Drake’s URL-Caffeine Partnership Is Another Big Step For Battle Rap’s Growth

Yesterday, Drake’s latest foray into lyrical warfare was unveiled to the world. No, there isn’t a new round in the Drake vs. Pusha T scuffle (for now). Drizzy is partnering with Ultimate Rap League (URL), the world’s preeminent battle league, on their integration into the Caffeine App. Drake announced a “multi-year partnership” with Caffeine, which is described as “a social broadcasting platform for gaming, entertainment, and the creative arts” on the official site.

Along with his own channel, which Drake may or may not livestream from, he linked URL with Caffeine “with the objective of making battle rap easier to access in your home or on your mobile device,” as he said on Twitter.

Drake’s marathon Fortnite Twitch stream with Ninja showed that he’s tuned into the growing world of streaming platforms. And he’s also been tapped into battle rap for almost a decade. The Toronto artist has attended battle events at URL and the Toronto-based King Of The Dot (KOTD) league. He put up money for KOTD’s Dizaster-DNA classic, and in 2013 was allegedly this close to facing legendary battler Murda Mook on KOTD before it was quashed at the last moment.

But now he’s partnering with URL, who is changing their business model in a major way. The league had most recently been charging around $50 for live pay per view events and temporary VOD access. The battles would then be gradually uploaded onto the $8-a-month phone app, often weeks (or months) later. But now, according to URL, “three or four” of an event’s battles will be streamed for free on Caffeine, then the full event will be gradually uploaded onto the URL App. The URL YouTube channel, which has already been used sparingly since their App came out last May, will see even fewer battles.

And now Drake can be involved in the battle rap culture without taking the stage. The partnership with Caffeine and Drake, the world’s biggest rapper, is another evolution for URL, which has continued to evolve and gain visibility over the past decade. Some diehard fans are torn about the new model for various reasons, but it’s hard to deny the vision of the ambitious Black-owned business.

The league, which is headed by Troy “Smack” Mitchell and Eric Beasley, has come a long way. Smack is regarded by many as the godfather of battle rap, and credited with pioneering the modern battle rap scene. Most fans associate battle rap with Eminem’s 8 Mile and BET’s 106 &Park, freestyle format, but the scene has since shifted to unjudged, pre-written rhymes. In the middle of late rapper’s Big L’s “98 Freestyle,” he admits to writing his bars in a battle format because “n****s been battlin’ on the block lately,” referring to Harlem battle rap legends like Loaded Lux, T-Rex, Murda Mook and Jae Millz, and many others. These rhymers were going block-to-block in Harlem, sparring with each other for rounds at a time. In the early-to-mid 2000s, Smack was a street journalist who went all over New York to interview recording artists and film behind the scenes footage. He began augmenting SMACK DVDs with footage of these battles.

In time, the battles became many people’s favorite part of the SMACK DVDs. But as the DVD format phased out, SMACK battles gradually fizzled toward the end of the 2000s. In 2009, after the success of leagues like Grind Time and Loaded Lux’ Lionz Den, SMACK rebranded as the URL and started uploading battles to YouTube. The early days of the league were spurred by the infamous rivalry between New York/New Jersey rappers and the “Midwest movement” of rappers from St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. That friction came to a head with the 2011 battle between Detroit’s Calicoe and Loaded Lux. Lux’s charismatic performance, “you gon’ get this work” catchphrase, and masterful breakdown of Calicoe being a “lost n****” helped the URL transcend into pop culture for the first time. Jay-Z, Drake, Rick Ross, TNT’s Inside The NBA, and others referenced Lux’ performance. From that point, the scene continued to grow, with industry figures like Drake, Canibus, and Cassidy getting involved.

The URL has continued to expand in recent years, developing an App that houses most of its recent battles. They also began hosting pay-per-view events. Fans like me had to previously wait for YouTube uploads of battles that could take weeks (or months) if they didn’t attend the actual event. They’ve been running like a well-oiled machine lately, which is a far cry from the days when battlers would haggle over being owed money and certain battles couldn’t occur because of budgetary constraints. Nowadays, URL has the bag, and the Caffeine deal likely bolsters their resources.

As a self-proclaimed student of the game, it’s hard for Drake to not have been tuned into the URL’s growth. The scene too-often goes viral for embarrassing moments like fights and white people saying the N-word, but battle rappers are bar-for-bar among the best in the world, excluding nobody. Don’t let shows like Drop The Mic confuse you. The battle rappers’ dilemma is different than that of a recording artist. The average rapper can perform their hits for a slew of fans who happily recite lines they know like the back of their hand. Battlers are tasked to come up with roughly nine minutes of original material (three 3-minute rounds) and perform it once. Cold. Often in front of hundreds or thousands of people. If they slip up on a single word of their rhyme, they’re often booed mercilessly.

The industry-battle rap dynamic is akin to the NBA-And1 streetball relationship of the early 2000s. It’s the same craft, but a slightly different game — one that few mainstream lyricists can hang in.

There’s a level of performance art required in modern battle rap that most lyricists simply don’t have. Aye Verb and Loaded Lux’ intricate lyricism deserves the same explicative breakdowns as your favorite MC. Rum Nitty, Nu Jerzey Twork, and JC have written some of rap’s most rewind-worthy lines. Tsu Surf, Geechi Gotti, Tay Roc and Chess deliver top tier street talk. Hitman Holla and K-Shine combine their bars with especially exhilarating live performances. Hollow Da Don, DNA, Chef Trez, and Charlie Clips (who appeared with Hitman on Nick Cannon’s “The Invitation“ Eminem diss) are capable of freestyling for entire rounds. Official, Ms. Hustle, Jaz The Rapper, and E.Hart are among the best women in the sport. Arsonal, who recently battled Cassidy, is as disrespectful as it gets, while Goodz is a New York slick talker who also beat Cassidy by consensus opinion.

Those are just a few of the rappers who’ve helped URL affirm their branding as “the world’s most respected battle league.” They have accrued over a million YouTube subscribers. Philipines’ FlipTop League is technically the biggest in the world, with 4.1 YouTube subscribers, but FlipTop artists only rap in the Filipino language. URL is by far the biggest English-speaking league in the world. And this move will help them get even bigger.

The possibilities for growth are immense. Battle rap is a bustling community, but it’s still pretty small. There are few battle rappers who can afford to quit their job and become professional battlers. This move could shift that dynamic, with more potential sponsors and opportunities for battlers to parlay their visibility into opportunities like DNA and K-Shine’s work on ESPN’s NFL Countdown.

If the Caffeine partnership is successful, other industry artists or entities might decide to get involved in battling or investing in other popular leagues like Rare Breed Entertainment (RBE) and KOTD. Would the increased attention coax known fans like Jadakiss, Lupe Fiasco, Lloyd Banks, or Fabolous into the ring? There are many questions, but one sure thing is that URL’s presence on Caffeine is a step further toward their goal of pushing battle rap into mainstream pop culture.