There was a time when Monday Night Mic Fights seemed unstoppable. No matter how many venues kicked the weekly event out, no matter how much Charlotte tried to make hip-hop a dirty word, no matter how much the press ignored it, it rose like a phoenix and pressed on for more than 10 years. This summer, it ended, fading away quietly without the fanfare befitting an institution that touched so many lives over the years.
Mic Fights began in 2003 on Montford Drive at a place called The Room (now bulldozed), bringing grimy New York-style battle rap to a city then known as "Crunkville," where bling rap and Lil' Jon-type anthems were all anyone expected from Charlotte. Creator Eric Brayman had seen a void of true school hip-hop and sought to create a refuge for lyricists, DJs and hip-hop purists.
"Eric and I mainly just wanted some good music to listen to," says Mike Morelli, owner of The Room. "We never thought that Mondays would get as popular as they eventually became." Attendance grew quickly at what began as "Microphone Mondays." It was a year after the movie 8 Mile was released, and every rapper who touched the stage was eager to battle the next. Sometimes audience members came with camping chairs, pulled them up in front of the stage and placed bets on who would win.
An old Yelp review online reiterates that competitive spirit: "It is difficult to gain respect on the mic here, you have to build a repertoire for yourself. A slip of the tongue and another brother in the battle will snatch the microphone from your tight grip without hesitation."
Sometimes rappers would come onstage with a 30-person entourage, only to be embarrassed by the undisputed Mic Fights champion, Wolly Vinyl. Things could get aggressive, and Wolly did as much peacemaking offstage as ego-destroying onstage. As much amends as he made and as dedicated as all the staff and regulars were keeping harmony, violence would eventually be The Room's undoing.
One Monday night, a man was shot and killed in the parking lot. "He was never in the club and the person that shot him was never in the club," says Morelli, "but I had to listen to everyone say that it was because of hip-hop. It wasn't."
The Room was forced to close, and Mic Fights began a nomadic journey across the city, squatting in venues until it was asked to leave. "Apostrophe Lounge was the worst," says Brayman. "They made it clear our crowd wasn't the kind of people they wanted in their building. Like they were too good for the underground heads."
No matter where the night ended up though, the crowd followed like a band of orphaned children sticking together at all costs. The commitment was the stuff legends are made of. A regular MC once got a bottle broken across his face by a battle opponent he embarrassed. The next week, he was back onstage, with bandages, to rap.
"You knew who had heart and staying power," says David "Shadow" Rea, a rapper and regular.
"It was the most important thing in my life until my child was born," rapper Ike Turnah says. "It was my glory days. A good 45 percent of who I am today came from there."
"It was familyhood," says Mic Fights staff member Kevin Womack. "The one time a week when nothing else mattered."
"I was there!" says Jimmy Hill, a regular. "I was there no matter what."
Two years and seven more venue changes later, Mic Fights finally found a home at The Graduate in Plaza Midwood (now Akahana Asian Bistro). The tribe had grown older and many were beginning to see career opportunities coming from their efforts on the scene. "I remember there was a roundtable hip-hop community leaders would sit at early in the night and hatch plans to take over the city," says Justin Aswell, founder of Knocturnal.
"The battles stopped," Brayman says, "but the family was cementing its bond to move forward to the next chapters."
Anita Frazee, who managed The Graduate, says she was immediately struck by the camaraderie. "You think these are hip-hop battle kids, they're gonna be stand-offish, but they were so welcoming to everyone. There was no pretense, no cliques. No beefs."
Artists who were gaining fame outside the city played showcases for free, and one night Parrish Smith of EPMD showed up for an impromptu performance. "I'd never seen anything like that," Womack says. "People were packed shoulder to shoulder, losing their minds".
Mic Fights would eventually be forced to move one last time when The Graduate closed. Its final home was Crown Station, where it established a record of community service, collecting donations for children and the underprivileged. It eventually celebrated its 10-year anniversary in May 2013.
I asked Brayman why he kept doing Mic Fights through so many headaches. His response: "After so many years, it felt like less an event and more a public service for local MCs honing their craft."
When I asked everyone I interviewed for this article what the event meant to them, their answers had to do more with friendships and community than with their careers. All recognized the doors it broke down, though, and the lasting impact it had on the city. "Every venue wants to book hip-hop now," says Aswell. "It was a foundation for everything we do now in Charlotte."
"Everything we did inspired these kids today," says MC Sly, a former Mic Fights fixture. "They may not even know it, but we paved the way for the next generation."
Brayman says he recognized a new era was here and that's when he decided to end the event he'd worked tirelessly for. "There are more and more places for rappers to go and perform now," he says. "There are other avenues to get exposure. I also think the artists' expectations changed. They get followers on Twitter and YouTube and in their head, they're instant stars and don't want to be bothered with proving themselves in a battle or contributing to a grassroots type of scene. It just wasn't the same anymore. Everything has a shelf life."