As David "Thelonious Stretch" Hughes pondered an audience member's suggestion for a Rhyme Calisthenics All-Star rap challenge Thursday, the crowd at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater started growing restless.
Hughes, the show's host and co-founder, already had rejected three topics -- including one about leather pants -- and the audience wasn't about to let another quirky, freestyle-rhyme possibility pass them by.
"I thought this was crowd topics -- you can't choose," a woman in the audience called out.
"OK, the topic is ... Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch!" Hughes said, eliciting laughter and groans from the crowd.
While one of the more unusual topics of the evening, Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch stood out as the perfect example of what Rhyme Calisthenics is all about. Part "8 Mile," part "Wheel of Fortune," Rhyme Calisthenics uses the "Wheel of Skillz" to assign challenges to contestants.
While considered veterans, the four Rhyme Calisthenics All-Stars -- Trevor "Real Deal" Weller of Mount Oliver, Malcolm "Mac Miller" McCormick of Point Breeze, Farooq "A-Jaxx" Al-Said of New Brighton and Daniel "Zone" Hopkins of Sheraden -- know better than to underestimate the difficulty of the wheel.
A-Jaxx, 23, ended his Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch freestyle with: "I want breakfast, I'll say it until I'm exhausted -- 'Hey ma, where's the turkey sausage?' " sending the crowd into frenzied hoots and hollers.
"Rhyme Calisthenics tests your skills as an artist in the best way physically and mentally possible," he said. "I definitely had to communicate with more wit and be a little more on my feet."
In "Mirror Match," contestants look into a mirror and battle rap their own image. In "Mackin'," contestants receive details about a woman's interests and then create an on-the-spot rhyme to woo her. In "Grab Bag," contestants pull items out of a bag and create rhymes for each object. It's all designed to test the rappers' skills and stretch their imaginations.
"If you can think of any concept an MC can do, it's on that wheel," Hughes said. "We broke this hip-hop thing down to a science."
Hughes, a Wilkinsburg native, met Rhyme Calisthenics co-founder James Brown when he moved to Harlem in New York City in 2000. The show, created two years ago, is loosely modeled after New York's "Challenge of the Champions," a similar freestyle battle.
"We wanted to have some kind of workshop event for local MCs in Pittsburgh to push them to be more creative, innovative and artistic with their music," Brown said.
A-Jaxx believes this kind of contest also can highlight the skills of Pittsburgh artists in ways a mere demo tape never could.
"If Rhyme Calisthenics blows up, it's gonna cement Pittsburgh hip-hop as a truly up-and-coming talent pool and will showcase a plethora of talented MCs," A-Jaxx said.
Zone, whose first-place finish earned him $100, four hours of free recording studio time and tickets to a Shadow Lounge anniversary event, said the showcase gives local hip-hop artists a chance to shine when the area is about to lose WAMO-FM, its only predominantly hip-hop and R&B station, in a few months.
"The rap city in Pennsylvania right now is Philadelphia," Zone, 19, said. "If Rhyme Cal blows up, it's going to mean we're right up there with them."
Hughes and Brown taped Thursday's performance and are shopping around the show to major television networks. They also hope to take Rhyme Calisthenics national, hosting competitions across the country.
"This isn't a local event," Hughes said. "We're definitely doing our thing in Pittsburgh but we're going to change the whole game -- change the face of hip-hop.
Check the highlight video of the Rhyme Cal All Star Competition here:
The Ayatollah has spoken