“Hip-hop was set out in the dark / They used to do it out in the park.” — MC Shan “They Used To Do It Out In The Park”
While the 1980s saw New York’s boroughs filled with street ballers looking to hone their craft challenging other basketball players for blacktop supremacy, the city also played host to numerous other challenges on street corners from Queens to Harlem. A new musical genre was rising. You already know where this is going, they called it hip-hop and though it was still new, prospective MCs wanted to go toe-to-toe with one another to see who could land the most impactful lyrical jabs.
Rappers would face off in front of small crowds of their peers to see who could land lines with the biggest responses, often insulting one another in the process. These rhymes were usually extemporaneous, coming right off the dome, or freestyles. The tradition was carried over from an African-American cultural staple called “playing the dozens.” It was a pastime based on lighthearted joking and jabs, with origins in New Orleans’ Congo Square during slavery. Now rechristened battle rap, it has run through the genre as a steady undercurrent over the past three decades.
Many of the most renowned MCs from the ’80s came up as battle rappers. Big Daddy Kane preached the gospel of battle rap as it gave him his start: “I started as a battle rapper,” he told VladTV in 2014. “I was going to different neighborhoods around Brooklyn battling cats back in . Before I actually got a deal I don’t think I battled any known artists.”
Like streetball, battle rap is full of unknown MCs who never got their break in the big league as many of the battles went unrecorded, only spreading throughout the New York streets through word of mouth. However, in 1981, one such battle became part of rap lore forever.
Busy Bee used to MC at the Harlem World night club, entertaining the crowd and calling out local rappers who he felt he was superior to. One such rapper was Kool Moe Dee who happened to be in attendance one fateful night in ’81. Kool Moe Dee decided to take the stage, he grabbed the mic and torched Busy Bee, much to the crowd’s delight.
The legendary MC Grandmaster Caz was in attendance at the face-off, and as he said in a 2015 interview, “[Kool Moe Dee] changed the way people battled… battling before that was just a test of skill: You say a rhyme, I say a rhyme. Whoever had the better rhyme wins, not you talk about me and I talk about you.”