Mainstream Battle Rap is Not Battle Rap and It’s Hurting the Art Form

Authentic battle rap will never fully converge with its mainstream depictions because to do so would compromise its best qualities.
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Drop The Mic, TBS

This past Sunday, TBS aired the first episode of the second season of Drop The Mic, a celebrity rap battle show executive produced by late-night host James Corden. Drop The Mic pulls no punches in its corniness, with fast-paced rounds of punchline-heavy quips and celebrity jokes, draped over basic beat-boxing and faux crowd reactions from the whitest white millennials known to man. It’s a half hour filled to the brim with the very worst stereotypical hip-hop humor within earshot of a scene from Scary Movie 3.

For even a fairweather follower of the battle rap industry, the existence of such a distorted and shallow version of the art form is discouraging, yet unsurprising. Long before Nick Cannon was pitting rappers and comedians against one another on his MTV series Wild 'N Out, a disconnect has existed between battle rap—an immensely dense and longstanding subculture of hip-hop dating back to its earliest roots—and the mainstream depiction of battle rap. As you can imagine, the former has consistently been plagued and overshadowed by the latter.

Mainstream battle rap, if you will, dates back to 2002, and the release of Eminem’s 8 Mile, a film in which its iconic rap battle scenes went on to spotlight both Eminem’s roots as a battler, and the importance and force that battle rap could have on the future of a young artist. The battle scenes in 8 Mile were sensationalistic, with every emcee’s quips and comebacks perfectly layered over instrumentals, and Eminem's character, B-Rabbit, of course victorious. But there was an undeniable allure to the rap battles in 8 Mile, from the energy in the crowd to the claustrophobia in the room heightening the experience. The B-Rabbit story was David versus Goliath in modern form, and when paired with a coming-of-age drama and emotional character arcs, 8 Mile gave us the first truly commercial version of what battle rap supposedly looked like.

Battle rap, however, didn’t begin opening night of 8 Mile, nor does its entire existence hinge upon that movie’s creation. Although its entire backstory can be found in this excellent piece on the history of battle rap by David Dennis, the battle rap universe is more sprawling and diverse than meets the eye.

Actual rap battle leagues, the kind that aren't featured on MTV or covered by mainstream media, are sprawled out over both time and space, with the earliest organized events like Scribble Jam and Jump Off TV’s WRC (World Rap Championship), as well as more current leagues like Canada’s King of The Dot and New York’s SMACK/URL, solidifying most of the last 20 years, all while incorporating a vast network of MCs from all over the globe. 

Each of the current leagues intersects with eras and battlers of battle rap past as well, and it doesn’t take great rap acumen to find the DNA strands of the WRC, Scribble Jam, and Grind Time Now draped over every event. Leagues like King of the Dot, URL, Don’t Flop, and many others serve as constant reminders of both the vastness to which battle rap has expanded, while also constantly reminding their audience of the history that holds it together.

These battles, as well as the battlers, provide an even more fully realized culture; an expanded universe of interpersonal conflicts, petty beef, career marks, and memorable moments so detailed they could rival Marvel and DC. Almost every battler has a distinct narrative attached to their battling career, breathing life into every battle won and looming over every loss. From East Coast gun-rhyme legends like Loaded Lux and Hollow Da Don to wordplay machines on the West Coast like Thesaurus, Dizaster, and Nocando, to the hilariously insane Tiger Ty, Daylyt, and Carter Deems, there is rarely a shortage of personalities for fans to find their favorite style. Each battler, no matter how villainous or corny, contributes a stroke to the greater portrait being painted.

The impact of battle rap isn't only felt during a live event, though. The forcefulness of the community that creates it is also inescapable. Forums, spanning from Rapmusic.com’s “Battle Video Archives” to Reddit, composed of battlers and fans alike, act as world-building plot devices for the narratives seen onscreen. The vigor of both the fans and the MCs themselves, interacting with the other half, remains the lifeblood of battle rap’s resurgence on the internet from the mid-2000s until now. Matches become almost theatrical in their build, battlers are interchangeably glorified and vilified at all times, and even the MCs who have passed away, like Eyedea, PH, Cadalack Ron, and Bender, never go without acknowledgment for their contributions to the culture. Battle rap has continuously succeeded in creating an experience so profound, that even the likes of Diddy, Drake, Busta Rhymes, and Royce da 5’9", among others, have shown up to events to show their support.

Unfortunately, these qualities are almost nonexistent in the mainstream battle rap sphere. The sensationalism of 8 Mile, rather than serving as a prelude to an art form waiting to be fully realized, has only led to further misguided depictions that have taken the art form in the wrong direction. BET’s 106 & Park and MTV’s Fight Klub dominated the early to mid-2000s with this very familiar structure. On 106 & Park, the name of the game was brevity, with MCs getting only 30-second rounds to prove their worth in front of dubious crowd reactions and randomized judging.

Although it was a foundational component in battle rap's rise to mainstream prominence, as well as a jump-off point for the careers of Hollow Da Don, Murda Mook, 40 Cal, Hitman Holla, and Jin, Fight Klub never had the full confidence of MTV. It’s longer rounds, predominantly black voices, and vulgar material made for a show that increasingly felt discarded by a network that didn’t know how to market it or non-pop-rap music in general.

What these shows went on to represent, despite the seemingly good-natured attempts by their creators to further battle rap, was the hesitancy by networks and event sponsors to fully support the true battle rap art form. It doesn’t take multiple Scribble Jam battle viewings to notice a stark difference between them and their commercial counterparts. In the 2007 Scribble Jam championship between battle rap legends Nocando and Franco, verses are less polished, rhyme schemes never stay fully on beat, and neither MC holds back on extreme punchlines and personal barbs, but there is an unquestionable realness present.

During URL battles, a blood relative to Fight Klub, everything from the production value to the visceral crowd reactions, to every gun punchline imaginable, provides the heightened and superior experience that could never be captured on a show for MTV or TBS.

Although they were the most prominent, 106 & Park and Fight Klub aren't the only shortsighted attempts to successfully capture the essence of battle rap. Long before Drop The Mic, MTV gave us Nick Cannon’s aforementioned Wild 'N Out; a sketch comedy show that climaxes with a freestyle rap battle chalked with corny punchlines and two-bit setups, where even cast members with prior battle rap histories, like Conceited and Charron, sound neutered and purposeless. Battle rap events spearheaded by rap superstars like Eminem, such as the "Total Slaughter Pay-Per-View" event or "Road to 8 Mile," even failed to succeed in doing anything but putting some of the most well-known battlers on the planet on stage in front of awkward crowds and catastrophic booing.

With every mainstream misfire, the question becomes: why is there such a divide between what mainstream institutions want from battle rap and the prototype?

Quite often, battle rap can steer into dangerous territories of unfiltered racism, homophobia, and sexism, to name a few, all while asking the viewer to stick around through battles that can last up to an hour. The battlers are aware of the arena they’re stepping into in which virtually anything goes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean first-time viewers can stomach a battler like Dizaster, or antics like Daylyt threatening to defecate on stage, no matter how good they may be at battling. Constant crowd interruptions, battlers complaining about their remaining time, and even fights mid-battle can come as culture shocks to those conditioned to think battle rap is as neatly packaged as 8 Mile.

Battle rap’s long and expansive history, for as important as it is, is also quite the hill to climb for a new viewer with no context of how significant certain battlers are, or why they should care in the first place. Even infamous battles like Dizaster versus Cassidy, which marked Cassidy’s full return to battle rap since becoming a hip-hop household name, only resonated with those hip to Cassidy before “Hotel” was released by Sony. Understanding the gravity of certain battles and battlers takes time and dedication, which is asking a lot of casual rap fans who'd much rather dip their toes into the scene.

Battle rap, much like the doomed Drop The Mic, will never fail to reach an audience, but there will always be a ceiling for its success. Authentic battle rap will never fully converge with its mainstream depictions because to do so would compromise its best qualities and stunt the growth it still needs to experience to overcome its own worst habits. 

In the meantime, the battle of perception versus reality in one of hip-hop’s most overlooked communities will continue to frustrate those of us who care for it the most. 

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