On the Come Up(6)

“Yep! She gon’ kill it too,” Aunt Pooh says.

“A’ight,” the taller one, Frank, says, waving the wand around us. “Carrying the torch for Law, huh?”

Not really. More like making my own torch and carrying it. I say, “Yeah,” though, because that’s what I’m supposed to say. It’s part of being royalty.

Reggie motions us through. “May the force beam you up, Scotty.” He points at my hoodie, then does the Vulcan salute.

How the hell do you confuse Star Trek and Star Wars? How? Unfortunately to some people in the Garden it’s “nerd shit,” or as some fool at the swap meet said, “white shit.”

Folks need to get their space opera life right.

We go inside. As usual it’s mostly guys in here, but I see a few girls too (which is reflective of the small ratio of women to men in hip-hop, which is total misogynistic fuckery, but anyway . . .). There are kids who look like they came straight from Garden Heights High, folks who look like they were alive when Biggie and Tupac were around, and old heads who look like they’ve been coming to the Ring since the Kangol hats and shell-toe Adidas days. Weed and cigarette smoke linger in the air, and everybody crowds around the boxing ring in the center.

Aunt Pooh finds us a spot beside the Ring. “Kick in the Door,” by Notorious B.I.G., plays above all of the chatter. The bass pounds the floor like an earthquake, and B.I.G.’s voice seems to fill up the entire gym.

A few seconds of Biggie makes me forget everything else. “That flow though!”

“That shit is fire,” Aunt Pooh says.

“Fire? That shit is legendary! Biggie single-handedly proves that delivery is key. Everything isn’t an exact rhyme, but it works. He made ‘Jesus’ and ‘penis’ rhyme! C’mon! ‘Jesus’ and ‘penis.’” Okay, it’s probably offensive if you’re Jesus, but still. Legendary.

“A’ight, a’ight.” Aunt Pooh laughs. “I hear you.”

I nod along, soaking up every line. Aunt Pooh watches me with a smile, making that scar on her cheek from that time she got stabbed look like a dimple. Hip-hop’s addictive, and Aunt Pooh first got me hooked. When I was eight, she played Nas’s Illmatic for me and said, “This dude will change your life with a few lines.”

He did. Nothing’s been the same since Nas told me the world was mine. Old as that album was back then, it was like waking up after being asleep my whole life. It was damn near spiritual.

I fiend for that feeling. It’s the reason I rap.

There’s a commotion near the doors. This guy with short dreadlocks makes his way through the crowd, and people give him dap along the way. Dee-Nice, aka one of the best-known rappers from the Ring. All of his battles went viral. He recently retired from battle rapping. Funny he’d retire from anything, young as he is. He graduated from Midtown last year.

“Yo, did you hear?” Aunt Pooh asks. “Ol’ boy just got a record deal.”

“For real?”

“Yep. Seven figures, up front.”

Goddamn. No wonder he retired. A million-dollar deal? Not just that, but someone from the Garden got a million-dollar deal?

The music fades out, and the lights dim. A spotlight shines directly on Hype, and the cheers start.

“Let’s get ready to battle!” Hype says, like this really is a boxing match. “For our first battle, in this corner we got M-Dot!”

This short, tatted guy climbs into the Ring to a mix of cheers and boos.

“And in this corner, we got Ms. Tique!” Hype says.

I scream loud as this dark-skinned girl with hoop earrings and a short curly cut climbs into the Ring. Ms. Tique is around Trey’s age, but she spits like an old soul, as if she’s lived a couple of lifetimes and didn’t like either one of them shits.

She’s goals to the highest degree.

Hype introduces the judges. There’s Mr. Jimmy himself, Dee-Nice, and CZ, an undefeated Ring champion.

Hype flips a coin, and Ms. Tique wins it. She lets M-Dot go first. The beat starts up. “A Tale of Two Citiez,” by J. Cole.

The gym goes nuts, but me? I watch the Ring. M-Dot paces, and Ms. Tique keeps her eyes on him like a predator watching prey. Even when M-Dot goes at her, she doesn’t flinch, doesn’t react, just stares at him like she knows she’s gonna destroy him.

It’s a thing of beauty.

He has some good lines. His flow is okay. But when it’s Ms. Tique’s turn, she hits him with punch lines that give me goose bumps. Every line gets a reaction out of the crowd.

She wins the first two battles, hands down, and it’s over.

“A’ight, y’all,” Hype says. “It’s time for Rookie Royale! Two rookies will battle it out for the first time in the Ring.”

Aunt Pooh bounces on her heels. “Yeeeeah!”

All of a sudden, my knees feel weak.

“Two names have been drawn,” Hype says, “so without further ado, our first MC is—”

He plays a drumroll. People stomp their feet along with it, rattling the floor, so I’m not completely sure if my legs shake as much as I think.

“Milez!” Hype says.

Cheers go up on the other side of the gym. The crowd parts, and this brown-skinned boy with zigzags cut into his hair makes his way toward the Ring. He looks around my age. A big cross pendant hangs from a chain on his neck.

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