Battle rap is back, folks. Not that it ever really went away, mind you, it has simply been quietly growing in crowded clubs and on Youtube channels all over the country. Just as Mixed Martial Arts was a sport burgeoning on breakout success in the early 90’s, Paul Rosenberg and the boys from Slaughterhouse believe the form of vocal performance known as “battle rap” is likewise nearing its time of mainstream success. On one of the show’s promos, Joe Budden says “witness the birth of the next great American sports league” and on July 12 they present their first Total Slaughter live battle at Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC as Slaughterhouse’s own Joe Budden takes on Hollow da Don, and longtime stars of the sport, Murda Mook and Loaded Lux square off. As a shrewd precursor to this first of what they plan to make a series of live battles, the Shady Records affiliates along with watchLOUD.com are airing a four-part reality series entitled ‘Road to Total Slaughter’ whose contestants are competing for 2 undercard spots at the July event. Eight veterans of the battle rap game from all across the country must live together in the House of Slaughter in Brooklyn and compete in a single-elimination tournament for the top two spots. Each of Dizaster, Arsonal, Math Hoffa, Daylyt, Aye Verb, Big T, Cortez, and Marv Won displays a deep passion for the sport and a dedication to their craft making for both stiff competition and lively, informed conversation outside of the battles. Slaughterhouse serves as four-headed judge to the battles while Loaded Lux and Murda Mook reside in the house as mentors.
Battle rap takes its origin from one of the oldest traditions in hip-hop, the game The Dozens. Through decades of evolution the game of insults became musical tradition but never lost its edge of being close and personal. In 1981, Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee squared off at Harlem World in what is widely considered to be the genesis of modern battle rap, which you can check out here:
Over the next two decades the sport continued to evolve, with mainstays like the Rap Olympics in the New Jersey in the 90’s and Scribble Jam in Cincinnati a decade later. These days battle rap has found its largest success with a handful of companies putting together live events and posting the videos online. Names like Smack/URL, Grindtime, KOTD, UW and New York Rap Battle have become the foundation and international growth structure for the sport and for a good number of battlers it has financially paid off. While the real dollar figures are clouded in myth, many of the top artists in the battle rap arena (claim to) garner figures in the multiple-thousands range per battle, paid by promoters such as those mentioned above. The promoters are paid by advertisers based on their Youtube views and subscribers, which has resulted in great success for some and bankruptcy for others. The most popular form of battling has shed the need for beats, morphing into a format akin to high-octane slam poetry which, when done at its best, results in a pure, unfiltered connection between performer and hungry audience. One need only dig into some of the great battle videos on Youtube to see the way in which individual style can control, move, silence or erupt a crowd with a single bar. It’s difficult to make the case that the more mainstream version of rap entertainment possesses such a visceral, passionate connection to its audience. For starters, check out this vicious, highly-touted bout from earlier this year between Loaded Lux and Hollow da Don:
So the real question as Total Slaughter gets going is not whether there is an audience for the sport; that’s already been established. No, the real question is can it actually grab mainstream appeal, enough to result in a series of battles with advertiser support and financial stability? Can it withstand a growth to this level, while maintaining the very real feel of it? Or is there something inherent in battle rap that it not be mainstream? Is part of its “authenticity” tied to the not-sold-out, real-emotion feel that comes with the bright light of the mainstream not shining upon it? I can honestly say I don’t know but the possibilities are exciting. I’ve spent little to no time around the sport but the competitive edge inherent to hip-hop in a way that is unlike any other musical genre feeds a context and syntax of battling in its very nature. Freestyle sessions and battles are different (though one can sometimes turn into the other) but in each form there is a feeling of pure creativity, shared in the improvisations of jazz musicians and “jambands”. Battle raps are written (usually; freestyle at your own risk, they say) but until the battle begins the lyrical concepts exists nowhere but in the rapper’s mind. It’s that purity of forming one’s art completely within the moment that comprises the notion of its “realness” and it’s part of what separates the vocal sport from its older mainstream brother.
Much like MMA, battle rap can be harsh. Lyrics are often truly personal and brash, derisive, threatening insults are thrown around with ease. Standing face-to-face while hurling poetic anger in another grown man’s direction amidst a cheering, jeering, pulsing crowd may seem like the recipe for a vicious street fight but underneath this competition lies a comradery, one that similarly exists between fighters, or any athletic competitors really. The mutually-shared love for the sport exceeds – in most cases – the desire to turn the confrontation physical. Far more dap is given than punches thrown, but as Math Hoffa and Dizaster will attest, the tension and some of the animosity is very real. Will that threat of violence that underlies the spirit of battling keep the sport from ever achieving mainstream success? Will large promoters eventually want to clean up and change the format, watering the sport down into a remnant of itself? That remains to be seen but the involvement of Slaughterhouse and Shady Records automatically places the sport of battle rap on a larger, more mainstream stage. The question is whether it will be able to keep its edge and its authenticity, its beautiful brutality. I’ll be tuning in to find out.
‘Road to Total Slaughter’ airs Wednesdays at midnight on Fuse TV.
The July 12 event will be available for order on Pay-Per-View.
For some cool further viewing, check out these videos:
First, Loaded Lux is asked in an interview to name his top 5 battles of all time. After watching the interview, go find these battles.
A young Eminem takes on Juice at 1997’s Scribble Jam:
NJ’s Arsonal vs. STL’s Aye Verb:
Finally, Math Hoffa takes the fight to the British Don’tFlop arena to battle ShottyHorroh: