Battle rap may be a niche market, but there are legends keeping the tradition alive and bringing it to the mainstream. Enter Bodied, a Joseph Kahn-directed film from the mind of Alex Larsen, also known as battle rap legend Kid Twist. Larsen, the first champion of Toronto-based rap battle league King of the Dot, originally made his name through viral YouTube battles and an aggressively un-PC sense of humor.
Written by Larsen and executive produced by Eminem, Bodied is like if 8 Mile had a baby with South Park, and that baby took way too much Ritalin and spent all day slamming Red Bulls and frantically skimming Jezebel thinkpieces while egging his principal’s house.
The screenplay, loosely based on Larsen's own career, follows Adam, a redheaded graduated student with an affable “Aww shucks” vibe who writes a thesis on battle rap and eventually becomes submerged in the scene as a rising MC himself.
Following the film's premiere, I spoke with Larsen over the phone to talk about battle rap, his hilarious and uncomfortable new film, the unique trajectory of his career, his regrets about indulging in cheap Asian jokes during an early battle with Dumbfoundead, and—as lanky white dudes who love hip-hop—about being a white artist working in a black art form. We talked about Bodied, but better yet, we talked about Alex.
DJBooth’s full conversation with Alex Larsen, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Well, first off, I want to congratulate you on the movie. You guys killed it.
Alex Larsen: Thank you. Honestly, the response has been really overwhelming. We created something that, obviously, I really believed in, and that everyone involved really believed in. But I just had no idea how the public, beyond the battle scene, would receive it. Almost all the reviews have been super positive, we have a Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s been more than I can imagine.
It’s such a niche topic, too, battle rap.
Exactly. It makes me feel like we really accomplished what we set out to do. Because not only has the battle scene loved and embraced it, but we’ve been able to break through to some mainstream audiences who have gained an understanding of this world through the movie.
I know this movie was semi-autobiographical. How similar are you to Adam?
I think Adam is the version of me who I hope I never become [laughs]. All the details about Adam are completely fictional, but it’s obviously based on me in the sense that, like him, I came from being a creative writing major in a university to entering rap battles, which are two very different worlds. But I think that, or at least hope that, the difference is that Adam has his cultural sensitivity and awareness turned down to zero, and his worst instincts turned up to 11.
I realized while writing the movie just how much I can really create decimating lyrics in a fictional context, so I felt able to take the gloves off completely and say things that I would never say as Kid Twist and have to stand behind those words as my actual self. In that sense, I kind of felt good about myself [laughs] that I would never say those things in real life.
The movie is constantly making the audience question whether Adam is a hero or a villain. Was this based on your emotions at the beginning of your career?
I would actually say it’s more based on my emotions at the end of my career. When I started battling, I was 19 years old. Part of it was my age, but part of it was that the battle scene was really small—it kind of felt like you were just telling jokes with a small group of friends. There were only, maybe a few thousand people in the world who paid attention to this at all, and the serious fans probably only numbered in the hundreds. You almost felt like you personally knew everyone who was watching these battles. It had more of a feeling like you were just joking around with your friends.
That obviously changed over the period of time that I was battling. Then I started to look back on the things I was saying and started to reflect on them and feel much more conflicted about the type of content that I was putting out into the world. So the movie captures that conflict. In one sense, you could look at it as me reflecting on my own past battle career.
Do you think there’s a difference between being a white rapper when you started and being a white rapper now?
That's a good question. I don't think there is really, except in the sense that the mainstream media has really sensationalized the question of being a white rapper in a way that they didn't in a different cultural era. But in terms of actually stepping into the battle ring, which is what my experience was, I don't think there’s any difference. It’s still just “Are you wack or are you dope?” Although maybe nowadays it's “Are you trash or are you fire?”
Did the battle between Adam and Dumbfoundead have any parallels to your first battle with Dumbfoundead?
Absolutely. I mentioned that this movie was kind of me reflecting on my own battle career and that is the most direct example. Because it’s me directly reflecting on that specific battle that I really had with Dumbfoundead. And if you watch our real battle and then watch Adam’s battle in the movie, there are certain lines that Adam says that are direct re-workings of lines I said in our battle.
In that battle in the movie, Adam is having that internal battle with himself on whether he should use Asian jokes or not. Did you have that feeling during the battle?
Yes, but definitely not as much as I should have. Clearly, I did four rounds of almost nonstop Asian jokes. Something I reflected on when I was prepping my material for that battle: “Am I gonna go down this route? I know that the crowd will absolutely respond to it, but is that something that I want to put into the world?” And I ended up doing it in a way that comes off as humorous and lighthearted, but at the same time, if I did that same battle today, I don't think I would have made that same choice.
The battles are very intense, but they're also very funny. Do you think humor plays a big part in battle rap, and do you think that humor lent itself to the movie organically?
Yeah. I think that’s part of what makes the point of view of the film interesting. When I started battling in 2008, it was what you might call the "jokes era.” And my personal style as a battle rapper has always been very comedy-focused. Nowadays, humor has been kind of downplayed in the scene. Everyone likes to take themselves very seriously, but at the same time, everyone likes to laugh. So the best battlers in the world always know how to land a joke.
And on top of that, battle rap is just a bizarre world, and I think outsiders might expect a movie about battle rap to be very serious, kind of a sports movie-type narrative where you have someone very stoically engaged in a pursuit. But in actuality, so much of what happens in the battle world is just so completely absurd. I think the only way to truly capture it is in a comedy.
I know 8 Mile comparisons are kind of unavoidable, but 8 Mile was similar in that it had a sports-movie vibe during the battles. Was it important to capture that adrenaline rush of a real battle?
Definitely. And that’s an area where I trusted in [director] Joseph [Kahn] completely. If you read the script, for every battle scene it’s literally just the lyrics. That’s all I scripted out. So the whole feeling of those scenes is completely down to his direction. And what he managed to do, which I thought was so brilliant, was that the viewer is... at certain moments in each battle, you feel like you’re in the crowd at the live event, and there are other moments where you feel like you're watching the battle at home on YouTube. And there are other moments where you feel like you actually are the battler inside of that moment. He captured all three aspects of battling, and of course, I've personally experienced all three so I know how true it was to those experiences. I think that’s where so much of the excitement and drama of the movie comes from
I related to this movie in a weird way, to the feeling of being a white person occupying space in a primarily black art form. When someone is in that position, how can they show they’re coming from a good place?
I think hip-hop in general, and battle rap particularly, has always been very good at self-policing. Especially when you're in a battle, if you're not presenting yourself in the right way, whether it’s because you're a white person being racially insensitive or any other kind of unspoken boundary you might cross, you get booed off the stage [laughs]. You are instantly corrected in that kind of behavior. I think it is what makes battle rap the most authentic part of hip-hop. And it has maintained that authenticity in a culture that is constantly grasping to commercialize anything it can get its hands on because it is so strongly policing itself.