Last November 22, Ben "Wrekonize" Miller stood triumphant inside a ring, the survivor and winner of MTV's second MC Battle. As Roc-A-Fella CEO Dame Dash and rappers Freeway and Memphis Bleek ostensibly congratulated him on his new recording contract with Roc-A-Fella Records, a scantily clad hostess gave him a large placard symbolizing his $25,000 prize winnings. Dash handed him a Rocawear jersey and velour jacket. "Pop your collar, man," he told Wrekonize. "You're rolling with the Roc now."
After the show was over, though, no one at Roc-A-Fella talked to Wrekonize about that recording contract. As of this writing, he's still waiting to hear from the label. But he expected as much, considering how it treated him when the MTV cameras were turned off. "After the battle, that was the last time we saw the reps from Roc-A-Fella," he says. He doesn't know if the label was looking for unsigned artists or simply using the TV show as a two-hour-long promo spot. "They kind of gave [Wrekonize and manager Alfonso Alvarez] the cold shoulder," he adds.
When asked about the matter, MTV spokesman David French noted that the network is only liable for the prize money, not the contract. (No one at Roc-A-Fella could be reached for comment.) But why did MTV tell MC Battle contestants that they could win a record deal if, in the end, they don't?
Inaugurated this year, the MC Battle has had a tumultuous history. On February 24, the first competition was canceled after thousands of aspirants showed up for an open casting call at MTV's studios in New York's Times Square, resulting in a near-riot. So the network revised the competition, holding eight regional battles that led up to an eight-man contest. Philadelphia rapper Reignman won the "official" first MC Battle on May 17, earning a $25,000 prize and a recording contract with Def Jam. But in a follow-up interview with MTV.com, he revealed that he was still unsigned and shopping around a self-produced album. Def Jam never gave him an artist deal.
The second MC Battle also pitted eight contestants against each other; each had won a preliminary contest that was sponsored by a local urban music station in their respective city. In Miami Wrekonize beat out 300 applicants after answering an ad broadcast on WMIB-FM (103.5 the Beat). The talent search was held at Envision Studios, where each MC freestyled a 45-second rhyme for a panel of judges. Sixteen contestants were pulled from that pool; out of that group, eight were selected to go "head-to-head" in a three-round battle at Circle House Studios, where Wrekonize persevered.
MTV brought Wrekonize and his crew to New York on Wednesday, November 19. "The first day we got out of the airport, we went right to the hotel and they had us filming our profiles," he says. He adds that the short profiles, which were shown at the beginning of the on-air battle, "were just to introduce you, where you're from, how long you've been doing the music, that kind of stuff." He rehearsed with the rest of the MC Battle contestants for most of Thursday and Friday, warming up for the on-air competition. The rest of those days were spent wandering around the city and visiting his friends in Brooklyn.
Saturday brought the MC Battle, which was filmed before a live studio audience with hosts DJ Clue, Lala, and Sway and panel judges Dash, Bleek, and Freeway. Ominously, Dash gave his criteria for those who would be allowed to "represent" Roc-A-Fella. "To be a Roc-A-Fella you gotta be thorough," he opined. "It's not only about the skills, it's about the person, the truthfulness [sic], the attitude, the whole thing."
Unfortunately most of the MCs wilted under pressure. After a hot opening verse, Houston's Rob G was disqualified for cursing, "Rob G'll shit on you," to Chicago's K. Ceaser in the first round. In the second round, Wrekonize easily dispatched the latter with lines like "Your lips look like two melted twigs smashed together," and "Wrek is dope because my flow says/This small fry sucks more guys than Jennifer Lopez." Overall the battle found everyone dispensing with flow and content -- the qualities that make rap music interesting -- in favor of incessantly mean punch lines, some amusing, others so lame that even Dash made queasily sour faces at the camera.
The final round saw Wrekonize entering the ring against Swann, an MC from Detroit wearing a large blowout Afro with an Afro pick stuck in it. "I'll smack you so hard I'll knock the black into you," he rapped to his U.K.-born, Miami-raised antagonist in the first segment. Wrekonize answered back to his portly competitor, "If I cut open your stomach M&Ms would pop out." Excitedly, Sway egged them on: "Who's going to be a Roc-A-Fella MC hanging out with Bleek?"
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In the next segment, Swann came back with "You look just like the Latino version of Skeletor," and "I got 99 problems but this bitch ain't one." But Wrekonize dropped a killer blow with the MTV-friendly line, "You say you bring the drama/But your style is about as hard as Britney Spears tongue-kissing Madonna." In the end he garnered the win by a 68 percent margin, thanks to voters who logged on to MTV.com.
The following Monday, Wrekonize made an appearance on TRL before a crowd of cheering teenage girls. MTV plans to bring him back this New Year's Eve for a battle royale against Reignman, the winner of the first MC Battle. He expects to receive his $25,000 reward shortly. The Beat has also been supportive, spinning his new single "Breathe" on the air and setting up promotional opportunities for him, including a talk at American High School on December 17.
Wrekonize is happy for the exposure and support that MTV and the Beat continue to give him. But why did Roc-A-Fella give him the shaft? Maybe the label didn't view Wrekonize, who values underground heroes like Gang Starr and Aesop Rock, as capable of "representing" the home of Jay-Z and other street rap icons. Still he wouldn't mind recording for Roc-A-Fella, though he admits he'd think twice before signing on the dotted line. "They didn't seem to show much interest and that's a dangerous sign," he says. "If you want somebody to support you and put money into your career, and they don't look like they're going to support you, then you might find yourself in a troubled situation, especially when you got a contract."