Rhyme Calisthenics gives local MCs a chance to flex their freestyle | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rhyme Calisthenics gives local MCs a chance to flex their freestyle

"That's why we call it Rhyme Calisthenics — it takes work."

Your parents' calisthenics included squats, lunges, pull-ups and crunches. But Rhyme Calisthenics wants to give young rappers a workout of freestyling, lyricism, delivery and message-making.

The rap regimen, which becomes the basis for a competition once or twice a year, blends the fierce aggression of rap battles with game-show conventions. This weekend, at the 2015 RhymeCal "Summer Slam" Finals, 16 MCs will converge at Altar Bar to beat the "Wheel of Skillz." Established local rap figures Real Deal, Nuke Knocka and Dr. HollyHood will be on hand to judge the proceedings.

Created by local rapper Thelonious Stretch and James Armstead Brown in 2007, RhymeCal pits MCs against each other — and against the intimidating wheel. It's a colorful, six-foot-tall wheel with 12 of Stretch's challenges scattered throughout the spokes. These challenges tap into every facet of hip-hop training, from crafting themes ("The Message") to word-specific freestyling ("Word Bank") and self-deprecation at its most direct ("Mirror Match," in which competitors direct insults toward themselves in a mirror). Each challenge requires immense preparation before show time, and, according to Stretch, forms the basis for RhymeCal's "calisthenics" component.

"That's why we call it Rhyme Calisthenics — it takes work. The name is about what you do before the event," Stretch says.

Some local MCs have taken the training from RhymeCal to find wider success outside of Pittsburgh: Stretch cites Real Deal, who participated in one of the early RhymeCal events, as now one of the country's great rap battlers. Another local MC by the name of Mac Miller managed to draw a modest following after participating in a 2009 RhymeCal event.

But Stretch stresses that RhymeCal is more about positivity and self-betterment than eviscerating your opponent, as you might be required to do in a straight-up rap battle. In 2011, RhymeCal hosted two youth programs, and Stretch plans to put similar wheels in after-school programs and community centers all over Pittsburgh as a platform to teach kids the art of rapping.

"I want this to be a template," Stretch says. "I want this to be a stepping stone for kids to get out of the bullshit."

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