Battle Rap

Battle Rap

Them’s Fighting Words — HUCK goes inside the world of the rap battle leagues, and meets the fast-spitting, shit-talking comedic emcees who come armed with words and ready for war. It’s about to get real ugly.

David Adams is trying very hard not to be nervous.

From a distance, the stocky guy with the word ‘Jayden’ tattooed on his neck, looks calm. But get in close, ask him why he’s in the Fiddler’s Elbow pub in Kentish Town on a freezing January afternoon, and you’ll soon start seeing the little tics; the hands clenching and unclenching, the unconscious rubbing of his shaven skull. “I’ve done a few rap battles before up in Newcastle,” he says in a thick Northern accent. “This is the first one I’ve done in London, though. Spent 170 quid on the train to get here.”

He and his buddies stand off to one side, watching as the pub slowly fills up. The crowd is a mix of New Era fitted caps, testosterone and tattoos. But the mood is jubilant: winning or losing isn’t as important as putting on a good show. If they entertain the crowd, the battlers will gain entry to the ranks of Don’t Flop, the UK’s biggest rap battle league.

Adams – who battles under the name Adamzy – is in for a long wait. In the line-up of twelve one-on-one battles, his is number eleven, against someone named Master Krisp. He watches from the back as the host steps into the middle of the crowd, yelling at everybody to form a circle. This is Rowan Faife, better known as Eurgh (pronounced exactly as it’s spelt), and Don’t Flop is his show.

Eurgh and his organisation are part of a worldwide collection of leagues – others include Grind Time Now in the US, King Of The Dot in Canada and Got Beef? in Australia. They all operate the same way, and they all command a collective, online audience of millions. Top battlers aren’t just local heroes – they’re global superstars namedropped by obsessives like rare bird sightings.

Eurgh is a tough, ‘take-no-shit’ promoter. He calls the first battlers up: Mr Tongue Twister is rocking the regulation fitted cap, while Enigma is a heavily-tatted bruiser. They stand, hands in pockets, not meeting each other’s eyes. “We’re short of judges today,” says Eurgh loudly. “Any other battlers here want to step up and judge the rounds?”

Adamzy shouts out his name and sticks up his hand. Eurgh waves him over, and as he makes his way up to the front, a camera’s bright light flashes on. Every one of these battles will be filmed and posted to YouTube, and even the rappers who lose will be guaranteed thousands of views from an eager worldwide fan-base.

Eurgh starts his opening spiel to the camera, name-checking his league, shouting out the sponsors and battlers in attendance. He’s a showman at heart – a former battler who graduated to running a demanding organisation. But like a rap Vince McMahon, every so often he’ll jump right back in the ring, spitting bars alongside the other emcees.

“One minute. Go!” he says to Tongue Twister. And it’s on.

Modern rap battling works like this. There are no beats and no mics. Almost every rhyme will have been prewritten days or weeks in advance, with opponents studied and dissected for weaknesses. Anything goes; literally everything is fair game. Family members, race, physical defects, sexual preferences – as long as it’s rhymed, it’s all good. Obvious and clumsy are bad. Witty and cunning are good. Rhythm is not important, but theatricality, comedic timing and personality are. Make the crowd laugh, and you’ll walk away from the battle a winner.

Each rapper takes turns with three one-minute rounds. Tongue Twister’s verse is good, but it’s clear that Enigma has a bright future in the league. “I’m so high above you lyrically, I practically live in the sky,” he spits at high speed, getting up in Twister’s face. “You look like a mix between John Terry and an illegitimate, little-titted, syphilitic dyke.” The crowd explodes, screaming and laughing in a huge burst of noise. Casual misogyny aside, when an emcee is on form, as Enigma is today, it can be as riveting as a great monologue.

When Enigma and Twister are done, the camera pans around the judges to gauge reactions. “Close battle, but definitely Enigma,” says Adamzy. Enigma wins with a unanimous vote, and he and Twister hug it out, patting each other’s backs in the middle of the circle.

Next up, a plain-clothed guy named Eek takes on a scruffy, lethargic dude called ShakeSpliff. And this one gets ugly. Circus ugly. ShakeSpliff is outgunned on every front by Eek’s meticulously well-prepared barrage of punchlines. Finally, Spliff cracks. He stands, staring at his feet, muttering, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” as if the litany will help his next bar to spring to mind. The crowd is dead silent.

Then, something odd happens. There’s a voice from the crowd. “Just start from the beginning of your verse. It’ll come to you!” Enigma shouts. There’s no malice in his voice. He – like the rest of the crowd – wants Spliff to do well. They want hot bars. Crazy punchlines. They want to be entertained.

But Spliff can’t salvage it. Eek takes the win, his place in the league assured.

So, how did rap battling get this way? How did it turn into a kind of consciously staged reality show, where almost every lyric is pre-written, there’s no beat to speak of and everything is caught on camera? Where you can throw an insult at somebody that, anywhere else on earth, would get you a pounding, but somehow here ends in high-fives and hugs?

Up until the early 2000s, battles were usually done over beats, with microphones and regimented sixteen-bar verses. Becoming well known was a lot harder, unless you snuck onto a VHS compilation or got to battle live on the radio.

But then YouTube happened. It reached into the battle rap scene, grabbed, twisted and turned the whole damn thing inside out. It wasn’t just that rappers could now have their victories seen by an audience of millions. It was that the format of the battles changed completely. If you want to film a battle, then a mic and a beat pumping through the speakers is going to sound distorted and horrible – and those rappers on stage are going to look super small. Far better to film them close-up, and lose the mic and the beats.

“You get a lot more articulate and lyrical when there are no restrictions, like the beat,” says Eurgh’s partner Cruger (Freddie Scott-Miller), who handles much of Don’t Flop’s video work. “In beat battles, the lyrics are a lot simpler. I love that form of art as well, but I think it’s turned into something different, where it’s a lot more complex.”

It’s an opinion shared by anybody who organises battles and relies on that immediacy for their income. Decoy (Garry McComasky) runs the Australian league Got Beef?, and according to him, the format works just fine. “You can hear every single word that a rapper has spat, line for line,” he explains. “Back in the day, it was battles over beats, and depending on how the sound system was, you couldn’t hear some lines. Even the good rappers would run out of breath now and then, trying to cram too many words into a sentence over one beat.”

But if YouTube was the earthquake that shook up the scene, there were still a few aftershocks on the way. When YouTube first became popular, The Jump Off, a UK company run by music entrepreneur Ara Stevens, organised a World Rap Championship. Fuelled by YouTube views, it had rankings, stats and a huge cash prize of $10,000. For around three years until 2008, it persisted, then slowly fizzled out due to financial constraints. So, smaller leagues started springing up in its place.

Modern rap battles came of age in a world of Twitter, of democratised access and little companies doing big things. Where The Jump Off was big and unwieldy, these leagues keep it simple, and offer minimal financial reward. Instead, they capitalise on the fact that there are a hell of a lot of eager battlers dying to step in the ring. And so, where the cash-rich league failed, the smaller leagues have thrived, attracting sponsors eager to get their logos in front of hundreds of thousands of online viewers and take full advantage of a world geared to instant access.

But back to that reality show thing. Key battles are hyped up weeks in advance, feverishly discussed on Twitter and Facebook, with opponents encouraged to bait each other long before they actually face off. One of the biggest criticisms of the battle leagues is that the people doing it aren’t really rappers at all: they’re just two dudes throwing ‘yo momma’ jokes at each other. If anything, the battles you see at Don’t Flop are what would happen if stand-up comedy grew teeth.

In many ways, the people in rap battles aren’t traditional emcees – most will never bother recording over beats. They’re a new breed of rapper, wearing rap like a tattoo while beneath the skin beats the heart of a comedian. According to Eurgh, it’s the comedy that makes it so much fun to watch. “When you’ve got the time, the comedic [element] plays such a big part in it. A pause or a look… on a beat you can’t do that! You get battlers who don’t consider themselves to be rappers. They don’t make music, and they don’t even have the pretence of riding a beat. I’ve invited people to beat battle tournaments and I respect them when they say, ‘I’m not gonna enter that, ’cos I’d be shit.’ That’s fine!”

He continues: “People pay to come to the battles, and they’d rather watch a bunch of people spitting flawless disses that are worded really well, delivered really well and practised, rather than seeing people right then and there going, ‘Um, ah, er…’ It’s evolved. I’ll never complain about it being pre-written.”

“You’ll find that a lot of people who come to our events don’t necessarily even like hip hop,” adds Decoy. “They like the jokes, they like the stand-up comedy side to it. They like seeing two guys break each other down verbally, and just mess with each other.”

The format certainly has its critics. Enlish (Dave Pererra) is a Cornwall emcee who took home Battle of the Year in 2011 for his bout against Cruger. But while he might have been an active battler with several victories to his name, he’s gently critical of the scene. “My main issue with it is that it has become its own geeky subculture,” he explains. “I know kids who have learned to rap without a beat, which negates the whole point as far as I’m concerned. They learn to rap a capella, and they don’t even get into hip hop – they get into rap battling.”

But the one thing that nobody criticises is perhaps the most offensive part of the entire setup: the relaxed attitude towards insults that, in any other situation, could get you killed. People go off on each other in battles – and for first-time watchers, it can be uncomfortable. So, it’s a surprise when Eurgh and Cruger argue that, despite the massive homophobia, casual racism and horrific sexism thrown around in any battle, the battles have their own moral code.

Apparently, it’s all about the crowd. You can be as racist as you like, as mean and dirty and horrible as you want, and still lose the battle. Being offensive won’t get you the win. Ripping off a battler, like Uno Lavos, for being Puerto Rican is lazy – and more importantly, he’ll just smile at you and keep on coming, brushing aside the insults like old cobwebs. But finding a clever or funny way to mock his heritage will get you points – and that elusive love from the crowd, which means props from the judges.

“If you have fun with the stereotype, then it becomes acceptable,” says Eurgh. “If you use race jokes to get the crowd on your side, they have to be really funny. If you flip it up and make it rhyme really well, and deliver it in a cocky way, then people will love it, and your opponent will probably laugh!”

Justifying the casual racism and sexism in battle raps is absolutely impossible. But when you start to see the battles through this strange moral lens (where prejudice and piss-taking are considered entirely different things), you begin to understand it, if not perhaps condone it.

There’s an odd side effect to this radical freedom of speech that puts rap battling in a category all on its own. Where else in society can you say anything you like, without the fear of repercussions? Plus, there’s rarely any lasting beef between rappers. If anything, battling breeds friendships, not feuds.

“It’s the most bizarre way to make friends,” laughs Enlish. “Insulting somebody as horribly as you possibly can, and then it’s all water under the bridge. You chill out and have a pint afterwards, like two boxers beating the shit out of each other then going out for a drink. Like Rocky and Apollo.”

No story on rap battling would be complete without a word from O’Shea – a UK legend whose quick-witted bars have elevated him to the elite. He’s not in the Fiddler’s Elbow today, but he’s a fixture at most other Don’t Flop events. Though frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who looks more out of place in a battle situation.

O’Shea – who battles under his surname – looks like any local down the pub who’s wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. He’s a jovial, chubby dude who works nights stacking shelves at his local Morrison’s supermarket. In a battle, he’ll stand there, bearing his huge teeth in a shit-eating grin, a pint in his hand, as the crowd gets hyped and his opponent tries to mean-mug him. But then Eurgh will give him the signal, and he’ll verbally pummel his opponent into a bloody red mist.

“I just enjoy it for the laugh of it,” he says. “I enjoy the weekend away. I’ve got nothing bad to say against rap battling.”

O’Shea, perhaps more than any other rhymer, is here to entertain the crowd. “To be entertaining is more important than anything to do with rap battles,” he says, surprisingly humble and soft-spoken when out of the arena. “You’ve got to entertain, you’ve got to hold the crowd. There are rappers that are technically brilliant, but if you can’t control a crowd and physically get three or four hundred people focused on what you’re saying, you’re not going to be able to do it. The people who can take the piss out of themselves are better rappers, and have a better chance of winning battles.”

Back at the Fiddler’s Elbow, it’s Adamzy’s turn. Four hours have passed since he adjudicated Enigma’s win, and he looks tired. But he gives it his all, spitting in that thick accent: “How does it feel to know you’ll never be a star on a label, like Newcastle Brown Ale?”

Heartbreakingly, it’s just not good enough. Master Krisp might have a silly name, but his bars are hot, and Adamzy narrowly loses. But in a way, it’s not a loss, really – not when the crowd laughed along with every line. Eurgh and Cruger will have to review the footage, but his chances of being invited back look good.

The future of the battle leagues is promising, and the organisations seem to just get bigger and better. Whether they can sustain it in the long term, or whether fans will get tired of the format after a while and move on, remains to be seen. But even if they were all to shut down tomorrow, in a haze of moral condemnation, there’d quite simply be nothing else like them.