed were as wide-ranging as the borough itself. The styles of the competitors ranged from “Creative R&B Pop” and “Future Rock,” to “Avant-Pop, 20th Century Art Song,” and “Hip-Hop, Afrobeat, Jazz,” according to the event’s website.
When the first act, Outernational, took the stage, the band’s lead singer, Leo Mintek, proclaimed through eardrum-piercing rock music, “This is for all the sincere punks that think we can still change the world!”
After the performance, Mintek explained what he called the band’s “radical message” as pictured on his drummer’s T-shirt by a man in a suit wearing a sombrero with a bandana tied to cover his face.
“We are all illegals,” he said.
The Trevor Wilson and Vocal Ensemble, comprised of five singers, a guitar and a handsaw played with a violin bow performed what Trevor Wilson, the band’s leader, called an “exorcism of something.”
Following the eerie composition of the saw and five-part harmony, John Schaefer, host of the WNYC show Soundcheck and commentator for the evening, exclaimed, “Well, it’s freak folk from Brooklyn!”
The group Dollshot from Boerum Hill began its set with an improvisation solo on the tenor saxophone. In her childlike falsetto, singer Rosalie Kaplan cautioned, “Things aren’t what they seem to be.”
In the next few minutes, the performance would transition from “an old school ballad and journey to an angular, dark place,” Schaefer remarked.
That dark place left the small stage, as Reverend Yolanda appeared bedazzled in sequins, adorned with oversized pin curls and fashioned in full-blown drag. With outstretched arms, she told the crowd, “I am where the divine masculine meets the divine feminine in the arms of love.”
After singing about love and light in a twang resembling that of a southern preacher, she announced, “Here I am! The big old gay, drag queen, reverend!”
Lee Goldblatt, who said he came to the battle because he lives down the block, said Yolanda was his favorite performer.
“It was deep, it was Gospel,” he said. “Makes me feel like I’m at jazz fest in New Orleans.”
The voting system for the battle closed at 11:30 p.m. on Friday. The top five finalist for the Brooklyn Battle were announced Monday: Afr0-Dub band Super Fi Hi, folk Rrock/Americana band Victor V. Gurbo, hip-hop, Afro-beat and jazz band Yes Noyes, Boerum Hill band Dollshot, and Progressive Rock band The Hsu-Nami are all battling to represent the borough. The winners, who will go on to perform in the Ultimate Battle on June 21, will be announced on Feb. 11 at noon.
Online voting for the best band will continue until Sunday Feb. 10 at 11:59 p.m. Videos of the five performances are available on The Greene Space website.
Regardless of the outcome, Jeremy Clemons, bandleader of the group Soul Understated that performed at the event, said it was good that people from Brooklyn were able to get together and have a good time.
“Take music out, and you might have a miserable life,” he said. “Music is the thing that keeps us together.”