Like all organisms struggling for life in the desert, hip hop has taken a weaponized form to survive, battle rap. Battle rap was born in the gritty streets and playgrounds of late '70s NYC but its lodestar moment arrived on Dec. 1,1981, when Kool Mo Dee defeated Busy Bee Starski, shifting the art from party rockin' to lyrical combat. In the greater hip-hop lexicon, Arizona has been more of a Costco for narcotics or the state that Public Enemy protests, than a place repping national talent and identity.
Tucson has its breakout artists: Lando Chill, Cryptic Wisdom, Jivin' Scientists, Isaiah Toothtaker, Tora Woloshin. But battle rap—in a city where Dillinger Day and Raytheon turn conflict into money—is shaping the state's hip-hop identity in a new way. Enter Profecy.
Tucson born and raised, the 31-year-old Profecy (aka Josh McCormick) started rapping at age nine, his older sister offering to be his manager. His grammy Barbara Brown was a writer and showed him the power and possibility of words. Through all the hardship in his life, she stood at the emotional center, giving encouragement and sanctuary. With her support, Profecy auditioned for acting roles and played competitive B-ball, which gave his innate creativity a competitive edge and would lend gravity to his battle rapping in the years ahead.
It's autumn 2016, and Profecy is preparing for another battle in the Smack/Ultimate Rap League (which, alongside its Canadian competitor King of the Dot, is battle rap's NFL). Only a fraction of Verse Tracker's 19,236 listed battle rappers will ever crack Smack/URL, or KOTD; Profecy is one of them. That says everything.
Known for his slow flow and stinging punchlines, Profecy—along with P7AUGE crew members Y-Not, O, Flow Colombo and Hero—is part of a wave of Arizona rappers battling to national and international success.
In preparing for battle, Profecy doesn't write his rhymes down, he sculpts them in his head, polishing them like stones for days, till they're ready to sling. He's writing his way out of fistfights and hustling, out of gunpowder sunrises and flower-enshrined caskets. Writing his way out of the streets that could've taken his life, like they took his uncles', two locked up, and his big sister, who passed away in fall 2015. Profecy is writing his way to a healthier life. He's two months sober from drinking.
His housemate, Y-Not, and fellow P7AUGE member Fade Sativa were there working on music. Hero was on his way. They'd collaborate on albums and test bars for battles and scenarios for rebuttals, a freestyled response to an opponent's attack. He says he is "lucky" they were there that day.
Profecy started feeling really "weird." Like he was "in an elevator, 100 feet up, and then the elevator just dropped." His arm went numb, and the water bottle fell out of his hands. He stumbled into the kitchen, sweating. He asked Y-Not for a towel, to take a shower. Y-Not brought him one, and Profecy asked for the towel again. Time-space vinyl scratched.
He collapsed in the shower, confused on where he was, urged Y-Not to take him to the east-side hospital, near where he grew up, instead of the closer University hospital. En route, he called out "Bro, you need to hurry." Puke everywhere, both arms numb. It felt like he wasn't going to make it. He didn't know what day it was, just that he had a rap battle on Saturday with Kid Clutch. Reality was skipping.
Word circulated that one of Tucson's rising stars suffered a stroke, and everything might be over. To his fortune, "they got it in the first 30 minutes."
It took two days to talk normally again. Weeks before he could type clearly. He looked back at texts to Hero, and "nothing made sense." Though Profecy felt normal after only four days, they kept him there a week. He'd suffered two previously undetected heart attacks. A stent through his groin made it difficult to walk. He missed his big sister bad. But like his grammy modeled in her protracted battle with ALS (which took her in 2006), he remained defiant.
It's a scorching Sonoran morning, and we're driving east, to a place he hasn't been in decades. His grammy's burned-out house. We step from the truck and Profecy approaches the fence. His red hair braided. Red Adidas, radiant against the jersey of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy, a supporter of Profecy's battle-rap journey. He points past the oleanders to the kitchen where he once slept. Toys melted to a black cosmic ore, memories into smoke. The house isn't just boarded up, it's cement-blocked out.
It's not Profecy's last return. He'll make his battle return on Traffic 3 (a URL West Coast event), against an opponent whose name can't yet be revealed. He dropped a video for "UNTTLD" in July, from Tucson-based New Gen Filmworks, the first song in an upcoming and wittily titled solo debut EP, Stroke of Genius. Profecy's gravelly voice rumbles over a dreamy Save Allen beat. "I used to look at drug lords and want to be the plug for 'em/But now I got heart problems, I ain't got no love for 'em." This battle will mark a year since the stroke, nearly two years since his sister's death, who stood with him where we stand now.
We take a final survey of what remains. This desert is resilient, and Profecy is ready for the battles ahead. He says his aim "is just to be better than yesterday. To do what I love, despite the odds" and bring "acknowledgment to the city." In his head, new verses are forming. ■