Story last updated at 1/15/2014 - 2:43 pm
"Just a sunny day in Juneau / ... living here is paradise / it'll make you think twice / what to do with your life / save it for another day / today we throw our cares away ... / Juneau is the place."
For local MC and musician TJ Cramer, also known as Manner, rap battles, teaching and graffiti are all connected.
Cramer was in fourth grade when he first fell in love with music. One of his friend's older brothers worked as a DJ and had access to hip hop Cramer still regards as some of the best ever written - hip hop by artists like Nas, Public Enemy and Black Sheep.
In sixth and seventh grade, he began freestyling with friends. He starting writing music young, recording his first track in high school. He went to college at Missouri State, majoring in sociology and interning at a homeless shelter for at-risk youth.
"When I help other people, I get out of my own self. It helps me, actually," he said.
He related to many of the kids there through music.
"I just tried to talk to them," he said.
Many faced vandalism charges due to graffiti. The shelter had an art class where Cramer helped channel those artistic urges to places that wouldn't get the kids in trouble.
"I've been into these kinds of things my whole life," he said. "I don't agree with a lot of the vandalism charges, but there are places they can do graffiti, be a hip hop artist and be productive."
The class, and music, helped show kids that "they can definitely do good things with this kind of stuff."
Soon after he moved to Juneau in July of 2009 as a match support specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters, he got involved with Word 2 the Wize, a nonprofit that hosts a capella rap battles and hip hop shows. The organization was started by rapper Phonetic in 2008.
"He saw I was into the same stuff and we kind of built it together," he said.
Much of the time, the battles blend comedy, poetry and improvisation.
"The talent of these guys is crazy. They're just really smart guys, and really talented," he said. "We wanted to give them a platform."
Cramer sees rap battles as analogous to Ultimate Fighting, and, ultimately, would like to see them gain a similar prominence.
"There are real battles where people don't like each other, but in the majority, it's mutual respect," he said. "It's a little like wrestling that way."
So far, Word 2 the Wize has had two big events in Juneau, three in Sitka, and one in Anchorage, and they're planning more. Each event hosts five or six battles, as well as other performances.
"I would like people to see the true art form of it," Cramer said. "It's really bringing cultures together ... it's really intelligent and smart."
MTV featured Word 2 the Wize on "Guy Code" last summer.
"... would you have guessed there is a passionate hip-hop scene in southeast Alaska? It's not just the land of ice and snow and dogsleds and whale-blubber lamps," says the Guy Code blog. "There are talented rappers there like Manner and Phonetic ... "
Cramer started Diatribe Northwest, for which he goes by Manner, soon after arriving in Juneau. (DJ Judo is Diatribe NW's DJ.) Cramer describes the music as having "a lot of good soulful party beats."
With a background in sociology, he also likes to speak on issues like personal strife, cancer and the poverty line. (Songs like "No Pesticides," "Simplicity," and "Jesse James" are available for a listen on Spotify.)
An awareness of social issues is something common in hip hop music, he said.
"I think hip hop explains the struggle in all kinds of social issues," he said. "Hip hop made me want to read books, do all kinds of stuff. I feel like it's street knowledge - a lot of these hip hop artists could be professors in their own right. They're very smart, well read, and aware."
He'd like people to see "the true art form" of the battles, and the amount of talent and work that goes into it.
Now, Cramer is in his second semester of a Masters of Arts in Teaching at the University of Alaska Southeast. He wants to teach fourth or fifth grade.
"I'm lucky enough to have a mom that loves and supports my hip hop music. She didn't tell me to go a different direction," he said. "Whatever you do, be passionate in it."
Check out MTV's Guy Code blog about Word 2 the Wize here: http://guycodeblog.mtv.com/2013/06/07/hip-hop-in-alaska.
Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.