AS THE DJ drops the needle, a slow beat pounds out across an eagerly waiting audience in Newtown.
Dressed in a grey hoodie and jeans, MC Joel Rapaport steps up to the mic, nods his head to the music and tries desperately to think.
As a competitor in the hip-hop competition Scribble Jam, the 24-year-old rapper has roughly four seconds to think up almost a minute's worth of rhyming verse. It's Saturday night and the crowd is baying for blood - it wants to see him cut down his opponent with the funniest and nastiest insults he can conjure.
He'd only just survived the first round after his female opponent, Arrow, cast aspersions on everything from his height to his testicle size.
"I thought I had lost in the first round. I was ready to go home," he says. "But then I was up against [MC] Pig. He's a friend of mine, but hey - he's called Pig - so I based my second round totally on farmyard animals."
By the time the night was over, Rapaport was one of the final four MCs selected for the Scribble Jam state finals on May 6. He and fellow finalists JRF, Anonymous and Reflect are a step closer to representing Australia at international finals in Ohio, the competition that launched the careers of rappers such as Eminem, Dose One and Sage Francis.
The Scribble Jam competition has precipitated a flurry of hip-hop activity throughout Australia. In each state, hip-hop communities have been conducting heats, searching for the best rappers and DJs to battle at state and national finals. The national winners in the MC and DJ divisions will represent Australia at the US Scribble Jam in August.
Last year, for the first time, the American MC finals were won by an Australian rapper, Justice, and this is the first year heats have been held in Australia.
Justice, who will be judging at the state finals along with US rapper Supernatural, says the Australian winner will meet a new standard of battling when they get to the American competition.
"The style of battling is completely different. Over there, it used to be about punchlines but now it's all about the rhyme structure - if you drop five multi-syllabic rhymes in a row then that's better than one great punchline."
Arrow, who was knocked out of last Saturday's heats, reckons you can boil the Australian technique down to three types.
"There's the staunch rappers who crash tackle you, try to psyche you out. Then there's the jellyfish that have one sting and for the rest of the night the audience doesn't feel anything more. Then you have the slippery, snaky type who come in and attack you from all sides very quickly, darting in and out," she says. "They are the hardest; you have to listen to the beat, look at what they are wearing and remember what they said so you can flip it. It takes a lot of brain juice."
Arrow, who won last year's local competition, BattleAxe, says she's "very excited" to have Scribble Jam in Sydney.
"It's an institution and it's where Eminem cut his teeth and was discovered by Dr Dre. Last year when Justice won, I'll never forget that," she says. "You know how some people are like, 'Where were you when Princess Di died?' For us it was 'Where were you when Justice won?' "
JRF, who survived Saturday night's insults about his long hair and the imagined sexual exploits of his mother, estimates he spends about 16 hours a day thinking in rhymes.
"When we practise, we get a bunch of mates who come over and have big rhyme sessions with five MCs at least," he says. "We play different word games like you use a word that rhymes with letters like A or C, or choose a topic like 'jumping' and rhyme about that for eight bars and then pass it to the next one, making up stories."
Sydney MC The Tongue, who hosted last Saturday's heats in Newtown, says he practises by turning the pages of magazines and battling against the faces he sees. "There's also a whole scene of dirt-digging on your opponent," he says. "I've been to battles where there were guys that made assumptions about me from my photo, they ask other guys what sort of clothes I wear, do their research."
In a competition where sledging is the aim of the game, there's a surprisingly strict code of conduct. Touching your opponent is not allowed, and most battles are more likely to end with a good-natured handshake than fisticuffs. Sexist and homophobic insults might get a giggle out of some audiences, but the discerning punter knows these cheap pot-shots usually mean a rapper is lost for words. It's a freestyle competition, so lines that are clearly rehearsed will go down like a lead balloon and whatever you do, don't rap in an American accent.
"I used to rhyme with an American accent because I come from New Zealand and that's how I learnt to rhyme," says JRF. "I got bagged a bit for that because I didn't have the Aussie flow."
Then there's the choke: finding yourself stuck for words while the crowd boos.
"Choking always leaves me pretty gutted. You think of too many things at once and nothing comes out," says a NSW finalist, Anonymous. Better to let the words flow thick and fast, without stopping to think.
"So fast that when you walk off stage, sometimes you can't even remember what you have just said. The down side is it only lasts for a night - your fame is only for a night and at the next battle you start again."
Rapaport says that despite his knack for it, he doesn't even particularly enjoy battling.
"I don't think that many people really enjoy it but it's so hard to get your music heard; you come across so many rappers but it's the battle MCs who have got so much exposure," he says.
But Anonymous says Eminem's 2004 movie, 8 Mile, followed by Justice's victory at last year's Scribble Jam, breathed new life into the Australian battle scene.
"It's pretty dope at the moment. There's a lot of stuff happening and a lot of young people coming up through the ranks," he says.
"It's really booming and its a good time for it to boom."