Toronto-born battle rapper Alex Larsen brings underground showdown to TIFF
The film Bodied is based on Larsen's experiences and features how battle rap has evolved
When you think of battle rap, Toronto-born rapper Alex Larsen says, many picture Eminem's semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile where two people are freestyling lyrics back-and-forth on a stage to a beat.
But Larsen, aka rapper Kid Twist, a champion of the city's underground battle rap scene, explains the lyrical showdown has grown since 2002 — and it's now the subject of a new film that premiered at Toronto International Film Festival Thursday night.
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"The rap battle scene has evolved into more of what we would call a street style of battle rap where you just have two people facing off a capella, no music," Larsen told CBC Toronto.
"So it's distilled into its raw essence, just facing each other and usually not even on a stage, just in what we call a pit, surrounded by the audience," he said.
"It's very visceral and the whole goal is to take down your opponent through lyrics by any means necessary."
Battle rap is at the centre of the film Bodied, showcased during Thursday's Midnight Madness program. The story is penned by Larsen and is based on his life.
"It comes out of my experience. It comes out of my background," he said.
"No one could have written this movie but me with the specific experiences I've had, but it's not a true-to-life story."
Bodied showcased at TIFF
Bodied is described as a "satirical exploration of the world's most artistically brutal sport — battle rapping." The film's lead character, Adam, portrayed by Victoria-born actor Calum Worthy, is a white and purportedly progressive graduate student who dives into the underground community for his thesis project.
The film is produced by Eminem and directed by music-video visionary Joseph Kahn — known for making some of the rapper's most memorable videos, such as Without Me and Love the Way You Lie.
Larsen admires both men and is thrilled to have worked with them.
"It's an absolute honour. It's still surreal for me, so humbling," Larsen said.
He claims Eminem is the reason he first started doing battle rap.
"8 Mile had a huge influence on me," he noted.
"The song My Name Is came out when I was 13 years old, so that was one of the first rap songs that ever really stuck with me," Larsen said.
"The first rap verses I ever wrote were parodies of My Name Is, so to have him give his seal of approval to the movie is absolutely incredible."
'Toronto is a huge mecca for battle rap'
Now it's Larsen's turn at age 31 to leave his mark on the industry and also represent the city of his birth.
"People may not know this but Toronto is a huge mecca for battle rap," he said.
Larsen performed Thursday night ahead of the film's world premiere at the corner of John and Wellington Streets along TIFF's Festival Street. It was the scene of an epic bout against American battle rapper Madness that drew hundreds of fans.
"It's an exciting opportunity for us to give the crowd here in Toronto a little bit of a taste of battle rap that they may not have experienced before they see it on the screen," said the first King of the Dot — a national rap battle competition —champion.
"We're really bringing a real taste of the battle world to TIFF," Larsen said.
The film's title comes from a battle rap term. Larsen says to be bodied literally means "to be murdered."
Instead, the film uses it to describe someone who has got really beaten in a rap battle, he added.
The movie picks up right where Eminem's blockbuster 8 Mile left off 15 years ago.
"If somebody has seen 8 Mile, this movie takes it ot the next level in terms of where that genre of battle rap is now," Larsen said.
Bodied also explores where the limits are in battle-rap competitions.
"The interesting thing is there is a line for a lot of performers," Larsen said.
"They may have things they wouldn't necessarily say to someone. There is a line for audience members. They all have things they wouldn't necessarily want to see, or they might stand in the audience and shake their heads at instead of reacting," he added.
"But there is no universal line. It's something that is being constantly negotiated and you'll see that negotiation take place throughout the movie."
With files from Greg Ross and Here and Now