I have watched the 1OUTS rap battle video 2SHAE VS SNIPES, so many times. I’ve watched and re-watched it with old friends. I’ve shown it to new friends from different parts of Australia and the world. A friend from Brisbane recently noted that every time my group of friends from Melbourne hang out, the Snipes video comes up. She was rolling her eyes but could not deny. It is too delicious. And I can’t get it out of my head. It lives there like a poem is supposed to. This is what makes it a poem.

The rap battle as an artform has evolved from its charming and comparatively very gentle origins in nineteen-eighties’ working class, urban black America. In its modern form—the 1OUTS video was filmed in August 2012, so I’m thinking about the 2010s, but by all accounts things haven’t much changed—there are three rounds of about a minute each where the rappers have the floor which they use to lyrically abuse each other (and each other’s girlfriends). The winner is declared by a panel of some kind, or maybe the crowd.

The modern rap battle has links to stand-up comedy—it’s vulnerable in the way of stand-up—and specifically to ‘roasting’ or, in Australian parlance, sledging. The lack of music also connects it to slam poetry. Like slam, it has an epic performativity that aims to have the audience spellbound at the lyrical beauty of the wordplay and the pure, uninhibited delivery. It has almost nothing to do with music you would hear on the radio. It has more in common with avant garde poetry than pop music.

*

2SHAE VS SNIPES depicts a rap battle between two young men at Sunshine, Melbourne, with a crowd of spectators, a host, a camera crew, a dog or two, and sponsors. It is working class suburbia: there are people in hoodies, flannelette, caps (American) and sunglasses standing around in a park. It is winter. The trees by the road in the background are bare. Cars go past, obeying the traffic laws. People hold smartphones. Their interest is not quite reverence, but one feels the day in question is nonetheless significant to them. It is where they have gone on their day off work, possibly with a hangover. The crowd is mostly young. I would guess that most of them identify as outsiders.

The video begins with loud, alarm-like guitar and the revving of stock-sound-FX car engines as various sponsors’ logos flash across the screen. The camera opens on Barry Bonza, representing 1OUTS and reffing the battle, a Kiwi dude in a grey hoodie who greets us:

‘Whaddup?? … 1OUTS what?’ he calls, and the crowd responds in unison: ‘CUTS LIKE A KNIFE!’

The video is memorable mainly for the rapper Snipes, whose performance is—by the standards of the genre—a complete disaster. He ‘chokes out’. And he has been ridiculed for his failure by thousands of commenters and retweeters around the globe.

Recently, the artist Tom O’Hearn has boasted that he got ‘good at drawing really, really badly’. Badness as goodness is a titillating paradox. There is a history of enjoying bad art (sometimes called outsider art, though not all outsider art is technically ‘bad’), which fetishises the different, the spooky, the ugly, the cutely, naively weird. We like this art, I think, because it reminds us of children’s drawings, and we love children. It is common to say, as O’Hearn does, that children are naturally great artists: ‘Real little kids will just let rip and it’s awesome’. ‘Awesome’ is an important word. Art made by children inspires awe because they are pretty uninhibited, which is appealing to generally inhibited people.

When it comes to bad poetry, however, we have this confidence that we can name it as bad and ridicule it mercilessly. Our experience of naivety in poetry is one of condescension. This is because, I think, we associate ‘bad poetry’ with teenagehood, which is a time we generally dislike to remember, and also teenagers tend to be rude and cruel to adults, and lack an ability to charm us. Snipes’s failure is very teenager-ish. His preoccupation, or the subtext of his rap identity, is adolescent. He is very good at being very bad at rapping. So, how can we look at Snipes with awe?

Avant-garde poetry knows this: we use language sloppily, umming and ahhing, faltering, trailing off— saying nothing, but in that saying-nothing revealing something, thinking through, trying. This is the lifeblood of language. It is in this sense that Snipes’s rap, a massive flop, is exciting. Through various modes of attack, Snipes’ rap (unintentionally, sure) makes an argument for the value of a blunt object over a sharp one.

A lot of Australian art is parodic. Australian parody ostensibly ‘cuts like a knife’ by ‘taking the piss’, but its ‘cutting’ effect on the culture is more like that of a warm spa bath— even completely pastoral at the worst of times. In the words of rock group GANGgajang, we ‘Laugh and think, this is Australia.’

I grew up on The Chaser’s War On Everything, a key Australian text of the 2000s. To me, it exemplifies this country’s taste for parody that ‘shines a light’ on the ‘absurdity’ of the way things are, and from this light-shining attains its value. And yet nothing changes: art like this is an ineffective tool for smashing the colony, for disrupting the influence of ongoing colonialism (of America, of global capitalism). That’s the point.

There is a lethargic approach to life and art here, whose origins I’m not going to try and unearth, but which I will try to avoid doing as I consider 2SHAE VS SNIPES, as it is distinctly and deliberately unproductive. Or it’s productive in that it ensures things stay the same. There’s no wow-factor, no awe, in this mode of reading. It’s content, ho-hum.

*

‘I’m from Brooklyn,’ Snipes memorably declares in the fourth line of his first verse. Growing up in Brooklyn, a suburb in the west of Melbourne, Snipes listened to rap. He listened to rap that came all the way from Brooklyn. And yet he lived … in Brooklyn. I have no doubt it felt important to the young Snipes that he should be connected to his gods of American rap by those two all-important syllables. Brook-lyn. All the danger and precarity, how they fight to survive, how they come out on top, what they go through. These men who against all odds make ‘the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.’ And Snipes does wear a Yankee hat into battle.

The bravado of American rap speaks to young Australians of my generation. All millennials? It is one of the more powerful mythologies we grew up with, and Snipes in his Yankee hat is evidence of that mythology’s influence. I’m talking about the 2000s and I’m talking about my generation. I’m talking about Melbourne, which is where I am from, but it applies to most cities in the Anglophone world. (I’m also talking about the 1990s, the 2010s, maybe the 2020s, and maybe most of the world.) If you were enough of an outcast, rap music spoke to you, seemed to speak a secret language just for you. And so you are imagining yourself as the rapper, perhaps actually being the rapper, unironically and unabashedly, rapping in front of the mirror, practising, probably singing the n-word, probably not batting an eyelash, imagining your future success looking back on the grind of your childhood, your adolescence. And so, Brooklyn rap is reborn in the body of Snipes in Melbourne’s west.

In the process, he exemplifies something about the Australian character [Australian culture??], and its tendency toward making a bad copy of that which travels here from afar. If anthropophagy (cannibalising i.e. digesting imperial culture) is a way of asserting independence over imperial forces, then the secret power of Snipes’ flop is the complete mockery and destruction of American rap—asserting the dominance of Australian culture’s central void, which swallows Jay Z and the Yankee hat up whole. It is a shocking performance. It takes the presumed power of anthropophagic artmaking to an extreme.

*

But! I will come back to the void. First, let’s look at his opponent, who rates a mention, at least to demonstrate a successful example of the rap battle form—in other words, a bad, basic copy. 2Shae goes in red hot. And he’s a real piece of shit, if we are to take the speaker of the poem to be aligned with the poet himself. I mean the rap battler, jumping out of his own skin, really isn’t himself though, but a heightened, hulk-ified version. Some people call this ‘braggadocio’. It’s cock fighting, it’s baroque bullshit.

If my dog had a face like yours,
I’d shave its fucking arse
and teach it to walk backwards

The stupid non sequitur of this opening tells us something about the poet. 2Shae is interested in good lines, not cohesive stanzas, not really narrative. The figure of the dog doesn’t come back, but like most other invocations in the piece are as if plucked from an ether bearing offensive, violent, somewhat predictable shit which the rapper rearranges in innovative fashion.

What are you gonna do, cunt?
I bet ya he’ll say I’m on some gaaaaaay shit
Yo, I’m so ill I grew up in a sick bay
I think fucktard here just got it around the other way Cos he’s just basic

Looking at this longer chunk alongside the first, we can see that features of the genre include: direct address and the ‘I’; offensive language, slurs, etc; self-referentiality regarding the battle/construction of his own and his opponents’ lines; rhyme (unclean, not in couplets, not ‘clever’, etc); lack of beat (the lines just spit into the void, pure unbridled energy); theatrical line delivery, random change in tempo, eg he slows down on ‘gay shit’ and then snaps back into rapid fire. There is no music or musicality. It’s jazzy. It seems like a mess. But, as with free verse poetry, there are no rules, yet there are kind of unspeakable rules or limits. Free verse poetry tends to sound like free verse poetry. Anything goes, but each round has a limit, one minute.

2Shae is confident and has true passion for his art. And while he might, according to his foe, ‘look like a meth head’ (‘What’s wrong with that?’ someone calls out) he has a way with words. 2Shae is gross and gaudy, spitting a wild labyrinth of insults and positive self-talk. Occasionally, he demonstrates enjoyable linguistic prowess. My favourite line is a rare moment of cuteness in rhyme: ‘You’re about as threatening as a bunch of daffodils / and that’s for real’. He boasts, ‘I have the ability to attract ravage fools with savage tools so I couldn’t give a crap about attacking tactical,’ summing up his brutish attitude and concealing, with a wink, the truly rococo finery of his rhyme, turning ‘ravage’ into an adjective and thereby in fact ‘attacking tactical.’ He is a confident player of the English language—and the Australian accent, which is so strong at times it’s hard to understand. He is a happy man.

As readers who want for a world with less violence and prejudice in it, 2Shae’s success is his major failing. While his verse ‘cut[s] like a knife’, it is not radical. He didn’t change anything; not in form, not in politics. But he did feel good, and is Australian in this way. Enjoying a bit of fun in the park, showing off to his friends, and making a slight, respectful mess of American aesthetics.

*

Snipes goes in cocky:

I’m sorry little kids but imma kill a
clown today I could say bullets are
gonna spray I’m from Brooklyn,
that’s all right.

It is at this precipice the rap battle becomes interesting. These four lines—or let’s say the first three—are fine. The slowness of their delivery sets up a mystique after 2Shae’s need for speed. The invocation of children ironically nods to the vulgar and debauched adult space we find ourselves in, as well as pointing, perhaps unintentionally, to the speaker’s fixation on his childhood and adolescent relationship to rap music. His childhood-self is watching on, rapt.

Death—killing the rap battler’s foe—is par for the course in the 1OUTS scene, and central to Snipes’ failed rap. To destroy your opponent with the power of your words is the dream of this artform, and the fantasies of each rap ranges from humiliation to straight up murder. Imma is a conjunction of the four words ‘I am going to’. It comes from Black American English and is common in rap music, which is how Snipes knows about it. He has devoured this linguistic tic whole, and it is titillating to hear it when he spits it up like a baby bird. 2Shae doesn’t use imma while Snipes uses it three times, mangling it deliciously.

The third line is key to Snipes’ style, his subjunctive mood: ‘I could say bullets are gonna spray.’ He is flirtatious, coy, ultimately unwilling to do the dirty, always living in the if, drawing attention to the poetics of the rap battle. I could say bullets are gonna spray, but I’d be lying: words are gonna spray. Spray? Is it that he’s too honest to rap battle properly, too self-aware? He knows this art is ridiculous, especially here. This hesitation strands him at the final line, the precipice, ‘I’m from Brooklyn, that’s all right.’

He shrugs out his truth: ‘I’m from Brooklyn.’ He shrugs out another truth: ‘that’s all right.’ It’s not good or bad. It just is. It’s a very janky line, poetically, which we’ll see a lot of as the battle wears on, and this jankiness is both very funny and poetically interesting. Unless he was going for the element of surprise, he should have said ‘OK,’ not ‘all right.’ In fact, I think he surprised himself. Is he really from Brooklyn? Is this fraud? Is this whole scene just some joke? As if in response to this crisis, things come crashing down. It is like in the movies, when the hero rushes toward the cliff edge and those two or three stones kick over it, and we watch them fall into the river below. The rest of the movie is Snipes fighting for his life.

*As the (fairly amusing) Genius.com annotation notes, the following line, which forms the title of this essay, is the first example of Snipes’ ‘now iconic motif’: ‘But, let me just say this.’ Is there a comma, an ellipsis, or an exclamation mark? There is always a pause after the ‘but’, the ‘but’ used as a stall while he struggles to remember what he was meant to say. It is such an important ‘but’, so full of potential. And the pause it offers, the calming pause of a comma, the shocking aftermath of an exclamation, pausing for its echo, an ellipsis plotting out the next step, creating suspense. The audience is agasp/aghast.

It is a ‘but’ like a ‘well,’ a ‘so’, an ‘allora’. Unlike these words, ‘but’ is combative, a rebuttal. It is the ‘but’ of the outcast hero about to find his voice. On a precipice, trying to push back against all the forces tempting and pushing him over. It is the ‘but’ that keeps the poet alive, still breathing, still able to respond. A ‘but’ like a butt, a ‘blunt object’ pushing the poem open. Snipes is dreaming in the ‘but’ of a bigger more powerful version of himself, a future poet who will know just what to say. The ‘but’ that holds the possibility of being the rapper, for real. ‘I’m from Brooklyn; that’s all right’ echoes uselessly. I’m from Brooklyn, but 

And ‘let me just say this’ is pure placeholder, a gaudy extension of the ‘but’. But, through repetition, it becomes profound. It’s a prayer to the poetry gods, to a past and future self, ‘let me say this.’ Let me speak, give me my powers that I need to really live. The desire for poetry has never been so keenly felt by man.

Snipes needs a powerup because he lacks imagination. Rap battle as a form, from what I have seen, and despite its main function literally being innovation, lacks imagination. In pursuing extremes of abjection and lyrical wow-factor, its ultimate effect is flat, dull, boring. No: Snipes doesn’t lack imagination—he is overwhelmed by it. His ‘but’, which embodies his failure at the abjection/shock value thing, represents a radical break in the rap battle as a form which reifies ‘Australian’ values.

But, lemme just say I like to get close and personal … with a razor-sharp object
But! Lemme just say this: I’m not gonna stab you in the heart
What I’m gonna do is grab a pen, stab you in the neck, puncture your lungs Then slam a blunt object into your stomach … [forgetting lines] fuck!
Blunt object into your stomach … and cause internal bleeding
Now, before you die, lemme just say this
The reason I call myself Snipes is because I take my time to rhyme
I’m not complicated but I’m like a sniper
I aim straight for the heart or the head, I’m straight and direct
I might hide 2 k’s that way
You’ll know when I hit you as soon as you hit… the ground

The complete muddle of this fantasy is riveting. The lack of rhyme, while unintentional, makes this passage seem stoic and severe compared with 2Shae. While claiming to be a sniper ‘straight and direct’—his fantasies drift off track. He both stabs from up close (first?) and shoots from afar (second, or just generally?). He has a razor-sharp object and a blunt object and a pen. He seems to prefer the blunt object. He aims for the heart or the head. Not the heart but then yeah, fuck it, he’ll go for the heart. He is cocksure, and yet ‘hide[s] 2 k’s that way.’ He takes his time to rhyme, and yet he doesn’t rhyme. He does take his time, punctuating his lines with oddly-shaped pauses and a roving intonation: ‘as soon as you hit … the ground.’

Snipes’s twists and turns suggest an ambivalent young man on the precipice of desiring poetry, living in the ‘or’, the ‘if’, and the big ‘but’ of poetry before it is poetry, as poetry. From Poetry As Experience by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe: ‘The poem’s not-wanting-to-say does not want not to say. A poem wants to say; indeed, it is nothing but pure wanting-to-say.’ Snipes wants to rap, he wants to kill, he wants to be the king. But he can’t complete the act (he doesn’t want to). The paradoxes that stack up in his verse reveal the excess of desire, desire for poetry, and desire for a future self who can speak. But his failure to find that future self-reveals a truer desire—that he doesn’t want to speak in this format. He wants something beyond the tropes and embarrassment of spitting shit bars in a public park.

Snipes’ failure achieves a total destruction of the form. Poetry in his hands is this open thing, this thing which creates time, breath, sound and silence: possibility. The absolute poem, which this is not, which does not exist. The sublime failure of Snipes’s performance is, for me, a triumphant evocation of what Poetry is, or wants to be. An exceptionally blunt object, a constant attempt to push toward something new.

In its silences, the verse points toward a young man’s dream. This improbable dream—to be reborn American and from Brooklyn—is the dream of young Australians of my generation. Fools and fuckups! Snipes’s inability to be the Brooklyn rapper born in Melbourne’s inner west provides an opening for thinking about Australia as a kind of failed copy of first England, then America. Failure, badness, is precisely an interesting category for thinking about Australia. After all, what is this Australia we are writing about, apart from a void?

What is the ‘this’ of ‘Let me just say this’? I suppose I have been positing that ‘this’ is poetry, as well as a future self that the present Snipes can’t quite attain. But digging further, it’s kind of like asking ‘Can I ask you a question?’ when, yeah, you already did. You said ‘this’. In this way it collapses back onto itself, pure utterance. As in, ‘this’ is nothing. A void, as in, this is Australia.

Reading Snipes, this poet of total failure, without taking the piss, with awe, is to look for his true hidden power/meaning. Snipes is a young man reaching for something. His performance is that reaching/searching/trying. This is a brave thing to do, but especially brave in an Australian art and culture context where so much is parody, parody of an idea, ‘Australia’, which at heart is void and null, a legal fiction, a bloody joke. The poetry of Snipes’s rap—especially in contrast with the perfect nihilism braggadocio of 2Shae’s (‘who da baddest?’) performance of Australian evil—is a positive hole. We applaud his failure to succeed as a battle rapper. Its emptiness, built upon the emptiness of ‘Australia’, equals possibility. In this way he contributes to the history of Australian art.

love Snipes. And Snipes loves life. He loves to rap, despite everything. He wants to build a world because he hates the one he lives in, and so looks to rap (poetry). This might not be an inherently radical gesture, but his failure to properly conceive that world with his words creates an exultant absence that disrupts its context and form, and ultimately creates more world than any ‘successful’ poem or rap. An extremely blunt object, it cuts so much deeper than a knife.

Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan is a poet and co-director of Sick Leave. His chapbook ‘Dear Eileen,’ was published by Puncher and Wattman as part of the Slow Loris series.

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