It seems that on a night when it was potentially reaching its greatest audience, battle rap (or at least some of its biggest stars) wasn’t quite ready for the limelight. Complete with a paid livestream that crashed, allegations of fixed outcomes, a Daylyt meltdown of foolish proportions, more than one rapper not making it through their entire battle, and amateurish microphone issues, last Saturday’s live PPV event left many people wondering if there would be a second one and where battle rap might go next on the mainstream level.
The night was comprised of four matchups: two that were determined by the results of the show “Road to Total Slaughter”, the long-awaited rematch of their 2007 battle between Murda Mook and Loaded Lux, and the top-billed Joe Budden vs. Hollow da Don. Sway served as master of ceremonies with DJ KaySlay onstage performing a role that was unclear. Royce da 5’9” and Ebro from Hot97 performed a minute-long “color commentary” from the mezzanine after each match, but neither had much insightful to add and mostly served as distraction while the judges “deliberated”. The crowd seemed to be populated with a fair share of celebrities – Kid Capri, Busta Rhymes, Victor Cruz and others got multiple shout outs as Sway worked to fill delays onstage. And while the viewing audience was vocal at points, much of the show felt as though the crowd needed to be convinced they were having a good time. To call the event a failure would be to ignore some of the great performing that did take place, specifically from Arsonal, Mook and Hollow. Though heavily reliant on gun talk Arsonal, for example, dominated his match with Big T, clear and sharp with his punchlines, in control with good stage presence. Big T represented well but simply didn’t have the power to match Ars’ clever combination of gangsta and comedy. But where Total Slaughter was hoping to shine a light on an under-appreciated artform and make a wave as the event that brought it to the mainstream, the missteps added up to a night that seemed difficult to control and wrought with amateurism.
At its best, battle rap brings out sincere responses from the crowd, “oo”’s that can’t be held back when an emcee lands a particularly poignant punch. This can be a double-edged sword for some battlers though, as they struggle to be heard over loud responses (positive or negative) and worry about losing precious time on the clock. In my opinion (bearing in mind that my experience with the sport goes back about a total of three weeks), a battle rapper, like any good performer, should be able to go with the flow, relishing in the crowd response, controlling it without giving the impression that it’s an inconvenience to their performance. Some battlers call for the clock to be stopped during times of crowd response – Arsonal does it often, and as Joe Budden’s battle became more uphill he found himself also yelling “Stop my time!” to an unseen clock manager. Battling requires an immense of memorization and concentration and some emcees find themselves turning on their audience. In the final moments of his third round Budden showed his frustration with an increasingly unsupportive crowd by saying, “If y’all keep booing I’m gonna stop rapping completely.” He did just that, with what must have been about a minute left on his clock, and put the mic down on the stage. Hollow took this as an opportunity, grabbing the mic and adding a few final lines out of turn before Sway was able to wrestle the mic away:
“Eminem ain’t gonna like that / you put the mic down, you don’t want to fight back / you acting like a bitch again, I’ma strike back”
Hollow da Don has a knack for truly digging into his opponents, making them look foolish and pulling at their central flaws. This ability, which makes him an always formidable opponent, shined in his match earlier this year against Loaded Lux and again on Saturday against Joe Budden. Whether or not Joe was fighting an underdog battle from the beginning, by the end of the match the difference between real battle rapper and industry cat wandering into the genre was ostensibly clear. Joe deserves to be commended for taking the risk of a commercially successful artist getting in the ring in the first place (although, as he put it, “200 grand for ten minutes of work, I don’t really see a loss in that”). The risk noted, though, Joe did manage to exemplify the critiques put forth before the battle, coming off as arrogantly ignorant and enjoying his own material more than anyone else in the room. Hollow came out firing, immediately attacking the show’s organizers, claiming improper payment, exploitation and a general lack of understanding of the sport, ramping it up at one point with
“Jimmy Iovine die please and Rosenberg eat a dick you fat piece of shit!”
Joe comes back at Hollow with the flipside of the same coin, talking about how much money and success he has, seeming to not realize that as one of the show’s organizers this only served to make Shady look, well, shady. Hollow didn’t kill quite it in his third round, but with victories in the first two rounds that’d be hard to dispute, his focus on Budden’s women issues was a somewhat safe choice for the closing round.
To say the microphone issues during the big match were comical is certainly an understatement. In recent years, battle rap has moved to small lavalier microphones, enabling greater freedom for the performer not having to hold a mic. The problems began when Hollow was set to begin and everyone discovered he didn’t yet have a microphone. Delay, mic him up, lots of shouts to “turn it up, turn the mic up… where the mic guy at?” The issues continued during Budden’s half of the round, as he impatiently switched between three different mics in an effort to find a sound he liked. Delay, “turn my mic, turn it up… Alex, Alex, (the sound guy, we imagine), Alex turn my mic waaay up… but don’t let it feedback”. This audio engineer’s nightmare took place before each of Budden’s rounds, each with delays that slowed the vibe of the show and displayed a general lack of control.
In my previous article, I compared battle rap to MMA in the early 2000’s, a sport waiting for its chance to break through to the mainstream. In its finest moments, Saturday’s event showcased some of the truly unique talent that battle rap brings to hip-hop. Where the night fell, though, it fell hard and by the end it seemed a grueling struggle to keep the audience involved and entertained. Though not a total loss, Total Slaughter showed that the sport still has growing pains to endure and perhaps Shady Records is ultimately not the proper company to bring it to the masses.
Watch the complete Joe Budden and Hollow da Don match here: