From its humble beginnings in the parks of New York City, battle rap has always been a part of hip-hop culture. Once relegated the legendary dis records of yesteryear, battle rap has enjoyed a remarkable surge in popularity over recent years. Today, aspiring MC’s square off against one another in various hip hop arenas worldwide, such as King of the Dot (Toronto), Don’t Flop (London), and Smack’s Ultimate Rap League (Good ol’ USA).
Unfortunately, while battle rap is now more popular than ever, it’s also the worst it’s ever been.
Instead of the showcase of lyrical dominance a rap battle is supposed to be, modern rap battles have devolved into a combination of kayfabe theatrics and a form of highly ignorant slam poetry. Basically, it’s like this:
The growing popularity of rap battles have been attributed to battle rap segments and shows on MTV and BET, such as 106 & Park’s Freestyle Fridays or Fight Klub. There is also the movie 8 Mile, which helped push the phenomenon to the forefront. There is a less notable moment, however, that helped shape the direction battle rap is currently taking – to the detriment of those who participate in it.
Over a decade ago, a young, unsigned Philadelphia rapper named Cassidy made a huge impact after lyrically “destroying” another Philly rapper named Freeway. This was a big deal at the time, since Freeway was signed to Roc-A-Fella Records at the height of that label’s non Jay-Z related popularity.
The moment boosted Cassidy to popularity, helping him get signed to Swizz Beat’s label where he had a moderately successful run. Freeway, meanwhile, saw his own career diminish, and his request that someone “throw a beat on” still lives in infamy.
There was just one problem with the battle: Essentially, the game was rigged. Now, I’m not talking Tim Donaghy or the Triad soccer scandal rigged. I mean that the contest was (unintentionally) tilted in a number of ways that catered to Cassidy’s strengths, at Freeway’s expense.
First, there’s the absence of the beat, a notoriously prominent feature of modern rap battles that helps degrade the medium. In hip hop, beats and rhymes are forever linked – you can’t have one without the other. Being able to rhyme on beat is what defines the ability to rap, and taking the beat out makes it much easier to memorize elaborate metaphors and punchlines without flubbing the delivery.
The second problem with the medium is the competitors themselves. They come from all over the world, and are supposed to represent for underground rap, real lyrics, etc. However, if you listen to the subject matter of their rhymes, it’s all the same crap that is the stock and trade of regular hip hop. There are a finite number of ways to talk about dealing drugs and having money, and rap exhausted the supply years ago.
Adding to that, the rappers themselves appear to be one-dimensional. Some people excel in the battle rap arena, but when placed back into the pantheon of beats and rhymes, they almost always fall flat, with stale deliveries that are warmed-over from popular rappers. In short, they are not rap geniuses – they are more like savants.
The final problem with the medium is that, while they seemingly provide a showcase for up-and-coming rappers to get exposure to a wider audience, most battle rap participants fail to find success outside of the arena. You can count on one hand the number of rappers that blew up from these contests – and that hand is usually a closed fist. Granted, while there are some rappers who make good money participating in these contests, most of these participants continue on in relative obscurity, traveling from town to town like David Banner holding a “Will Rap for Food” sign.
Even the most successful artists who emerge from the medium – guys like Jin and the aforementioned Serius Jones – either flop on release, or see their albums’ release date pushed back to Neveruary 31st. And whose left to collect all the real rap money?