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The Evolution of Battle Rap

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Battle rap is not for the weak-hearted. The sole purpose of battle rappers is to decimate their opponents through the use of rhyming, insulting words that bring embarrassment to their foes and makes them look weak, spineless, and incapable of holding their own. It takes wit, stage presence, a strong vocal delivery, a brilliant vocabulary, knowledge, and a list of many other intangibles to be a great battle rapper.


The sport has evolved from its humble beginnings since Kool Moe Dee battled Busy Bee in the 80s, to NWA vs. Ice Cube in the early 90s, and Jay-Z went against Nas in the early 2000, and more recently Drake vs. Meek Mill to mention a few. There have been many high and low profile battles and beefs over the years by recording artists, but the best battle raps have usually come from people who are lesser known and who might not have even recorded a single song.


If you look into the history of battle rap you will repeatedly come across one of the most legendary battles ever which was between Juice and Supernatural in 1999. These guys had the ability to freestyle about anything and make it sound dope. They were the best of the best at their time and when they finally went head to head it was a dream match; 2 warriors in their prime going head-to-head, sort of like how people always imagined what it would have been like if Mike Tyson and Mohammed Ali faced off. It’s a battle which ended with Supernatural defeating Juice, who was no amateur himself (FYI Juice beat Eminem at the Scribble Jam rap Olympics in 1997, that’s how incredible he was as a battler).


Many things have changed in the last couple of years that has caused a resurgence in battle rap. The change in format, distribution of videos via YouTube, embracing the fact that raps can be pre-written, holding huge pay per view events dedicated to battle rap, and several other factors has caused the culture to grow exponentially in the past few years.


The days of flowing (freestyling) over beats in short 30 to 90 second rounds are a thing of the past. Battle rappers rarely rap to beats nower days and verses are written well in, and they rap for longer periods of time now. There are many battle leagues which have popped up over the years, but the most prominent ones are the URL league and KOTD which have helped propel battle rap to where it is now.


This resurgence has given birth to a new breed of emcees who are taking the world by storm. They are dedicated to the craft and many feel that they are the ones keeping the spirit of hip hop alive. The battle rap circuit is fierce and it will eat you up if you don’t come correct. There’s a code of honor that you must live by to make it in this world and just because you’re good in the studio doesn’t mean you can make it here. Some of most lyrically talented recording artists have tried it and failed. One of the most notorious incidents occurred a few years ago when recording artist Canibus went head to head with renowned battle rapper Dizaster. Canibus choked and resorted to pulling out his notepad to read out his battle rhymes. Yikes…talk about embarrassing. Dizaster interrupted Canibus and proceeded to murder him lyrically, reinforcing the idea that if you don’t come correct you will be destroyed. It’s not a game. People’s feeling get hurt and it can get physical too; Math Hoffa punched Serius Jones at Summer Madness 3 for instance. Other rappers such as Cassidy have been more successful; he beat established battler Dizaster in a battle they had late last year. More recently Fredro Starr went up against Keith Murray in what was an absolutely terrible battle. Keith Murray was apparently drunk, they rapped over a beat which made a lot of what they had to say inaudible, and a lot of the rhymes were weak compared to what we have gotten used to in recent years.


However, despite your occasional weak raps, physical altercations, and other drama some battle rappers have nearly achieved superstardom and mainstream success. These rappers include Loaded Lux, Murder Mook, Charlie Clips, Arsonal, Hollow Da Don, and Dizaster to name a few. Some of these guys make as much as $40,000 a battle – that’s crazy money! Daylyt is another guy who’s very well known for his gimmicks and antics which don’t always involve rap. He has pulled out his penis in front of a crowd, dressed as Spawn and stripped his clothes off, and choked an audience member (accidentally by his account) to mention a few such instances.


For the past 2 editions the BET Hip Hop Awards have featured a live, on-stage cypher which gives a platform for top battle rappers to showcase their skills and it has proven to be one of the most popular parts of the show. Battle rappers have been featured prominently in music videos (Lux, Daylyt, and Mook), have their own clothing lines (Hollow), and are generally getting paid more now than they did before. The art has indeed grown, changed, and has breathed new life into the art of lyricism and I personally look forward to what the culture has in store for us over the coming few years.