Battle Rap’s Slow, Steady Rise From New York Streets To Mainstream TV

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“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 [1982]. 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.”

The rest of the ’80s and ’90s saw superstar rappers rise from the streets because of their superior battling skills. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously battled when they were in high school. There’s a famous video of Biggie battling in New York streets and Jay-Z and DMX battling on top of pool tables in NYC dives. Eventually, the battle rap scene spread across the country, and soon leagues formed pitting MCs against one another like lyrical versions of boxing matches.

The most infamous of these battles came in 1996 at an MC and DJ event called Scribble Jam in Cincinnati. The competition featured a battle rap between Chicago rapper Juice and as-yet undiscovered spitter from Detroit named Eminem. These battles were conducted with instrumentals playing in the background and rappers were expected to come up with their lines off the tops of their heads. This made for high stakes competitions with little margin for error.

The chubby Marshall Mathers ripped through five rounds of instrumentals and off-the-cuff barbs aimed at Juice, but lost by a hair. His rounds, though, full of multisyllabic rhyme schemes that were rare to find in freestyled raps at the time, got him the attention of Sway’s Wake Up Show LA radio program. When Sway invited Eminem to freestyle, he got the attention of Dr. Dre, who happened to be listening. Soon, Dre reached out to Em and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eminem scoring a deal with Aftermath based on his freestyles raised the profile of rap battles as a genre, because it showed a pathway from competitions to record deals and millions. Battle rap suddenly went from being a side hustle for rappers to earn extra money to one of the means for long-term music success and getting signed to a label.

There were two primary moments that pushed battle rap into the mainstream at the beginning the 21st century. One was the release of 8 Mile, the 2002 semi-autobigraphical film starring Eminem as a battle rapper in Detroit. The movie opened at No. 1 in the box office, earning $50 million in its first week and $200 million overall. The DVD ultimately became the highest-selling R-rated movie of all time. This is pivotal, because the extras on the DVD featured unedited raw rap battles between Eminem and actors on the set, who were also battle rappers themselves. One of those rappers was Marv Won, who went on to become one of the major battlers on the scene. The clips went viral — or as viral as things could go in 2002 — and were became highly talked about in hip-hop circles.

At the same time, BET’s 106 & Park began airing weekly Freestyle Friday competitions where battlers would spit over beats on live TV. Every Friday rap’s top battlers were on every teenagers’ TV screens once a week. We saw battlers like Jin, Loaded Lux and more giving viewers a glimpse into the battle rap world. These battles were pre-written and edited for TV, so they contained no foul language. They gave neutered versions of real battles, but enough there was still enough there to give casual fans a taste.

Jin, a rapper born in Miami whose parents are from Hong Kong, became damn near a household name for his battle prowess. He would always come equipped every week with rebuttals for rappers directing racially-charged bars about his ethnicity. His wit and charisma made him a recurring champion and, like Eminem, he landed a deal with a major label.

The other event that revolutionized battling was the release of a new video series in 2007 called Smack DVDs. They were essentially DVD magazines interviewing and filming rappers guerilla style throughout the streets of New York. They took battle rap back to what made it such a riveting and exhilarating exhibition: The unpredictability and rawness of the streets. The end of the DVDs featured battles that took the genre back to the ’80s — MCs squaring off on subway platforms, clothing stores and street corners for lyrical supremacy. They were performed acapella and rappers were encouraged to have their bars prewritten beforehand as opposed to freestyling like in years past.

Some of these battles became iconic and helped catapult battle rap into mainstream rap conversation as Youtube started to take off. Maybe the most popular battle from these tapes featured New York staple Murda Mook taking on crosstown rival Jae Millz, who had just achieved national exposure by battling E. Ness on MTV’s Making The Band. The two MCs went after each other on a literal street corner in front of dozens of spectators, losing their minds at every punchline. The Millz vs. Mook battle made Smack DVDs must-owns and bootlegged copies a necessity for anyone wanting to pass around talked-about battles.

The Smack DVDs eventually evolved into the Ultimate Rap League where monthly pay-per-views are streamed live across the internet and battles are held in large venues across the country in front of hundreds of fans. Their main competition is the Canadian-based King Of The Dot (KOTD) battle league. Each league has battles garnering millions of Yourube views and birthing an entire subgenre of Reddit-like rap fans following all of the self-referential lines and drama between MCs.

For URL, the mainstream breakout moment came in 2012 when Loaded Lux showed up in full funeral regalia, flaunting a new Nation of Islam-inspired rap style and catchphrases like “look at me king” and “look at him, emotional.” The battle is one of the most iconic in rap history, and has been quoted in rap songs since. Even Jay-Z tweeted about it, and he doesn’t tweet about anything. Since then, URL and KOTD have become kings of battle rap culture, earning millions of views per video. Drake has co-hosted KOTD events and shouted out battles throughout his career. Diddy and Busta Rhymes have appeared in URL crowds and these two leagues have become staples of hip-hop culture as a whole.

What can’t be ignored here is viral meme that has, in many ways, dominated 2017. You’ve probably seen the “skeptic guy” gif all over Twitter. Well, that’s actually battle rapper Conceited, who has performed on URL and KOTD and is on Nick Cannon’s Wild’N’Out show now, too.

Wild’N’Out isn’t the only cable TV show wanting to get in on the action and turn Youtube views into television ratings. TBS (yes, TBS) is launching a new show Drop The Mic, a celebrity battle rap show where MCs from KOTD will allegedly be doing some of the ghostwriting. It’s hard to say, but this feels like the point where battle rap officially becomes gentrified. We all knew it was inevitable, but as long as KOTD and URL stay true to their roots, we’ll continue to have a reminder of the battles that started out in the park all those years ago.