The Ancient Art of Battle Rapping
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s all about hurting your feelings and doing it with flair. Yeah, this is the hip-hop that you can’t dance to.
By Datwon Thomas
There’s a war going on and the battle lines are drawn.
It’s battle rap: the lyrical art of throwing down that’s reaching new heights in the YouTube era.
To understand the genre of battle rap, think of it this way: Imagine two rappers, standing anywhere between nose-to-nose to 2 feet apart. Add the ruggedness of a rabid, street-hardened crowd, the comedic timing/language of Eddie Murphy in his standup comic glory, soap-opera-like story lines between competitors, and, to top it off, the hyperbolic prefight commentary of WWF wrestlers.
The type of rap we are talking about: spitting lyrics to no musical soundtrack, straight a cappella for a few minutes, boxing-round style.
Got all that? Good. Because the market for this level of hip-hop mastery is at an all-time high. Eminem, a former battle champion, is thinking of sponsoring battles, and cable network BET has incorporated the battles into its popular 106th & Park video countdown show with a segment titled Ultimate Freestyle Friday. On YouTube, certain matchups can rack up hundreds of thousands of views.
Yeah, it’s bursting — but rap battle’s landscape has been around since the beginning of hip-hop. There was the ’80s Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee; ’90s/’00s Jay Z vs. Nas; and now, ’10s Kendrick Lamar vs. any of his rap peers in existence.
What’s the natural evolution from simple battle rapping? Battle leagues, causing an explosion in the popularity of the type of battle rap we are talking about: spitting lyrics to no musical soundtrack, straight a cappella for a few minutes, boxing-round style. These leagues are formed with turf-tested rappers from different regions, and the style has switched in the presentation of the setup. Take King of the Dot (aka KOTD), based out of Toronto, and heavily supported by way of hosting bouts by the hitmaking artist Drake. Grind Time is a favorite league that often operates out of Florida. The U.K. is even in on the act with the successful Don’t Flop franchise out in London.
Troy ”Smack” Mitchell turned it into a business — one that pitted street-smart, savvy lyricists against each other to prove whose wits were the wittiest.
And then there’s New York’s Ultimate Rap League (aka URL). This particular league is the grandfather of them all. It’s the one that matters most when the wins and losses of multi-league battle participants’ records are evaluated. The ringmaster of the battle behemoth, Troy “Smack” Mitchell, has taken his street DVD brand of the same name (Smack) and transformed it into an events platform that produces the face-to-face matchups.
Smack’s long road to success in this lane started with taking a segment on his DVD and turning it into a business — one that pitted street-smart, savvy and seriously talented lyricists against each other to prove whose wits were the wittiest. And while some of the lineups — which were face-to-face — got hostile, and even a few fists flew, the art form of making crowds of people “ooh” and ”ahh” from rhyming words prevailed. Leagues were needed to bring order to a genre that grew beyond the street curbs they were born on.
Eventually, the battles went off the streets and into clubs — even respected venues like New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Tickets to watch the lyrical smackdowns can go from $75 for general admission up to $250 for the VIP treatment.
The must-see of all the battles takes place most Augusts in New York — it’s URL’s main event, called Summer Madness. It’s stacked with a full bout card of the league’s hottest mic rippers, from both yesteryear and today. Watch below as URL’s star, the Harlem-repping Loaded Lux, destroys the confidence and cripples the career of an unsuspecting Detroit rapper named Calicoe. And keep track of the primer for Summer Madness 4 with URL’s upcoming pre-game bouts, named Night of Main Events (aka N.O.M.E.), happening June 7 at New York City’s Irving Plaza. It’s not to be missed.