Just four years ago, Alex Larsen, aka Kid Twist, was an aspiring novelist working as a game designer in Toronto after becoming a legend in the battle rap world for his cutting, funny, cerebral lines. Now he is the screenwriter behind the satirical battle rap film Bodied, produced by Eminem and directed by Joseph Kahn, who has created music videos for Em, Taylor Swift, U2, Lady Gaga, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and more.
Larsen is a self-described white “married nerd,” who started rapping in high school at age 14, just freestyling with friends. He met a producer at a high school talent show held at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and recorded his debut EP at 17. The following year, he entered that same talent show with those songs and won. That was also the setting for his first on-stage rap battle. He started battling for real in 2006 at Toronto’s Proud to Be Eh Battle Emcee, then the international JumpOff WRCs in 2007.
In 2009, in an alleyway in downtown Toronto, he participated in the first-ever King of the Dot (KOTD) event and won the coveted title. The league is now one of the most respected in the world, with Drake, Raekwon and Maestro Fresh Wes all guest hosting in the past. Kid Twist’s battles have accumulated millions of views, collectively, on YouTube, including 1.4M for 2009’s Kid Twist vs. Dumbfoundead, who has a key role in Bodied. It’s how Kahn knew of him.
In 2012, Larsen took a three-year hiatus from battling to “get re-inspired,” he tells Billboard, but, as he got older, he was also starting to feel conflicted using racist, sexist and homophobic word weaponry to win these rap battles, even if they weren’t to be taken seriously. The main character in Bodied, Adam (played by fellow Canadian Calum Worthy of Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally, and The Coppertop Flop), is loosely based on Larsen, “a white, purportedly progressive graduate student who infiltrates a community of diverse battle rappers,” in Adam’s case, “for the sake of an edgy thesis,” according to the film synopsis.
(Full disclosure: In 2013, I had a shoestring indie label, Daycare Records, on the side with a musician friend of Larsen’s, and he was going to release some songs with us. I also brought in Spencer Rice of Kenny vs Spenny for a meeting about directing a documentary about Kid Twist. After some months working together, he bowed out of both. He said he wanted to be a writer.)
Billboard sat down with Larsen during the Toronto International Film Festival, where Bodied premiered and is still in need of a distributor.
I found an email from you from June, 2013. It’s amazing. You said, “Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t think continuing to work on either the documentary or music is the right move for me personally… I really feel more at home with writing and that’s what I’d like to pursue with complete focus.”
Yeah, I guess I really did, didn’t I? That’s amazing.
At that time, when you said writing, what were you thinking? You were working on a novel.
That’s always been my interest, prose fiction. When I went to school, I actually did an undergrad degree in creative writing at York University. The way it works there is you pick two streams. Most people pick prose and poetry, but there’s also the option to do prose and screenwriting, which is what I did, so I’ve always been interested in screenwriting, but I was looking at fiction as more where I saw myself. This opportunity came up because Joseph was just looking for a writer to work with, ended up finding out that I was a writer, just because he’s a fan of battle rap, and saw one of my battles where my opponent mentioned that I was a writer in one of his lines for me. So Joseph just contacted me on Twitter and said, ‘Hey, do you write movie scripts?’ and I was like, ‘Well, I absolutely can write movie scripts.’ It was always something that I was interested in, and it wasn’t something that I was pursuing as my main form of writing, but, of course, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s been so incredible, I definitely want to keep pursuing it.
Considering how long I’ve been in the music business and been seeing live music, the first rap battle I ever went to was with you about five years ago. What’s in Bodied is what I witnessed. Those are battle rhymes someone could spit. So how satirical is it?
It is a satire. That’s the best word to describe it, but in a way it’s sort of post-satire, because when you think of satire, you typically think of hyperbole being used to reflect on society, but, in fact, I don’t think there is any hyperbole in this movie. As you say, these are literal lines that people would say in battles, and on the flip side these are actual conversations that do happen in often white-dominated liberal spaces on university campuses. So as much as we are creating comedy by showing the juxtaposition between these things, I don’t think there is that distance between reality and what’s on the screen that you would typically expect with a satire.
You obviously wanted to win your battles, but I recall in discussing a potential documentary about this part of your life, as Kid Twist, you were uncomfortable, now as a grown man, married, exposing that you have to use racial, sexist and homophobic slurs, which is a big part of the film.
Yeah, totally. I really love the opportunity that I got to write this movie because it allowed me to reflect on that. I have to give so much credit to Joseph because this was part of his vision from the very beginning. When we first started talking about it, he was like, ‘I don’t want to make a battle rap movie that just uses battle rap as a piece of a narrative. I want it to actually go to the dark places that battle rap goes to and to make that the main theme. To actually examine this, we’re going to actually show the characters conflict between ‘Should I say this? Should I not say that? What does it take to win? Is that worth it? What are the consequences?’ These are all the main themes that we wanted to bring to the forefront of the movie, instead of trying to bury them. So that was really exciting for me because, as you say, these are things that I’ve really been through in my real life.
What conclusion did you come to?
What conclusion did I come to? I mean, I didn’t really come to a conclusion, and I think that is reflected in the film as well. These are questions that we have to ask, and the only semblance of a conclusion is to be willing to ask questions. So often we want to just shut down the discussion and come down on either one side or the other, but I don’t think that that reflects the reality of what’s happening in the world. Things are messy, these conversations are always open, let’s actually have them instead of trying to shy away from them, and I think that is how people actually do live their real lives, maybe not in the public sphere where we’re often pressured to take a definite position, but certainly in private I have these conversation with myself; I have these conversations with Sarah, my wife, who’s awesome and super supportive.
So she’s not like the girlfriend in the movie?
Not at all. I will say 100 percent. I think there is a tendency, because I’m the writer and I am the battle rapper, to think the movie is very autobiographical, but certainly not in that way. Yeah, she’s awesome and super supportive and has been absolutely incredible throughout this whole process of writing the movie and making the movie too. But we do have discussions. I show her my material. I rehearse my raps with her. She gives me feedback. So sometimes it’ll be a discussion, ‘Oh, maybe that’s a line you don’t want to cross.’ Alternatively, sometimes it’s a discussion where she says, ‘I don’t know, I think you’re taking it too easy on this guy.’
I remember that you did study and research your opponent before a battle.
Yes. Exactly. That’s something that’s really cool in the movie too. When he goes into his first battle, there’s a little scene of him doing that studying. That’s interesting because when I first got into battling it was 2005. Social media was not what it became later. You didn’t have that opportunity to actually learn about someone’s personal life on the internet that you do now. There’s so much more opportunity to get really personal in your attacks in this day and age.
What is off limits?
I will say this: nothing is off limits, categorically, but things can be off limits to particular people, and that is where it gets really tricky. You can say what you want, but this is, at the end of the day, regulated by street rules as much as anything else, so you have to know that you’re taking the risk of getting punched in the face potentially.
Has that happened? Not to you, but have you seen it?
It has happened. It’s actually kind of incredible, in thousands and thousands of rap battles you can watch on YouTube, [someone gets] punched in maybe five of them. That’s a pretty incredible ratio of not resorting to violence, which speaks well of the culture
Bodied is a fight term?
It’s a general term for, ‘Oh, you got murdered. You got turned into a dead body,’ but it’s used metaphorically in battle rap or any sport or any confrontation.
Do words have consequences, or sticks and stones… words will never harm me?
The interesting thing about that — and this is something that we explore in the movie — is words can have consequences, but it’s about the context and it’s about who you’re accountable to, and because the main character in the film is white, something that we see is he has a very different perception of the idea of free speech than other people in the movie have because he’s coming from outside; he’s not part of this community so he’s not accountable to community or to other people in his life in the same way. I think a lot of it comes down to accountability and having structures that will hold you accountable.
It’s not easy to make remarks about race or sexual orientation funny. Comedian Russell Peters has built a successful career on racial stereotypes. How are you able to get a laugh in the right places?
There’s an internet joke where someone asks, “How do you do this?” and the answer is ‘Very carefully.” Obviously for myself being a white guy writing the script, it’s something that I did approach with some trepidation. I wanted to give it the proper forethought, but the reason why I was confident in attempting this is because Joseph, the director, is Korean-American. We have a lot of diversity in the cast and what may not be as apparent is in the crew as well. We had a lot of different perspectives on these issues with the people who were making the film, and an amazing thing about working with Joseph is he’s such a collaborator; he would always be asking people on set for feedback just on little individual lines, and that feedback does get reflected in film. So there things that we were able to do that I wouldn’t have known when I wrote the script, like our casting director was from Oakland for instance, where the movie is set, so she knew things that I wouldn’t have known, or our first AD is black, so he suggested little fun moments with certain characters that I wouldn’t have known because that’s a cultural thing that I’m not familiar with as a white Canadian dude. So what really allowed us to make it work was first of all the forethought, but moreso the fact that we actually did have a huge range of people working on this movie who were able to bring their perspective to it, and Joseph really facilitated that and sought that out.
Were you able to talk with Eminem?
I haven’t yet. I hope it does happen. That would be an absolute honor for me, of course. I’ve looked up to him. Not only is he part of the reason this movie is happening as a producer, but he’s the reason I rap period. In many many ways, I would not be here without Eminem.
Eminem would read the dictionary and stockpile lines written on sheets upon sheets of paper, which he kept in boxes. He called it stacking ammo. Do you stack ammo?
Absolutely. Every battle rapper alive — and if they deny this, they’re liars — has a note saved in their phone where they just have a thousand ideas of lines, maybe organized by who they’re gonna use the lines for or maybe just generic lines they can use on anyone, lines for specific situations,
An audience member at the screening implied rap music has gone downhill and the skills displayed in Bodied might inspire young rappers to step it up lyrically. Since you are someone who tried writing songs, how easy is it to go from battle rap to hip-hop/song lyrics? It’s a different structure.
I’m not quite a jaded old guy in rap yet. I still really enjoy the new music that’s coming out, but I do think there’s been a little shift of focus away from lyricism compared to the past, and that battle rap does help fill that gap, in real life, and we hopefully represent that lyricism well in the movie too. I feel like the reason why I wasn’t able to do music the way I would have wanted to is because it’s about a spontaneous emotional expression, and I think the best music is always about that. The rap that’s popular today definitely captures that, and that’s what’s really good about it, for me. I think the way that I can best express myself is through much more structured narratives where I can build with pieces, like building blocks, in order to achieve an emotional effect, so it’s almost coming at the emotion from the other way around, instead of being spontaneously emotional. That is really what works for me in screenwriting, and that was something that was absolutely an irreplaceable experience working with Joseph Kahn because he knows exactly how to do that. You can see his music video experience come through, where just moment to moment he knows exactly what the emotion and the theme is of every frame on screen because he’s familiar with working in those like very exact formats. He really helped push me to make those moments crystal clear in the movie.
Eminem is a rare example of a former battle rapper who transitioned to music in the biggest way possible, widely viewed at the world’s best rap artist. But just because you can rhyme well doesn’t mean you can write a song.
It’s all about connecting with people. In battle rap, as much as it’s a vicious attack on your opponent, it’s also about establishing that connection with the audience, and if you don’t have that, then you’re gonna lose the battle. Sometimes it’s a challenge to take that skill in the live arena and capture it in a recorded track, but it’s the same sort of idea, where you really just want to connect with people through your art. I think that battle rappers absolutely do that, and some of them do make incredible music, and if you look at the battle rappers who are out there right now, there’s certainly the potential for it. I hope that more keep trying, and maybe now Bodied is helping to shine a light on that world and more can cross over.
— TIFF (@TIFF_NET) August 1, 2017