Breaking Down the Battle Lines: Frontline's Locksmith and DU's Esinchill

By Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian March 16, 2005

ESINCHILL FIRST DROPPED on Digital Underground's Who Got the Gravy? (see "You Ain't Knowin'," page 44), honing his skills with the group for the next five years on the road, and he has the support of fellow D.U. members like Numskull, also of the Luniz. "Esinchill is one of the best artists coming out of the Bay right now," he says. "He's book smart, and that comes out in his rhymes."

He's also a ferocious freestyler, so I was impressed to learn the Frontline's Locksmith beat him in a battle on KMEL, 106 FM, a few months ago. "We went one round, and they was like, 'It's a tie,' " Esinchill recalls. "Then we went a second round, and I fumbled. I couldn't bring it back."

But E remains philosophical. "I think what the Frontline do best is battle. That's where Locksmith shines. But there's a difference between being able to rap and being able to make songs. I think I make better songs."

He raises an interesting point, insofar as the majority of the Frontline's verses are battle rhymes. The "realness" of the battle rhymer is almost inevitably gauged by "hardness," which we might provisionally define here as experience with, and stoicism in the face of, street life. As much as I dig their refusal to adopt the usual gangsta pose, the Frontline's emphasis on hardness limits their lyrics.

Take four bars of Locksmith on "I Gotcha," from the Richie Rich comp Grabs, Snatches, and Takes (Ten-Six, 2004):

You might see Lock on the block in some Tims and Nikes

Making motherfuckers duck when I extend my right

I'm an mc; I fight with pens and mics

You're a bitch; you fight for women's rights

Like many of rap's memorable moments, the third and fourth lines are at once clever and offensive. The repeated grammatical structure creates the expectation of a similar parallel in logic, which is then violated by the second half of the fourth line. (Remember your SATs: "MC" is to "bitch" as "pens and mics" are to "women's rights" is not the correct answer.) Though he might have shored it up with a better rhyme than "right" and "rights," the structure is complex and compelling, even if – for a UC Berkeley grad like Lock – the sentiment isn't very nice.

Here are four bars from the "Intro" to Esinchill's Everything to Lose! (Rceason, 2002):

Born sick and with seizures, massive head trauma

Bitch-ass doctors woulda killed me if it wasn't for mama

Took me off the medicine, didn't have no more falls

No more emergency phone calls and hospital halls

Though the difference in subject matter makes it absurd to compare these examples, each is representative of the rappers' respective concerns. With the notable exception of "Hennessy," Esinchill doesn't really stunt on brand names, and where Locksmith raps about being hard, Esinchill is introspective at the top of his lungs, eliding pronouns and breaking up syntax to pack a few years into four lines. On paper, "hospital halls" seems like a throwaway, yet on disc it leaps out, neatly condensing a kid's perspective on hospitals: boredom and waiting.

Here's the conclusion of both verses – Locksmith's, then Esinchill's:

Lock: Nigga, me no singer

I'm from the Rich where them boys like to keep those things

And they stay with their ring on bling

And they wear more gold than a Chinese ping pong team

I rap instead; I notice I'm at peace when I rhyme

I think with my dick so let me give you a piece of my mind –

Suck it; me in a nutshell, forever passionate

I'm through with this control; I gotta go, I got some ass to get

We've already heard Lock "stretch metaphors like a Chinese jump rope" on Who R You, so the use of "Chinese" for mere verbal flashiness begins to pall this time around. E's ending crushes it. To hear "passionate" rhymed with "ass to get" is exactly what I turn to rap for. The other rhyme is nearly as pleasing, and the second line's combination of two shopworn phrases leads so inevitably to "suck it," you can admire its formal invention even while declining its invitation.

Esinchill's versatility in style and subject matter is what makes Everything to Lose! so accomplished a debut. And just as the Frontline's run of luck began with Locksmith's questionable 2003 battle loss on MTV, so Esinchill's buzz has picked up since losing to Locksmith. He's in talks with Hiero Imperium to release his next album, a duo record with partner King Beef called Choice Cuts, while the advance single – the Touré-produced "Hip Hop" – has been bubbling up in Funkmaster Flex's record pool. Maybe losing is everything.

hear tracks from Locksmith and Esinchill

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