The Bar Exam aims high

Mike Sick tests hip-hop hopefuls, "American Idol"

Mike Sick, the host and founder of the Bar Exam, remembers whispering the words into one young rapper's ear on stage in the midst of Apache Cafe's monthly hip-hop competition. "Yo, don't even trip," he said. But that was easier said than done.

By entering the Bar Exam, the young challenger was there to prove his skill. But when he grabbed the mic he sounded dazed, unfocused. It's just a theory, but Mike Sick, aka MICXSIC, born Michael James Larkin II, ventures to guess that the young man "was high as hell!" And by his song's end, only one person clapped loudly for him — his girlfriend. "Didn't you want bars?" she yelled at the crowd and the judges. "You don't like Lupe? You don't like Kendrick? You don't like any of those people?"

After a brief one-on-one, the young couple walked out the door. "I assume because he was embarrassed," Larkin says. "But you gotta appreciate that passion."

Coping with criticism in any area of life is difficult. Yet the ongoing success of the Bar Exam proves that artists crave honest and direct feedback. The Bar Exam is a rap competition done "American Idol"-style: Contestants freestyle to a beat selected by DJ Knotts, then perform an original song. Guest judges — journalists, publicists, critics, radio hosts — weigh in, but MICXSIC, gives the crowd final say: Does this artist pass the bar, or should he pass the mic?

"It's built off principle and as I keep pushing on that principle for people to respect it, it's become a platform for artists that can be appreciated," he says.

Homegrown hip-hop festival A3C has featured the Bar Exam for three consecutive years. And now, as the competition enters its fourth year in January, it has drawn rap hopefuls from as far away as New York, California, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, and Texas. One aspiring young lady even drove straight from work in Kansas City to compete. The Bar Exam's popularity speaks to how, even though hip-hop is part of pop culture, the industry still operates out of a few epicenters throughout the country. The Southern states have Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, Memphis, and Houston, just to name a few.

MICXSIC spent his grade school years in Virginia Beach nodding his head along to hip-hop jazz pioneers Digable Planets and Five Percenters group Poor Righteous Teachers. Later, after moving to Vallejo, Calif., he'd throw shows and burn thousands of copies of his rap group the Vigilantez's mixtapes on his Compaq laptop. "It would take three and a half minutes for the ding! to go off," he says. "I'd wake up, switch the disc and go back to sleep."

But Larkin couldn't find a competition like the one he runs now.

He also didn't expect to find such a thing when he moved to Atlanta in 2012. The last he heard, the city was dominated by snap, trap, and mainstream hip-hop acts such as D4L and Soulja Boy. Then he discovered Apache Cafe, the one-story hip-hop, indie soul and spoken word venue that lies just off of Spring Street, hidden amid generic Midtown office towers. He checked out Tru Skool Tuesdays, a battle rap series that was refereed by local hip-hop host Fort Knox. "I'm like, 'Hold on, it's not just snappin' and trappin'," Larkin says. "Ironically, these cats that are lyricists or that are spitting are representing the other side of Atlanta."

In many ways the Bar Exam picks up from where Tru Skool Tuesdays left off. And MICXSIC borrows the "ask the crowd" element from Los Angeles' open-mic workshop Project Blowed: "If the artist wasn't good, people would chant 'Please pass the mic.'" He would love to see J. Cole and Jadakiss come perform, if not judge, and show contestants what rappers should sound like.

But lyricism isn't the judges' only determining factor. During the first half of November's tournament, the judges — King, Beezy, and FeeFo of YouTube series "Dead End Hip Hop" — couldn't make out what was being said into the mic, so they critiqued how convincing these artists were as performers instead.

"People ask me how you win the Bar Exam," Larkin says. "You gotta impress people as an MC, as a performer. Rapping is like acting — we gotta believe you. Am I believing that you're lyrical? Do I believe in your technical ability, that you're gonna impress me with your next bar, the way you're stringing your rhyme patterns together? Do I believe the story you're telling me? When you say 'turn up,' are you really gonna turn up and get us all hyped?"

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