Rap battling is something we hear all the time – a term that many high-profile rappers use in retrospect when asked about their beginnings in the hip-hop world. The idea dates back to the late 70s, corresponding to the days of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, and has been evolving ever since. Listen to A Tribe Called Quest and they’ll tell you about kickin’ routines on Linden Boulevard, or the pile of diss raps that have been transferred onto tapes, from the infamous Jay-Z vs Nas beef to Common’s reality check on Ice Cube in ‘The Bitch in Yoo’.
Today, the longstanding art form is just as vibrant in the U.K., and even more valued as the tradition has progressed into its own culture, full of specialized MCs, judges, and battle rings that construct professional competitions such as the largest U.K. battle league, Don’t Flop. The battle realm is completely different to modern day hip-hop, so much so that the line-up would most likely be unfamiliar to the average hip-hop head. So what exactly is battle rapping?
“Battle rap is offensive rapping – like boxing but in rhyme form,” explains Southampton rapper Tenchoo. Cleverly named after the Japanese video game when fans began telling him that he ‘assassinates his opponents’, the rapper has been involved in the scene for over ten years, ever since he won his first battle rap at Portsmouth in 2003 – and later went onto win other tournaments like Battle Scars and Don’t Flop.
He is now an important figure in the U.K. scene, and works to bring in the same movement in Southampton – starting with his new monthly event ‘Battle Royale’, which he runs together with his promotional partner, King T Shoxx.
The event has already been introduced in a few festivals, including Nass and Nozstock, since its start last summer, and the new competition is quickly spreading despite tonight only being their third hosted night.
The rules are simple enough: each rapper gets two minutes to inventively diss their opponents in a three-round battle, which is later scored by a panel of judges. However, this certain method has been heavily criticized in the media for its racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, aggressive verbal abuse, and its potential to end up in street fights and violence.
LeXana, a Portuguese-British rapper known to promote positive messages through her music, is also the intermission act between the set tonight, and agrees with the negative outcomes: “It’s alright to use rap battling to rise in the music industry but it shouldn’t be insulting. You can have two people spit a verse on a topic, and see whose better but it doesn’t have to be about so-and-so’s boyfriend or someone’s girlfriend.”
When I ask the same question to Shoxx, he responds more brightly, claiming that “there is still professionalism there, like football or any other sport”.
“Is that true though?” LeXana challenges. “Look at how many battles have ended up in the streets!”
He squirms his face for a few seconds but quickly laughs and retorts, “shut up, don’t say that!” before the two break out into friendly banter.
Contrary to how it looks, the community is very warm and amiable, he promises.
I only believe his words later on when one finalist, Fury, chokes up during his verse in the final round against his contender, Agent.
While the two spend the round furiously yelling at each other, insulting each other’s appearances, and exposing one another’s weaknesses to the crowd, the tension all of a sudden drops when Fury stops mid-verse.
“Ah fuck, I can’t remember”, Fury mutters, trying to scramble together the rest of his insults.
“Come on, man”, Agent encourages and the rest of the crowd joins in, cheering in support.
I catch the two talking to each other after the battle. Confused, I ask them about the incident.
“When he’s roasting me, I’m making out as if I don’t like it but I’m actually thinking at the back of my head like, ‘damn, that’s actually a killer bar!’”, admits Agent.
“Although majority of the battle scene comes across like we may hate each other, we get on pretty well because we respect it as an art form.”
Fury nods his head, “The only time I would take it personally is if there was money involved or something happened, like say your auntie died a week before, and they try to go for your auntie for a good minute and a half. Then, shit’s gonna go down, son.”
Are there any other unspoken rules?
“I think it depends on who you are,” adds Agent, “I personally would never take an angle like that, but there are many battle rappers who would thrive off that angle, like dead relatives and kids, things that could cause marriages to break up. I’m not a fan at all but it’s part of the sport. If you get involved, you’ve got to be willing to take that sort of shit.”
“That’s why I keep saying stop bringing your girlfriends here!”
Fury laughs but still holds a serious tone, “My mum tried to come tonight and I said, ‘Are you mad mum! You must be outta your mind!’ That’s some personal shit, I’d be in jail!”
Regardless of the harmful consequences, the art, creativity, entertainment and satisfaction that the rappers get from the battles are an addicting adrenaline rush that seems to triumph everything else.
The bottom line is clear to everyone, and Tenchoo wraps up the brutal effects very bluntly: “You can’t let them know when they’ve crossed the line, because at the end of the day when you get into the battle, you pretty much agreed to let them say what they want.”
As for the Southampton scene, he is very optimistic: “There’s a lot of talent here, people just need to come out of their houses, check the videos out and come to the event. The buzz is great here and it can really be pushed.”7