Battle rap has come full circle. We have been delivered from the dark ages, which were dominated ironically by white guys with gangsta delusions and rhyming dictionary flows. Make no mistake: white people nearly destroyed battle rapping, laming away any edginess or credibility with a lack of both musical ability and self-awareness. Battles were turning into vaudeville acts, more Buddy Hackett than Big Daddy Kane, with each competitor delivering gratingly unfunny punchlines with the dramatic flair of dinner theater soliloquies. And since most battles are performed acapella, even the most musically challenged were welcomed to step up to the stage and shout out their pre-written rhymes. Democracy and affirmative action are bad things for battle rap, and though it would seem that the culture could root out weaker elements of its own accord, these infiltrators were so pervasive that they nearly ruined it completely.
If we recognize Kool Moe Dee and KRS-ONE as the most prominent pioneers of the sport – both bragadocious but socially minded MCs – then we must acknowledge Eminem as the hooded patron saint of the modern era. He honed his skills on the battle rap circuits in the 90s, and that association might well explain the showy but disposable nature of his own music. His verses are usually entertaining on the first listen, funny and full of the relevant pop culture references, with diminishing returns after that. He’s a battle rapper at heart, one of the few who’ve made a successful transition to the music business proper. The wake of his cloying autobiographical film 8 Mile popularized the sport, though it also opened the door to a host of imitators eager to inherit B-Rabbit’s throne. Legions of pseudo-Ems descended upon the scene – the dark ages were upon us. And as the competitors began to believe that the joke was in their lame punchlines and not their own existence, the whole thing became too marginal to even bother to parody.
The surge in popularity of the battle rap scene also provided a stage for some truly talented rappers through feature appearances on Smack DVDs and MTV2: Loaded Lux, Murda Mook, Serius Jones, etc. These were real rappers, who were using battling as a rung in their own careers. They all favored a style full of metaphors and punchlines, unremitting flows borne from a fiercely competitive environment that didn’t tolerate the slightest mistake. But the translation from a witty, crowd pleasing flow into a commercial success was a breach too vast for most, so the flood of attempted singles and mixtapes from these artists flowed into obscurity. Since the opportunities in the music business have declined even more significantly in recent years, many of these more talented MCs have been returning to their former field, which has grown more lucrative in their wake.
No single battle better illustrates the changing of the guard than Murda Mook’s encounter with Iron Solomon in 2012. Iron Solomon looks like MC Serch; that is, he’s white with big glasses and has the pose and inflection of real rapper down fairly convincingly. Mr Solomon had made a name for himself in the doldrums of minor web battles, though his mannered delivery and faux gangsta posturing gets annoying fast. Murda Mook is one of the kings of the modern battle era, and his flow is equally sharp and bombastic, transgressive even in the way he breaks the fourth wall in his appeals to the audience as he dissects his opponent. Their meeting was promised as a competitive battle; in reality, it was more of a mauling. Iron Solomon was outmatched and outclassed even against a relatively rusty Murda Mook performance. Witness how Mook compares his already rattled opponent to the white guy on the court who can pull off an impressive alley oop that might please the crowd for the moment but for the rest of the players is just “regular shit.” His inflection on that phrase not so subtly indicts every Eminem clone in the battle rap game. But the most telling moment occurs during Iron Solomon’s desperate attempts to gain back some ground, in which he cycles through rote accusations involving drug dealing and “street” credibility. There is something uncomfortable about a white kid criticizing his black opponent for not selling drugs, and though we will refrain from introducing unnecessary racial components to this discussion, let us agree that it just sounds dumb. By that time, the battle was already over, along with the dark ages and the likes of Iron Solomon.
The recent PPV event Total Slaughter provided a high profile stage for some tier players of this new era, free of any “regular shit” like Iron Solomon. The show was also anticipated for the participation of Joe Budden, a moderately successful industry rapper making his battling debut. Budden was a big get for the Eminem-sponsored promotion, which had also featured a web series of vignettes and a tournament leading up to the big event. Its production budget far eclipsed that of smaller battle rap promotions like King of the Dot or Ultimate Rap League, although some of the gritty intensity of those environments was lost. NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom was full of battle fans, hipsters, and hip hop celebrities like Busta Rhymes and Kid Capri, while the show itself was hosted by Sway along with a muted Kay Slay. There were some sound problems, awkward guest interactions, and all of the other glitches that will invariably attend a live web event, but otherwise this was a good showcase for some of the bigger names of the battle rap culture.
The first battle featured Big T against Arsonal, which promised more than it delivered. Big T is – no surprise – an overweight gentleman with a wordy southern flow that relies more on inflection than serious attacks. He reminds me of Supernatural, the similarly obese master of the west coast battle scene of the 90s, with a deft and technically impressive style that nonetheless comes off as somewhat weak against better opponents. Newark’s Arsonal is one of the most fierce of the new breed of battle rappers, shouting bar after bar of disrespectful wordplay. But even he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the environment, and the cavernous atmosphere dampened the intensity of his delivery. Both guys looked nervous, but we can forgive their anxiety before this unprecedented live audience at the Hammerstein. And though Arsonal’s act comes across as much more intimidating on a cramped stage surrounded by a small crowd, he performed well enough to easily win the battle.
The second match pitted T Rex against Daylyt, who has a reputation for outlandish showmanship in his performances. He rapped his first two rounds dressed in a Spawn costume, wandering stiffly around the stage, before dispensing with his final round entirely by feigning some sort of schizophrenic attack. His bizarre theatrics might have been a brave effort to stand out among the other competitors, but the whole shtick flopped. Not to say that there isn’t room for experimentation and spectacle in battle rap, but the NYC crowd wanted bars and lyrics, not sub-Kool Keith theatrics. Daylyt’s verses were weak, merely highlighting the ridiculousness of his gimmick, while T Rex offered a mediocre flow that was merely adequate enough to win. Both guys were underwhelming on the big stage, though one suspects that Daylyt’s antics probably would have flopped on the block as well.
The real highlight of the show was the rematch of a classic 2003 encounter between Harlem rivals Loaded Lux and Murda Mook. They are recognized as giants of the genre, and this battle was all the more anticipated due to the clash in styles. Loaded Lux is a successor to Kool Moe Dee with his disciplined, staccato flow in which he breaks down his opponent with precision. There are witty lines in among his rapid fire verses, but his delivery is dead serious. Mook employs a more openly charismatic flow, moving theatrically about the stage as he ensures the crowd hears every line, every extended metaphor. He emerged not only as the victor of the battle but the real star of the show, the only performer who seemed ready for the big stage. Lux seemed to stumble with his flow after a strong first round, and then completely lost the crowd, so that it sounded like he was struggling to regain his rhythm through his second two. Mook on the other hand clearly understands the importance of performing his way through the personal attacks in his lyrics, so he included the crowd in his psychological dissection. Getting personal isn’t just about insulting a man’s wife or threatening his children, though that’s all certainly fair game; it’s more about motives, hypocrisies, hidden agendas. Mook found flaws in Lux’s more conscious leanings, attacking his 5% affiliation and the hypocrisies therein, ultimately training his focus directly on his opponent’s psyche. Lux responded by tossing a coat onstage, which was apparently robbed from Mook years before (“took a whole coat off you/not a drop of paint thinner”) but the stunt just landed flat and Mook responded by feigning to reclaim his house keys from the pocket. The whole battle was epic, with strong verses, theatrics, and enough personal attacks to feel like an exhaustive therapy session as all good battles should. Even in his loss, Lux turned in a strong performance that might have been too subtle for the big stage, while Murda Mook stole the show with his witty, well tuned attacks.
The ostensible main event between Joe Budden and Hollow Da Don began as a spectacle but soon devolved into pitiful farce. Budden has always seemed far too arrogant for such a mediocre MC. Other than his single hit “Pump It Up,” which can probably be equally attributed to the production of Just Blaze, his most memorable moments have occurred off-mic, where he’s usually being embarrassed by women or punched by other rappers. But fans knew that even if they weren’t likely to get an impressive performance, they might at least be treated to an entertaining meltdown or a proper roasting by Hollow. Neither occurred: Hollow’s verses were uninspiring while Budden delivered two shaky rounds before giving in to the crowd’s displeasure by setting the mic down on the stage. Any measure of forfeit is anathema in battle rap; in fact, there can be something quite compelling in watching a performer fight back against both the crowd and his opponent. Joe Budden’s entire performance evinced little understanding of battle rap culture, and the whole battle just deflated the crowd. Even Hollow Da Don couldn’t be bothered to stick around long enough for the announcement of his victory, which showed his lack of respect for Budden or the event itself.
Even if the Total Slaughter event didn’t wholly deliver aside from the Lux/Mook battle, it was good to see some of these talented MCs get a bigger stage. Lyricism might be a lost art in mainstream hip hop, but it is alive and well in the battle scene. These guys are not satisfied with a good punchline here and there (something Mr Budden didn’t seem to realize), as the current environment demands verse after verse of flawlessly performed attacks and extended metaphors. Witness some of the names not included on the show: DNA, whose slightly awkward, unsuspecting appearance is contrasted by his relentlessly creative flow, or Charlie Clips, who first came to near prominence as part of the extended Dipset family but has found considerably more success with his laid back humor in the battle rap scene. Math Hoffa, a rapper who’s been known to end battles with physical attacks, was recently punched by Dizaster, one of the current kings of the west coast scene. Battle rap is not about physical confrontation – it’s about psychological destruction, lyrically obliterating another man’s dignity by questioning his life, his family, his reason to exist on the planet. The best battlers can stoically endure a withering personal attack with a certain level of professional appreciation, all while mentally preparing their rebuttal round. And while it’s probably best for business to keep any threat of violence away from the bigger stages, I have to say that I do support the occasional physical attack here and there. At the very least, it will keep the comedians away.