“You’re this super-polite liberal Canadian who says the most horrible shit ever”
Cadence Weapon interviews Alex Larsen, a.k.a. Torontonian battle rapper Kid Twist and the screenwriter of Bodied
Bodied (which opens TIFF’s Midnight Madness programme at Ryerson Theatre on Thursday, September 7) is a hip-hop film for the Genius generation. The protagonist is a nerdy grad student named Adam (Calum Worthy) who initially approaches rap battles from a distant, anthropological perspective. He says he’s only there to interview rappers about their use of the N-word for his graduate thesis. But what Adam discovers is a world much more complex and dynamic than he ever imagined. Director Joseph Kahn — who has dominated MTV for over 20 years making iconic music videos for artists like Busta Rhymes, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift — creates an intoxicating, carnival-like atmosphere of the battle scene. Bodied sees Adam having to reconcile his white-liberal intellectual background with his aptitude for slinging unfiltered, no-holds-barred battle-rap punchlines that take aim at the diverse array of ethnicities and lifestyles in the community.
As a rapper who started out in the battle-rap scene, I initially went into watching Bodied with some trepidation. A comedy that tries to authentically present the battle-rap circuit while explaining the socio-cultural factors that make it okay to diss someone about their ethnicity could end up being cloying, cheesy, or disastrously tasteless in the wrong hands. Films that have attempted to satirize hip-hop culture have traditionally fallen in the former camp; there’s more than a few movies that take the trope of rapping and carelessly lump it into the same coming-of-age story that’s been told since the beginning of time. Bodied, which is a slang term for lyrically killing someone in a rap battle, is interesting because it doesn’t strain to justify itself like rap movies have in the past. There’s no pause to explain why a Korean rapper, a black rapper, and a white rapper all hang out together, even though they level painfully specific insults at each other all day. Most importantly, the disses are equal opportunity and straightforward, unlike the hand wringing and false equivalence we see when Adam is with his liberal college friends at Berkeley. In that way, Bodied takes on a metafictional resemblance to rap itself. There’s no entry exam, and it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from, or what your background is. You just have to be dope.
Produced by Eminem and featuring real-life battle-rap luminaries Dumbfounded, Loaded Lux, and Dizaster, Kahn amps every battle into a propulsive cinematic treat. His experience in that world gives the film a frenetic pace and cartoonish, slapstick energy. I met up with Bodied’s screenwriter Alex Larsen (a.k.a. Toronto freestyle battle champion Kid Twist) for coffee at the Common where we talked about the differences between rap music and battle rap, how his experiences as a battle rapper informed the script, and how to write dialogue about the N-word when you’re white.
The unofficial trailer for Bodied (2017).
Trap is the dominant form of rap music today where there’s more of a focus on production and melody. Why come out with a movie now that’s so focused on rap lyrics?
The thing about working with Joseph Kahn is he always does the exact opposite of what anyone expects. Right away, he always has the instinct to buck the trend of whatever's happening right now. Apart from that, while we've seen a huge switch to focus on production in rap music and making songs as songs (as opposed to the lyrical showmanship of past eras), battle rap has had explosive growth. I think those two things are probably very related.
I remember seeing one of the founders at a battle league say, "Battle rap saved hip hop." He was probably being a bit facetious and, of course, he has something to gain from that comment, but there's a certain degree of truth. Lyrics have always been a huge part of rapping. The music that's really popular now isn't satisfying that urge quite as much as it did the past. Battle rap has stepped in to fill that void. With this movie, we're not trying to go against a trend. Instead, we’re just exposing [an audience to a world] that’s been happening alongside that people may not have noticed.
Rap is usually associated with music, but the rap battles in Bodied are a cappella. A lot of people will come into this film expecting 8 Mile with battles over Mobb Deep instrumentals.
People are gonna be very surprised by it. It is interesting the way things have evolved, because for a long time, battles on stage with beats and mics like in 8 Mile existed alongside this style. Before this, people would literally battle in the streets and where [battle rap] started gaining popularity from was Smack DVD. Murda Mook was the big star of that era. Smack would go around with a camera and film battles happening in the streets of New York in sneaker stores. This was before YouTube, so it was literally on DVD. People would just sell these bootlegs at bodegas in New York, and it gained this explosive popularity.
The crowd response is just such a huge thing. You know this — in freestyle battles, you'd say a punchline, and then you'd just have to say something wack over the next two bars. They had to be filler because the crowd would be talking over you, so you can't use your next punchline yet. A cappella gives you the chance to say something dope, then come in with your next punchline right away because you can pause and let the crowd react.
I started out rapping in freestyle battles. Eventually I decided to quit because I honestly didn't want to make fun of people anymore. Ethically, I started feeling like "I can't do this anymore." I would lose battles because I didn't want to cross my own line.
You won the moral victory.
[Laughs] Yeah, right.
That's one of the big themes of the movie. This is a major issue in battling, and always has been. Where's that line?
Is there a line?
I mean, no, there isn't, but for different people, there is. There's the line of what you would or wouldn't say as a rapper. Then there's a line as an audience member of what you would or wouldn't find acceptable. But there's no universal line — that's the thing.
There's one example in the movie where one of the battlers references something historical about someone's racial heritage that was considered to be going too far.
The interesting thing about that line is that they're not in a battle at that point in time; they're just joking around. But if you used that line in a battle, some people would think it's dope, some people would react, and some people would be offended. That's one of the really interesting, complex things: everyone's line is in a different place, and you have all those people in the same room together. It's not like you get together beforehand and have an agreement on "okay, here's what we're gonna say, here's what we're not gonna say..."
How do you deal with that when you're friends with the person you're battling?
In real life, I have seen a lot of battles between people who are friends in real life. This is something that happens in the movie. There have been instances where people obviously had an agreement beforehand not to talk about certain things, but there have been instances where they didn't and they laid it all out there and put everything on the table. This can have real-life consequences!
How did you end up writing this movie to begin with?
That is a crazy story. Joseph Kahn has been a fan of battle rap for a long time. In his last movie [Detention], he actually cast Dumbfounded and Organik in the movie from having seen them in battle videos. He's been paying attention for a long time. He was at this moment in his career where he had just done the “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” music videos for Taylor Swift and put out the Power Rangers viral video on YouTube that got, like, 25 million hits. He had this moment where all eyes were on him; he had all this success. Being the guy that he is, he was immediately like, “All right, I'm not gonna take this and parlay this into a big studio movie. I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want." He didn't even know what project he wanted to work on. He was just like, “I need a writer to work with."
He had watched one of my battles, and someone knew I was a writer and used that as a line of attack against me. He was like, "Oh shit, Kid Twist is a writer. I should reach out to him and see if he wants to write something." So literally, he DMed me on Twitter and all it said was, “Hey, do you write movie scripts?" I was like, "Yes, of course I do. Absolutely I write movie scripts!” [Laughs] I wasn't actively working on scripts, but it wasn't a lie because I did do an undergrad degree in creative writing, so I'd taken screenwriting courses as a part of that.
We just started talking about all the different ideas about battle rap that we wanted to explore. The crazy thing is that so much of what's in the movie was actually from our very early conversations. The idea of "Where is the line? Is there a line? How far can you go?" and the idea of looking at race — specifically because he's Korean-American, and that's something that really interests him about battle rap.
He’d look at battles like me and Dumbfounded because Joseph’s a huge fan of Asian jokes. If you look at his Twitter, he makes them about himself all the time, so he loves this kind of humour. At the same time, there’s a power dynamic where, as much as he loves these jokes, these stereotypes are partially the reason why he may not have had as easy a time breaking into Hollywood as other people.
It was probably the opposite of what moviemaking is usually like. Instead of sending in a script and the studio comes back like, "Oh, we can't say this," I would send Joseph a script and he would be like, "Go further — this needs to be more offensive!" Everyone who sees Bodied, whether they liked it or didn't like it, has a lot to say.
Kid Twist engages in a King of the Dot rap battle with Dumfounded (who appears in Bodied) in 2009.
One thing I really liked about the movie is how it takes aim at white-liberal culture.
It’s actually really interesting, because I wrote this in 2015, which was, like, the height of white liberalism. What I was trying to do is to critique white liberalism from the left. My concern was that people were going to take this automatically as a right-wing point of view because we’re making fun of liberals. But the way society has gone in the time since then, we’ve seen the failure of this white-centred version of liberalism over and over again in the past two years, so it feels relevant now.
People are more inclined to get it in the world we’re in today.
It’s weird when you make something and then the world changes and what you made actually becomes more relevant instead of less! [Laughs] It’s a very odd feeling.
The script is very meta. There are some autobiographical elements with regards to how you have a character who has to tiptoe around using the N-word. That word is such a big part of the script, and it’s used frequently in a script that was written by you, a white man.
Very early in the movie, there’s a line where Adam is talking to Ben Grimm and he’s interviewing him for his thesis. Ben Grimm is roasting him by saying, “If you really wanna use the N-word, this is what you should do: move back to New York and pretend that you’re Hispanic.” Adam is taken aback and says, “I’m not trying to use the word. I’m just interested in it as a literary subject.” Ben says, “Oh, so you just wanna write the N-word.” That was me talking about myself directly, because I’m embarking on this process where I know I’m about to write this word 200 times. [Laughs] I needed to reflect on this fact and acknowledge some of my hypocrisy.
The way Adam approaches the battle-rap community is very anthropological, as if he’s with National Geographic or something.
That happens a lot from my perspective inside of whiteness and from growing up somewhere that’s hugely liberal. This is one of the blind spots and issues with the way white people who think of themselves as political often approach these sorts of issues. It’s like you’re a professor investigating something.
There’s a distance.
There’s a distance that’s like a de-facto dehumanization, even if you would never think that’s what you are doing.
I feel like that’s the way many liberal white people engage with hip-hop culture. The scene you have with the college students all sitting at a table going, “That was racist!” “No, that was racist!” — it’s something I’ve seen happen in my friend group more and more where there’s this fear of being culturally insensitive. It’s ironic because the whole idea of battle rap is about going wherever you want and going as far as you can.
The contrast between these two worlds was something we always saw as one of the main themes and driving forces of the movie. That was always Joseph’s idea. He’s very intrigued with battle rap but also very intrigued with whiteness, because he occupies an interesting space as an Asian-American director who has been very successful in music videos for a lot of Black and a lot of white artists. He’s like, “I’m the one that gets to sit outside of this false American race dichotomy and just observe it from these various angles.”
He was like, “I’m so fascinated with this idea that you’re this super-polite liberal Canadian, but you get into rap battles and say the most horrible shit ever.” [Laughs] That was something that he really wanted to explore.
The film has some of the negative connotations of rap in it, such as violence and misogyny. Your script comments on these themes, and it wouldn’t be true to the source material if they weren’t in there. But what were you hoping to achieve by utilizing some of these tropes, such as rappers calling women “bitches”?
A lot of what you see in the movie is reflective of my ongoing discussions that I’ve been having with myself for as long as I’ve been a battle rapper. My wife was hugely influential in the writing of the movie, and I’ve been with her for 10 years. I’ll show her my lines and she’ll be like, “I don’t know about that word you’re using here,” or sometimes she’ll be like, “You’re not going for his throat — you actually need to push it further.” It’s always interesting to get other people’s perspectives, and that’s something that matters to me that I try to take into account.
What writing this movie allowed me to do and what Joseph was always saying was to use the fiction to explore those real issues and discussions that I have with myself. I don’t think there’s a conclusion to it; the movie doesn’t wrap it up in a bow and say, “Here’s the answer in how not to be racist.” I think it reflects where we’re at as a society. When I watch other TV shows and read other books where there’s a discussion of race, you already know everything that’s going to be said.
These conversations about race are just super messy. [In the film] you have these white liberals (featuring one Asian) sitting at their dinner party at Berkeley discussing Black people with no black people present. Then you go to the battle rap where there are [various races] present and everyone is saying super racist stuff to each other, but also they’re all friends. This is an interaction between people that wouldn’t happen in any other context. So what does that mean? I don’t think we dismissed either of the worlds of the movie out of hand. Instead we just said, “This is what’s happening right now, and this is what’s out there. Now, let’s actually engage with it, instead of just closing our eyes to one aspect of it or the other.”