Korea’s Take on Iron Mic (NEH Magazine)

To follow is the article I wrote on the Iron Mic Freestyle Session in the the June “The Arts Issue” of NEH Magazine.

According to the Urban Dictionary, the Iron Mic is one of the preferred weapons in the verbal arsenal of The Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, used as a flawless element of emcee destruction. It is also a pun on the widely accepted nickname for professional boxer and loose cannon, Iron Mike Tyson.

Seoul has an Iron Mic as well. This version is an open mic freestyle session with the backing of a live band held every second Saturday of the month at Rocky Mountain Tavern (RMT) in Itaewon. I don’t know where the inspiration behind selecting the name for this particular event came from, but I do know that it’s a lot more positive than the aforementioned. It’s far from a weapon used to annihilate your enemy and it’s not so unstable that you’re constantly questioning the next move in fear.

I asked the co-creators the question, “What is Iron Mic?”

According to Adrian Caballero, “It’s really just getting together and making things happen, having fun. We try to be as positive as possible and rhyme and freestyle, just use that as an outlet.” He continues, “Anyone is welcome. The main objective is to keep it open and constructive.”

Adam Palmeter contributes, “We definitely wanted to have it pretension free, a place to come up if you wanna spit, if you don’t, you can be an innocent bystander. We’re just trying to keep it real comfortable.”

I happen to agree 100 percent. Just like Tyson in the late ‘80s, Iron Mic has quickly risen to the top, succeeding at creating something unique and refreshing. Recognized as a regular, I have served on the judging panel at two of the battle competitions for cash prizes. Even though the non-victorious performers have taken their frustrations out in the form of post-battle cypher circles with the use of a few four letter words hurled in my direction, I still feel a communal sense of camaraderie from everyone in attendance and can’t wait for future renditions.

The inspiration comes from New York City, where Adrian attended Sin Sin, an open mic on the Lower East Side. “It was the first place where I really grabbed the microphone and said you know what, no matter what, I’m gonna freestyle, and I’m gonna be me, and I’m gonna say what I feel and how I feel.” He continues, “I had to freestyle because I had no other outlet to let me feel relief. Nothing made me feel as good as freestyling. It gave me peace of mind and it helped me out a lot”

As far as moving to Korea, Adrian says, “I figured if they don’t have one over there, then I’m just gonna start it. And it happened.” He was fortunate to land at the same hagwon as Adam, and within his first week in the ROK, they were watching Space Rhyme Continuum (SRC) perform at a benefit show at RMT. That same night, he grabbed the microphone for the first time in Korea as part of a SRC skit, and the Iron Mic discussion came about. They hit the streets grassroots style, armed with flyers produced at their academy after hours, recruited some talented musicians– and the rest is history.

On the topic the musicians, you can’t mention the Iron Mic event without giving props to the band. Many musicians have graced the stage providing backdrop to the improvised lyrics, but a handful have been consistent contributors. Matthew Birgy lends guitar skills, Darren Bluhm sits behind the drums, and Alec Miniero gets nasty on a 12-string bass the crew affectionately refers to as the “War Machine”.

Recent versions of Iron Mic are heavily influenced by SRC, mainly because of Benny Fax’s involvement. In addition to the battle competition, Iron Mic features several other segments. To mention a few, “Beat the Beatbox” puts the emcee against the increasing and decreasing tempo of Adam’s verbal percussion who admits, “I learned how to beatbox in a jimjilbang in Korea.” “Gimme Props” takes visual suggestions from items audience members hold in the air. “Build a Jam” takes verbal audience suggestions to build a hook, around which the emcees can improv their verses.

Recently, the Iron Mic crew turned to using their success to benefit the community. The show on May 14th raised one million won in donations that was given to the Angel House Orphanage. “The community aspect is really strong. I think that’s one of the things that really sticks out about Iron Mic. Sometimes I feel like it’s a block party.”, says Adam. “It’s not like you’re paying money at the door. You’re coming to be a part of something that we don’t really know what’s going to happen yet.”

On second thought, maybe the Iron Mic event does share a characteristic with Mike Tyson. Uncontrolled, unable to maintain composure? I think not. However, it is unpredictable and, as Adrian puts it, “You never know what’s going to happen.”


~ by ripcitytoseoul on June 30, 2011.

One Response to “Korea’s Take on Iron Mic (NEH Magazine)”

  1. […] they raised just over one million Korean Won. As that fundraiser was coming to a close, I wrote this piece that was featured in NEH Magazine, which gives background to how Iron Mic got its start, as well as the motivation behind what they […]

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