(subtle hip-hop music) - Battle Rap.
A war of words using intricate schemes, raw syncopated delivery, and witty wordplay.
Lyricists turned the art of rap into a clash of the titans.
- Now I'm gonna have the crowd swinging from these bars.
I ain't with the monkey business.
I like that move.
Pocket check back, (crowd cheers) but it's just too bad he ain't got no money in it.
(crowd shouts) - Over the years, Battle Rap has expanded from the hip-hop underground and into mainstream pop culture.
Whether it's Eminem's "Eight Mile," Netflix's "Rhythm and Flow," James Corden's "Dropped the Mic" or the epic rap battles of history on YouTube.
Today, Battle Rap is a professional sport with superstar athletes and leagues all around the world.
- And one of the most popular leagues is the Ultimate Rap League or URL for short.
- We all together basically organized the culture and just made a business out of it, really making it and turning this whole art form into a league.
- For over a decade, the URL has drawn over 650 million views on YouTube and provided viral Battle Rap moments.
- Consider it an art form, because the fact that these guys go up there and put on a show, it's all theater, it's all performing in art.
- So where did Battle Rap come from and how did it become so popular across the world?
- [Arthur Buckner] This is the story of how Battle Rap evolved from underground competitions to the global streaming phenomenon it is today.
(intense hip-hop instrumental music) - I've been a Battle Rap fan for a long time.
For years I've followed the culture on YouTube watching my favorite battlers how I watch my favorite drummers or basketball players.
But I've always wondered how Battle Rap got its start.
So let's get into it.
- The art of spoken word has been around since ancient times.
For centuries, Grios from West Africa have recounted tribal history to their communities through music and poetry.
In the West Indies, Calypso artists have engaged in Picong Duels, where singers fire rhyming insults at each other in song.
- [Picong Duelist] I will tell you plain and candidly, don't stop look back and smile because you have a face like crocodile.
- In black American culture, young people played The Dozens.
A verbal game where people take turns, lobbing humorous insults at each other in front of an audience.
But Battle Rap as we know it today, didn't start until the 1980s.
(upbeat hip-hop instrumental) In the early eighties, hip-hop collectives attended conventions to compete against each other for prize money and bragging rights.
At first, these competitions were friendly face offs to prove which crew could do a better job at rocking the crowd.
That was until the Christmas Rappers Contest at the Harlem World Club in 1981.
That's when a battle between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee Starski, changed how MCs approached rap competition forever.
Busy Bee's claim that he would knock out all bums before the contest, was not taken well by Kool Moe Dee.
Determined to make a point, Kool Moe Dee entered the contest after Busy Bee finished his set and rocked the crowd with a verse that directly attacked Busy Bee's credibility as a rapper.
♪ Hold on Busy Bee, I don't mean to be bold, ♪ ♪ but put that "Ba-Ditty-Ba" bullshit on hold.
♪ ♪ We gonna get right down to the nitty-grit.
♪ ♪ Gonna tell you a little something why you ain't shit.
♪ - Kool Moe Dee's rhyming disses inspired other MCs to adopt his style and engage in small rap battles at basketball courts and corner stores around New York.
This style helped move the the genre away from the old school, upbeat, party themed hip-hop, into a grittier art that showcased lyrical ability.
Roxanne Shante was among the first female Battle Rappers in the 80's, and a Rap Beef pioneer starting the Roxanne War, with her infamous disc track, "Roxanne's Revenge," in 1984.
♪ My name is Roxanne and I came to say, ♪ ♪ I'm rockin to the beat and I do it every day.
♪ - As hip-hop entered the 90's, the tradition of calling out your peers on record continued, influencing several infamous Rap Beefs.
Memorable conflicts between artists like Ice Cube and Common, Dr. Dre and Uncle Luke, Tupac and Biggie, and most notably, the exchange between Jay-Z and Nas, have been etched into hip-hop history.
♪ Went from, Nasty Nas to Esco's Trash ♪ ♪ had a spark when you started, but now you just garbage.
♪ ♪ Talk about me, laugh behind my back, but in my face ♪ y'all some "Well Wishing," friendly, acting, envy, hiding snakes and snakes" - Over the next decade, battling on the streets for fun grew more popular and became a subculture of competing rappers testing their skills.
(mid-tempo hip-hop music) In the mid nineties, hip-hop festivals like Scribble Jam, featured freestyle battle competitions, that would draw up-and-coming rappers to battle for a chance to earn prize money, trophies and exposure.
Seeing the appeal of freestyle competitions, TV networks began incorporating Rap Battles into their programming.
Shows like HBO's "Blaze Battle," MTV's "MC Battle" and BET's "106 and Park" would bring Battle Rap to worldwide television.
In the early two thousands, Troy Mitchell, better known as Smack White, had begun interviewing and filming several established artists like 50 Cent, Beanie Siegel, DMX and Cameron.
But he wasn't just covering celebrities.
Smack would also film with up-and-coming East coast rappers.
He would record their freestyles and produce any music videos to help promote their image and mix-tapes.
Smack then took all of this footage and created a DVD Video magazine called "Smack DVD".
- I used to go around, do exclusive interviews, shoot videos, help them promote they projects, help them, show them in environments and places that you won't normally see them in, on a regular standard, TV network, like MTV, BET.
- [Speaker] Right?
- [Smack White] Yeah.
You gonna see them in the studio, you gonna see 'em in airplanes, in they house, on they block in they neighborhoods.
- Vlogging, before vlogging was a thing.
That's literally what it was.
- Heavily bootlegged, smack DVDs made it to outlets all around the world.
And became one of the most popular sources for uncensored hip-hop news and music.
Smack began including rap battles near the end of each volume.
And, in keeping with Battle Rap's origins, these battles took place in gyms, barbershops and on street corners where crowds could watch the show.
- I closed it off with a classic hip-hop battle.
And, that segment of the DVD got so popular, people used to buy the DVD with mainstream artists like, Eminem, 50 Cent, Cameron, Fat Joe, Buster Rhymes.
I had all these major artists on the front of the DVD with major coverage of these artists.
And people used to basically go buy the DVD and go to the back of the DVD first, to watch the Battles.
I literally, my first experience is exactly what you described here.
I'm interested like "What's all this stuff?
No, no, no, no.
Me skipping, skipping, skipping, this one we gotta see," so I never even caught the promo, the interviews.
But the battle was the...absolutely.
(Smack chuckles) - Waiting for his chance and now he feeling time's perfect.
He probably ain't want a battle just wanted to meet me in person.
- Then World Star came into play.
- I ain't think about World Star.
- And they made a killing because they wasn't into content creation, but they was into traffic.
- So they killed me.
That business model, at that time was a success.
Moving forward to 2000 and 2009, I just had to figure out, what was the most valuable content that still exists with what I was producing?
And that was Battle Rap.
- As Smack DVD rap battles grew in popularity, Smack saw an opportunity to create a platform for Battle Rappers to perform in front of larger crowds.
That's when the Ultimate Rap League was born.
Better known as the URL, The Ultimate Rap League moved from the streets and began renting venues for Battle Rap events to house their growing number of fans.
By 2009, the URL started posting their battles on YouTube for viewers to watch online.
It was Tay Rock's Seatbelt Haymaker that shook the internet, that solidified the URL as one of the most exciting channels to watch on YouTube.
- You get another cut and another cut.
It looked like the seatbelt won't work (crowd roars) and I'm trying to buckle up.
- And there are more and more Battle Rappers becoming superstars in the community.
Like Geechi Gotti.
With 57 battles on YouTube alone and over 32 million views, Geechi Gotti has been URL's champion of the year for three years in a row.
As Battle Rap culture grew online, more and more leagues started popping up all over the world.
Leagues like the Canadian owned "King Of The Dot," the woman lead, "Queen of the Ring and the Filipino "Flip Top" and the UK "Don't Flop," have pulled in millions of subscribers.
Do you consider Battle Rap to be a sport?
- Yes, absolutely.
When I first started representing the art form of Battle Rap, I modeled it after, I tried to model it after the UFC, you know what I'm saying?
Everly influence from the UFC... - Y'all don't play, yo hold up.
- Just wanted to come up with a name that people will always remember.
- So now that you know how Battle Rap got started, let's break down how it works.
A battle is usually two competitors going back and forth for three rounds.
And at the end, it's up to the audience to decide the winner.
- We saw Mike (indistinct) - [DJ] Yeah.
- There are several widely used forms of wordplay but the most common are Angles, Schemes, Haymakers and Punches.
Punches are short for punchlines.
That the line's delivered at the climax of a setup.
- You gang bang what?
I'm supposed to be scared of 'em?
I will have you and your flag hanging off a balcony like I'm proud to be an American.
(crowd cheers) - Extra powerful punches are called Haymakers.
They're usually accompanied by a small pause to generate a stronger crowd reaction.
- I was up in the hotel, loading rounds for cousin, big rounds I'm stuffin, they say, "ill in the lobby," I grabbed the nose running.
I'm coming down with somethin.
- Oh my God.
- For flair and creativity, A battler may also use a Scheme.
This is when a rapper presents a subject matter and then follows it up with a long form parallel comparing the subject matter to something else.
- Your career is just like Shaq's.
He spent four years in Orlando and learnt the harder way he couldn't hack it.
Smack brought in a certain PG and then we all believed in magic.
You became lost and jealous ain't find out the way to compete.
- While a lot of Battle Rap verses are written, there are also freestyles and rebuttals.
Freestyles are where you improvise bars on the spot.
You can reference your opponent's clothes or anything that's happening in the moment.
A rebuttal is similar but instead, you improvise bars responding to something your opponent just said.
And lastly, we have Angles.
An Angle is a personal attack that points out your opponent's flaws.
Angles are all about focusing on specific things about your opponent to break them down.
- I ain't saying your shit wack, but bro, it's the same move every time you kick that.
Set up, punchline, set up, punchline.
That's how you spit that?
Just a candy wrapper with four bars you a... see how easy it is to predict that?
(crowd roars) - Best punchlines come from with what resonates to people.
So you don't wanna say something that a bunch of people don't know about and then it's like when you got a audience there, they can't pull out their phone or go to Google and look it up.
So it's just about, reading the room, knowing your audience.
On the URL stage I'm gonna get a little more intricate because they already understand exactly what it is that we do.
- What are the differences between a Battle Rapper and a Studio Rapper?
Or what, what are some common misconceptions?
- Common misconception is Battle Rappers can't make music.
They, put us in this very, very small box.
You know what I'm saying?
It's a bad stigma they got on us.
They say we can make music.
I just don't understand because Battle Rappers are clearly the best writers, as far as element of being an MC.
'Cause you only get one opportunity.
You can never say this again.
You have one take.
You have to wow a audience, time and time again with new materials.
- In my whole career, everything I did was a throwaway 'cause I can never use...
If I use those bars again, I'm wrong.
- You recycle it.
- I'm wrong for using my own lyrics again.
So our job is much harder.
- Even if they're not creating chart toppers, Battle Rappers still have a huge influence on popular culture today.
Whether it's ESPN commercials, the BET Hip-Hop Awards or reality tv.
Then there's shows like Nick Cannon's "Wild 'N Out" which has taken inspiration from Battle Rap culture and even features URL stars Conceited, Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla.
What kind of things do you see coming in the future for Battle Rap?
- I'm trying to make this a household sport.
What we have accomplished so far, is amazing because, if you pay attention to what's going on in this culture, you see so many different territories have adopted, the style of this art form.
- It's an art, right?
- It's an art.
- It's entertainment.
And these guys has found a way to provide for they families to entertain us this way.
And they put on a show for us.
And that's what it's about.
- Even though it started in the underground, the sport has become so popular that teenagers who once dreamed of being the next big rap artist, are now dreaming of being the next great Battle Rap star.
- Before you go, I wanna let you know about "Fight the Power How Hip-Hop changed the World," a new PBS series hosted by hip-hop legend Chuck D. It's about how hip-hop became a global movement that spoke truth to power.
Check out the link in the description below and let them know Sound Field sent you.