Joey Batts Hip-Hop Night
Dec. 7, Up or On the Rocks, 50 Union Place, Hartford, (860) 247-6257, uporontherocks.com.
Connecticut needs anti-heroes. Joey Batts (aka Joseph Battaglia), a 30-year-old rapper originally from Long Island, N.Y., who bleeds Nutmeg pride, deserves your vote.
His face, in sticker form, adorns street signs all over the state. His new album, Bowtie Chronicles: The Album, is a decisively rockist step away from his seven-album mixtape project, 7 Deadly Sins. (Batts has already recorded five of them; the sixth, Gluttony, is on the way, with Lust breathing down its neck.) One Bowtie track, "860," name checks everything Batts likes about Connecticut (an Advocate newspaper box appears in the accompanying video), and a few things he doesn't ("Stay out of Torrington, 'cause the place is a bore...").
Batts snuck into open mics at Hartford bars at 19, "just so I could get on the mic, just so I could rap," he told the Advocate by phone. The scene back then felt inclusive, "a beautiful movement of singers, songwriters, the rappers, the musicians, the drummers, the guys who played djembes. It was such a cool vibe that hippies could get along with rockers, could get along with rappers, could get along with metalheads, could get along with classical pianists... I was happy to be a part of a movement and to really plug into that."
Those days are behind him. Batts teaches literature and creative writing at Hartford's Opportunity High School. Teaching is a full-time gig ("It adds to my Bruce Wayne/Batman persona," Batts said, "teacher by day, rockstar at night."). His grown-up friends have grown-up problems. Babysitters are scarce. Batts presses on; he performs frequently. "People became more lazy, and they don't want to go out and support live music like they used to," Batts said. "You can't party as much."
On "860," Batts raps about being Connecticut's adopted son. While sunlight-deprived, winter-hating cynical types shudder at the thought of a Nor'easter, that sort of thing is exactly why Batts loves it here. "When you spend your winters in Brooklyn, the snow doesn't really accumulate," he said. "When I came up to college, this was the first time I really saw snow accumulate. I fell in love with the fact that the snow was everywhere. You could just jump in the snow, and get lost in two feet of snow. I just love the winters."
He's clearly proud to have stuck with it for so long, but you get the sense Batts wants his signature project, his Sins, over and done with. (The first installment, Pride, came out in the summer of 2005.) "I remember tackling Dante's Inferno when I was a junior in college and becoming obsessed with the thought behind it," he said, "the craziness behind the Christian persona coming out in music. Bottom line: it all comes down to seven deadly sins." For various reasons, Batts can't always produce band albums, he said, but many of his friends are producers; it's easy for them to lend him some beats, over which he freestyles.
For Batts, writing is like breathing. "Rappers always produce mixtapes. They might put out an album, but before that comes out, they're dropping a mixtape here, a mixtape there. The process is just a straight mixtape. It's a way to throw some freestyles on there, to do some stuff that I can't recreate with a band, and I just dive into each one... Not to sound like a nerd, but it's mental calisthenics for me. I write and devour books at such a fast rate that it helps my brain."
A lot of mornings, Batts wakes up freestyling. "The freestyle is coming up with things as you go. You're basically improvising." He first heard kids freestyling when he was 9, and he figured it was something he should do. "Being able to come up with words off the top of my head that not only make sense but have a cadence and a rhythm to them — that's when I have the most fun."
He freestyles constantly. He walks around with his iPhone voice recorder. He freestyles in the car. He freestyles during his lunch period at work to write. Still, time is tighter than it used to be. "I go home from work, go to the gym, and I'm shot," he said. "My creative hours, as a grown man: that's definitely waned."
Not everyone loves Batts. Wesleying, a Wesleyan University student-run blog, took umbrage with a line from "860": "Wesleyan girls, they got great brains." "The Wesleyan people hated that," Batts said. "In the rap community, when a girl is giving you a blow job, they say, 'That girl's giving me brain.' That's where the line comes from. They took my line and used it as a double-entendre, basically."
The blowjob reference, Batts admitted, wasn't misinterpreted. "I've definitely hooked up with a couple of girls from Wesleyan," he said, "so it probably was the intention. I think if I was talking to the president of Wesleyan, I would probably backpedal on that."
The touring band for Joey Batts & Them, since the beginning of 2010, is guitarists Tony Volpe and Dan Pilver, bassist Dave Chapman and drummer Michael "Beatwiz" Spellman. The songs are hooky, full of distorted guitars and hummable riffs. There's a Run DMC/24-7 Spyz vibe to it all. "We're trying to make sure that people can repeat it," Batts said.
Best friend, bad guy, superhero, anti-hero: the essence of Joey Batts. (There are tracks on Bowtie Chronicles called "Best Friend," "Bad Guy" and "Superhero.") It's all tongue-in-cheek, sure, but also as real as anything else out there.
"The whole persona of Joey Batts," Batts said, "the same persona that I try to keep hidden at work... Even though I'm your best friend, chances are I'm going to end up being the bad guy, the anti-hero in any movie."