Say what you will about battle rap, no one doubts that it's a rugged, competitive landscape, focused on dishonoring another human being standing just feet away from you.
Except for Carter Deems. He often raps about cats.
He's also interested in making friends with his opponents, a truly bizarre stance in a world where, in a battle just last month, Dizaster punched Math Hoffa.
But at that same L.A. battle event, Deems spent his first two rounds trying to buddy up to San Jose rapper Joe Cutter. At one point, which you can see below, he went into a series of rhymes about his love for his cats, proceeding to peel off three layers of shirts, each of which read “I LUV CATS”.
Then he took off the last shirt, to reveal “I LUV CATS” written on his chest in magic marker.
But Carter Deems, who lived in L.A. for a time but is now back in his native Georgia, is no joke. He's got incredible rhyme schemes, charisma and cadences, which is what has made his return to the battle scene after a three year absence so refreshing. We spoke to Deems about why he chooses to kill his opponents with kindness.
How were you first exposed to battle rap?
I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I used to run the cul-de-sacs for a while. My dad was a battle rapper. I really wanted to be an attorney growing up, but he pushed me to go into battle rap. People always accuse me of nepotism when I get favorable judgment in rap battles because of my Dad.
Seriously, was your dad really a battle rapper?
Um, no. But he does rap with me in the living room while my mom is trying to watch the DIY network.
What was the first rap battle you saw?
There was this movie called 8 Mile…I’m just kidding. The first rap battle that I saw in this format was Dirtbag Dan vs. Soul Khan. Any format, I was into Scribble Jam. Nocando was the first battler I was into and was an inspiration for my whole “battle career.” I used air-quotes there. That terms needs to be used as loosely as possible. But Nocando was the first I enjoyed and thought “this is pretty cool.”
When did you start battle rapping?
My first was a freestyle battle in 2008 at the Apache Cafe in Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where Ness Lee came up and Sonny Bamboo, Reid Richards, a few other guys. I watched them for like a year and one of my friends dared me to get up on stage and do it, and I did, and that’s where I realized I had I.B.S. because I was really nervous.
You also have epilepsy, correct?
I do, yes.
Did you discover that through battling as well?
Well, I knew before, and I was dangerously close to having a seizure in the middle of a rap battle. It was against Dallas Cash, I forgot my lines and skipped a dose of medicine. I was super close to being on World Star, but not for punching someone.
Has epilepsy affected your battling?
Not much, not really. That’s the only instance. If a venue has strobe lights, I try to say something in the parking lot. It also affects how often I can go into Hot Topic. I also can’t listen to Skrillex that much.
When you started doing the freestyle battles, was your style close to the style you have today?
If by the style I have today you mean really awkward and creepy, then yes. That’s just my style of conversation as well, and my style of picking up girls. I was always really awkward. But, at first I tried to play up what I call “battle tactics.” I did all the jokes about people’s mothers and stuff like that. As I went on I realized, I don’t really say crude things in real life, so why do I say it in battles? I sorta stopped being so mean to people and made my mind up that I would use battling to try to make friends and spread some joy.
Do you recall the first time you used that tactic in a battle?
I think it was in like 2011, so it took me three years of trying to be the typical funny battle rapper where you say any joke around any taboo topics. I tried to get away from playing toward those things that I would never even talk about and instead try to be 100% me in the battle. I was really nervous, and before that battle I brought cupcakes for everyone because I wanted to try-out being friends with everyone instead of that smart-alek guy who talks about their moms. That went over well. I also brought a cookie cake and Hawaiian Punch too. I thought it was a way I could battle rap and still feel good about it.
That was around when it seemed like battles were getting exceptionally crass for shock value.
It was that insta-comedy where if you say things in these three categories it’s going to get a reaction. I used that tactic and I was tired of it. It was making me feel really terrible after battles and I was embarrassed about them being on YouTube. But, I guess I’m not embarrassed about taking my shirt off or talking too much about cats. I feel a lot better about trying to be more creative, I almost see it as performance art or something. I want to find emotions that aren’t too often in battles. I’m being way too philosophical about it.
When did you first realize you had developed a cult following?
Well, in my last battle I made probably close to half the crowd walk out, so I wasn’t really feeling that way during that battle. I’d say at least 15 people walked out, just shaking their heads. But, if people like it, that makes me happy. When I come to rap battles, I don’t really see it as a competition. People pay to see it or are taking time to watch it on YouTube, so I want it to be a good experience. Don’t get me wrong, it is competitive in that it’s two people matching their skills against each other, but the goal is for everyone to enjoy watching it and hopefully watch more and make it fun.
Why did you step away?
I took a break from mid-2011 until last year because I went to law school.
Did anyone there recognize you from battles?
I did get some people into battle rap, and may have caused one or two people to fail law school after getting addicted to it.
What made you return to battling?
I needed a way to say the weirdest things that came to my head without losing friends over it. When I say the things I say in battles at Chili’s on a Friday night over an appetizer sampler, it doesn’t get the same reaction. When you’re at Chili’s, you’re in a different mind state. You’re not ready for the dope rhyme schemes to hit you in the face. You’re there for the cheese sticks and some skins. You want to go into there and watch ESPN2 over your wife’s head. The “30 for 30” episode on Vlade Divac was really touching.
I’ve noticed the only thing you’ll really insult someone over in their battles is their music.
(laughs) Yeah, and I feel bad about that. It’s also a total lie. I really like Joe Cutter’s music. I apologized a lot after that. I apologize a lot after battles. Maybe I should have the foresight to not say those things.
Do you have a favorite battle of yours?
The 2-on-2 with Dirtbag Dan and Soul Khan. And, not because of my performance at all. I was a huge fan of both of those guys and I was having an anxiety attack the entire battle because, in my head, it was, “This is it. These are the guys yesterday who you snuck into the bathroom with your laptop and watched on your lunch break.” It wasn’t real at all. I was more worried about impressing them outside of the battle. I had an idea of a scene, with me in the middle with both of my arms over their shoulders and going to Long John Silvers and laughing over a joke I had said.
Who are your top five dead-or-alive cats?
Randy, James, Linda. I met James behind a Captain Dee’s. I think Randy hung out in Woodward Park in Fresno, up by the Amphitheater. Linda, I’ve met Linda, but I’m not that familiar with her, I met her at a party once. Cornbread was my favorite personal cat, and the cat I just had, Tina, was really a sweet soul.
What is it about cats that appeal to you?
I like that cats are there when humans aren’t. I have that on three different throw pillows. Their fur is also really useful.