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Wednesday, April 29, 2009 01:03 am

Orange juice

Springfield rapper defends title this week on BET’s Freestyle Friday

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Zach McCoy at his Springfield home. The 23-year-old battle MC goes by Agent Orange, a reference to a chemical the U.S. military used in the Vietnam war. “Spray Orange in the room and it wipes out all life forms,” he says.
PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE

If you saw Zach McCoy without his baggy jeans, oversized T-shirt and baseball cap, you would assume he’s more interested in Lord Voldemort’s latest plot against Harry Potter than the new Lupe Fiasco album.

You certainly wouldn’t suspect that McCoy, a Springfield native, would stand a chance in a freestyle rap battle against MCs from places with more established hip hop scenes like Dallas or Chicago.

You’d be wrong. And if you’re his competition, you’ll be sorry. McCoy, who performs under the alias Agent Orange, is the reigning champ of 106 and Park’s Freestyle Friday, the popular BET music video show. McCoy, the first person from the capital city to appear on the program, has won two weeks in a row and will defend his title on Friday, May 1, at 5 p.m.

The show works like this: participants are given 30 seconds for their freestyle, during which no cursing, sexually explicit, or other sensitive topics are allowed (the Chris Brown/Rhianna domestic violence case, for example, is expressly verboten). Occasionally, they’ll be asked to incorporate a specific phrase into the rhyme to ensure that the MCs are indeed freestyling and not reciting pre-written lyrics. If McCoy wins the competition five weeks in a row, he’ll become enshrined in the Freestyle Friday hall of fame and return at the end of the season for a bracket-style tournament of champions.

McCoy has grown accustomed to his adversaries underestimating his skills. Case in point: in week one, a Dallas MC named Young Street began his flow by asking, “This who y’all chose me to rap against?/I was better off battling one of the Olsen twins,” and went on to hit McCoy with such epithets as “lil nerd guy,” “Kermit the frog,” and “lil white boy from Illinois.”

But McCoy, who triumphed by default when his opponent slipped up and said a curse word — which results in automatic disqualification on the show — understands the impulse. In a battle, he explains, the objective is to lyrically annihilate one’s opponent by degrading him, his clothes, hairstyle and anything else you can think of.

A 2003 Springfield High School graduate, McCoy didn’t start rapping until after high school. Once he discovered his talent and gained some confidence, he began performing at open mic nights and battling MCs locally. In December, he went to Chicago to perform for producers of 106 and Park, which had previously never held auditions outside of New York City.

After hitting the first dude he battled against with “Your rhymes are lazier than Forest Whitaker’s left eye,” he took down eight or nine others to secure a spot on the show’s season premiere — at his own expense.

In week two, rocking a lime green Coogi polo shirt, blue sneakers with green laces, and a blue and green Cubs cap, the champion lit up his opponent, Richmond, Va.’s Skino, telling him he “spits garbage like Oscar the Grouch.” Round two saw lackluster performances by both contestants, reflected in McCoy’s 2-1 judges’ decision.

He calls the fact that the result wasn’t unanimous humbling. Also humbling, he says: “I feel like I’m bridging a gap with what you might call non hip-hop watchers. Now my mom’s coworkers are watching 106 and Park.”

Since appearing on the show, McCoy, 23, says rapping is no longer just a hobby. His MySpace music page has gotten nearly 250,000 hits in the two weeks it’s been up. Right now he’s working on a demo and hopes to start working on an album soon.

He acknowledges that in order to pursue the dream further and to secure a recording contract, he’ll eventually have to move to a larger city. Even if that happens, he promises, “I’m gonna rep Springfield no matter what.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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