BATTLE SOUNDS: Laptop Musicians Make It a Contest
The club is dark and the crowd is screaming. A guy in a Hazmat suit steps up to a bank of computers, opens his laptop and launches into a three-minute barrage of drum and bass beats. Unlinke the previous performer, who rocked some ambient noise over hip-hop rhythms, he pummels his audeince with machine gun riffs, ending in a squelchy crescendo as a video loop plays on the screen behind him. The fans' cheers are deafening as he departs the stage, making way for another perfomer who plugs in his Game Boy and gets ready to compose something in the key of up-up-left-right-down.

Welcome to the Laptop Battle Championships in Seattle, the crown event in a quickly emerging electronic music trend. Over the last few years, laptop battles like this one have been cropping up around the US and the world, pitting producers in head-to-head matches where each seeks to showcase his or her talent for concocting combinations of frequencies and rhythms that will yield the greatest body count. The events are intended as an antidote to the typical laptop show, wehre a static performer spends the set staring at his computer, the reflective glow of the screen on his face providing the only dynamic visual element in his performance.

The roots of the phenomenon go back to January 2002, when Liz Knight, aka Liz Revision, assembled a group of Chicago laptop musicians to participate in an event she dubbed Laptronica: A Laptop Cage Match. Performers were divided into two-member teams, with on manning the laptop and trying to wow the audeince with his technique while the other, dressed in costume (monkeys and Teletubbies were popular choices), attempted to distract him by wrestling him, dancing in front of him or waving a towel in his face. The competition was divided into heats featuring teams with names like Hot Tub Gary and the Video Ape, and was replete with pregame shit-talking. After a brief set, judges graded contestants on the quality and originality of the their compositions, as well as their charisma and crowd-pleasing skills.

Around the same time, Seattle's Fourthcity crew - a collective of artists, musicians, graphic designers and producers - was holding weekly laptop events, with music ranging from downtempo to more inspired techno. Occasionally a dance would break out, but the atmosphere was generally sedate. Though the original Chicago cage matches died within a year, Fourthcity's Zach Huntting, aka Zapan, saw a video documenting them online and decided to adopt the idea. When the crew threw its first laptop battle in March 2003, dozens of amateur musicians, many in costume, came out of the woodwork and things quickly got wild. The night ended with Fourthcity's Bobby Karate blowing out a subwoofer. The next battle was sold out. "It just spread like wildfire after that," says Zapan.

Before long, Fourthcity began hooking up with fellow crews in Portland and Vancouver and throwing events up and down the West Coast. With fellow crewmate Kris Moon, Zapan began defining the rules, which are now relatively consistent in every city where laptop battles are held. Participants get three minutes to perform a set, and are allowed only a single audio controller, laptop and MIDI, all of which must fit inside a two-square-foot space. They go head-to-head in single elimination rounds, with a panel of judges deciding who advances. The winner of the first championship received a trophy made of old hard drives, though the prizes have grown considerably more lavish since then.

The laptop subculture, like most, is incestuous and word travels fast. Soon, groups in other cities began hosting their own independent battles after discovering the idea through friends or on the Internet. Some contact the Seattle crew for guidance, but there's no centralized system. "We're just down to have it spread," says Zapan. "We try to help out with the first one if they want and give some feedback and people usually take it from there."