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Battle rap (also known as rap battling) is a type of rapping that includes bragging, insults and boasting content. Battling can occur on recorded albums, though rap battles are often recited or freestyled spontaneously in live battles, "where MCs will perform on the same stage to see who has the better verses".
Battle rap is described by 40 Cal in the book How to Rap as "extracurricular" and he compares it to the dunk contest in the NBA. Rap battles are often written solely for the purpose of impressing people with technically inventive rapping, and knowing a wide variety of rapping styles and a wide range of MCs is recommended. Some MCs started out writing mostly battle raps and battling other MCs before they began making records.
The creative use of language has always been a defining feature of Afro-based communities the world over. From the venerated Griots of West Africa to the crowdrocking chanters of Jamaica, the battle-ready Toyi-Toyi warriors of South Africa and animated American Southern Baptist preachers, men (and women) of words have also held an important place in African communities on the continent and in the diaspora. Today, nowhere is this more visible than in hip-hop culture, in which the artists have become the ambassadors of a community, generation and culture through their stories, dress, demeanor and overall use of language. The origins of rap battles have been traced back to boxer Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, with his rhythmic trash talking before and after fights, as well as his spoken word album I Am the Greatest.
Rap battle is generally believed to have started in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1980s. One of the earliest and most infamous battles occurred in December 1982 when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starski - Busy Bee Starski's defeat by the more complex raps of Kool Moe Dee meant that "no longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller" thus, rendering Busy's archaic format of rap obsolete, in favor of a newer style which KRS-One also credits as creating a shift in rapping in the documentary Beef.
In the 1980s, battle raps were a popular form of rapping - Big Daddy Kane in the book How to Rap says, "as an MC from the '80s, really your mentality is battle format... your focus was to have a hot rhyme in case you gotta battle someone... not really making a rhyme for a song". Battle rapping is still sometimes closely associated with old school hip-hop - talking about battle rapping, Esoteric says, "a lot of my stuff stems from old school hip-hop, braggadocio ethic".
Some of the most prominent battles that took place on record are listed in the book, ego trip's Book of Rap Lists, and include such battles as the Roxanne Wars (1984-1985), Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions (1986-1988), Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J (1987-1991), MC Serch vs. MC Hammer (1989-1994), Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg vs. Luke (1992-1993), Common vs. Ice Cube (1994-1996), MC Pervis & Brand New Habits and LL Cool J vs. Canibus (1997-1998) - all of which include memorable battle rap verses.
As hip-hop asserted its presence across the country, MC battles were growing in popularity. One of the early predecessors of the contemporary, more confrontational variation of battle rap was the 1994 face-off between Craig G and Supernatural. The battle happened organically, by virtue of Supernatural calling out Craig G while he was performing. As it so happened, Craig G was in the crowd, and the host invited him to the stage. Craig G won the battle that evening. The two would go on to meet on two other occasions during the 1990s, thereby establishing a place in battle rap as one of the earliest and most exciting sagas in the subculture.
From the late 1990s to end of the 2000s, freestyle rapping became very popular, with many artists getting attention for new styles, charisma, and witty punchlines in battles such as Scribble Jam and Rocksteady. These battles were usually three rounds to each, and the MC's would switch turns while rapping over older rap instrumentals. Battle rap flourished at this time, showing the underground rap scene and exposing some of the most respected freestyle battlers of all time, including Juice, Eyedea, Sage Francis and P.E.A.C.E.
Following the resurgence of freestyle battling in the 21st century, competitions began to move to TV shows shown on HBO, BET, and MTV. In addition, Eminem's movie 8 Mile introduced a fantasized version of freestyle battling to mainstream movie audiences, as the raps are scripted beforehand with much review.
Starting in the early 2000's, Freestyle Friday is a watered-down battle segment on BET's popular show 106 & Park. Two rappers compete in a freestyle battle before the studio audience and three celebrity judges (the DJ sometimes acts as the 3rd judge). Each competitor alternates freestyling for 30 seconds in each of the two rounds (originally only 1 round when the segment first began). The rappers are not allowed to use profanities or sexually suggestive lyrics, punishable by disqualification. After the battle, the judges decide the winner, per majority vote.
Eventually, battle rap moved to a format which is now the predominant form of battle rap, where two emcees battle against each other without a beat, trading prewritten verses in three-round battles. The impromptu aspect of battling still exists in the form of rebuttals, which are short rhymes (usually in the beginning of a verse) where an emcee either comments on something about their opponent that was thought up on the spot (for instance, making fun of the shirt they're wearing), or responds to something their opponent said during their previous round. While not as prominent as it once was, the art of rebutting is still respected by many as difficult to do correctly, and a sign of a well-rounded emcee.
While many creative minds were battling and organizing battles in the early 2000s, one entrepreneur in particular is synonymous with the advent of organized league battle rap: Tony "Smack" Mitchell of Queens New York. Gathering battle rappers of hood renown including Serius Jones of New Jersey and Loaded Lux, Murda Mook and Jae Millz of Harlem, Smack began recording battles, printing and hand-selling the DVDs--a cutting edge technological and artistic hustle at the time. While the first set of 1000 DVDS printed in 2003 took a while to catch on since they were all sold by hand, Smack was selling upwards of 40,000 DVDs nationwide by 2007, and by 2009, he had formally organized the growing stable of rappers into a league, which he called the Ultimate Rap League (URL).
Fight Klub is one of the earliest battlerap leagues and was the only league that aired on TV. It aired on MTV2 sometime in 2006. It is hosted by international P. A lot of the original rappers on there are now legendary in the battle rap game such as Arsonal, Jin, Hollow da don.
Jump Off TV's World Rap Championships premiered in London 2006, featuring American and British rappers.
In Cuba, freestyle battles often follow organized concerts and juxtapose composed songs with 'flowing' lyrics that are relevant to the present situation. Freestyling can allow audience members to integrate into the performance stage. This provides a forum for up-and-coming underground artists to engage in a musical discussion with already prominent underground Cuban rappers. Freestyle battles often turn political when artists incorporate perspectives on social disparities and issues plaguing the Cuban population.
In the Philippines, the freestyle battle is popularly known as FlipTop, it is the first and largest rap conference founded by Alaric Riam Yuson in February 6, 2010 which revives rap music industry and Philippine poetic debate known as Balagtasan. Some emcees from this league gained commercial success.
A freestyle battle is a contest in which two or more rappers compete or battle each other using improvised lyrics. Each competitor's goal is to 'diss' their opponent through clever lyrics. As hip-hop evolved in the early 1980s MCs gained their fame through live battles with other MCs. Freestyle battles can take place anywhere: street corners, on stage at a concert, in school or even online.
The live audience is critical to a battle as each Emcee (MC; Master of Ceremonies) must use skill and lyrical ability to not only 'break down' his or her opponent, but to convince the audience that they are the better rapper. Appointed judges have been used in formal contests, but even when no winner is announced, the rapper who receives the best audience response is viewed as the victor. In addition, it is considered by some to be an act of dishonor to recite written and memorized raps in a freestyle battle, because it shows the rapper to be incapable of 'spitting' spur-of-the-moment lyrics. Currently, talents such as Hollow Da Don uses various elements of battle rap that include reciting a written format created through months of preparation mixed with freestyled lines as means to attacking his opponent or creating an image of himself as greater that his adversary. This is presented in his battle vs Tay Roc in the main event of the Ultimate Rap League's "Summer Madness 6," a battle that the general consensus believes that Hollow Da Don walked away from in victorySummer Madness 6 main event. Fellow battle rap peer Conceited has made a name for himself in this field as well as a more popularized version of competitive rapping on a television platform. While he takes a more humorous approach to his opposition, he still performs with the intentions of winning a contest.
A cypher is any collection or gathering of rappers, beatboxers, or breakers forming in a circle in order to perform together - the term has also in recent years come to mean the crowd which forms around the battles, consisting of spectators and onlookers. This group serves partly to encourage competition and partly to enhance the communal aspect of rap battles. The cipher is known for "making or breaking reputations in the hip hop community; if you are able to step into the cipher and tell your story, demonstrating your uniqueness, you might be more accepted". These groups also serve as a way for messages about hip hop styles and knowledge to be spread, through word-of-mouth and encouraging trends in other battles.
Leagues such as King of the Dot, GrindTime Now and Dont Flop all started in 2008, with Ultimate Rap League starting in 2009, and furthered the popularity of battle rap via video hosting website YouTube, brand marketing, and creating divisions across their home nations and beyond.
King of the Dot's Travis Fleetwood, a.k.a. Organik, built a reputation as one of Canada's elite battle emcees with 4 wins at the Toronto-based freestyle competition Proud 2B Eh Battle MC, where he met a local producer/DJ by the name of RyanPVP. They teamed up to put together the first event which was initially intended to be a flash mob style event at Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto. However, the police presence and private security at the location forced the event to move down the road to an alley beside radio station Flow 93.5. After a few events at that location, they were unable to accommodate the growing crowds, so Organik opted to re-locate to Alexandra Park for the wide open space and gritty location. The crisp visuals and production value, as well as local celebrity guest judges contributed to King of the Dot's rise.
Smack and Ultimate Rap League (URL) are New York-based battle leagues. Rappers included Aye Verb (StreetStatus), Conceited (LionsDen), DNA (GrindTimeNow) Hitman Holla (StreetStatus), Tay Roc (LionsDen), Hollow Da Don (GrindTimeNow) and many more.
The first all-female rap battle league, called Queen of the Ring was founded in 2010 in response to the Ultimate Rap League. Although female battle rappers such as Mis Led and Drizz Mami existed in other leagues, they were significantly less prevalent in the scene. Queen of the Ring gained attention quickly, as well as an avid fan base. It is now considered one of the "Top Five" big battle leagues (along with Versus battle, URL, Don't Flop, KOTD). Many female battlers are widely known in the community, with female battles in the majority of big events held by any of the other "Top Five" leagues. As female battlers have gained recognition, male versus female battles have also become popular.
Don't Flop is a popular UK rap battle league founded in 2008, following a controversial judging decision in which co-founder, Eurgh, was denied a place in the finals of a tournament run by the then-dominant battle league, JumpOff. Since then, notable appearances include Rizzle, Illmaculate, Mystro, and Harry Love. Don't Flop came to mainstream UK media attention in 2012 when one of their battles became a viral video, purportedly showing a teacher battling his student. Although the battlers in question, Mark Grist and Blizzard were not student and teacher, the narrative was enough to give the league a huge boost in exposure. In 2014, former Don't Flop performers and staff broke away to form King of the Ronalds as a reaction to Don't Flop's move towards a more sanitized version of the product and sponsorship from the likes of Foot Locker. King of the Ronalds presents a more raw ethos, with a philosophy that has much in common with the early punk rock movement. The league markets itself primarily using videos of tense physical confrontations between battlers, something other leagues are keen to distance themselves from.
FlipTop Battle League, Bahay Katay Battle League, Laglagan Battle League and WordWar Battle League are examples of rap battles in the Philippines. With the first league getting many fans.