As a writer I think it’s important to be interested in all different forms of writing. An obvious enough thought but let's just start with that. For example, I don’t write songs but if I hear a song I like, I will read and examine the lyrics. I don’t write poems but I’m a fan of poetry etc etc after this artcicle I don't expect us all to start challenging people to a battle rap but I'm convinced there's a lot to be gained by watching it from both a writing and performance perspective.
A few years ago I started to become la fan of Battle Rap. I was told about an Irish battle rap scene and began watching some of the videos. To be honest it was more about the comic value than the skill of the writing and most of it was very basic stuff (mostly lads slagging each other off in very childish and ridiculous ways) but the more I watched, the more battle rap leagues I became aware of and suddenly I got to know the individual battlers, the story of the leagues, the rivalries and the history behind certain feuds in battle rap.
The higher up in skill levels I started watching made me realise just how good the writing was. Some of it was out of this world good. Very intricate, very funny, very harsh at times when personal attacks were being made but always really well structured.
Most of you will remember the battle rap scenes from the film 8 Mile starring Eminem. The battles depicted in the film were to a beat and lasted one round each of about 45 seconds. Today's battle rap is very different but we'll get to that.
As a side note, I, like most people was a massive Eminem fan as a teenager. One thing I always remembered about Eminem was that Irish Poet Seamus Heaney really liked him.
"There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation... He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy."
Battle Rap Leagues
*Hopefully Battle Rap fans will read this too but remember I'm sort of aiming it towards readers who have never seen a battle*
The modern rap battle is generally believed to have originated in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1980s. From the late 1990s to end of the 2000s, freestyle rapping became very popular, with many artists getting attention for new styles, charisma, and witty punchlines in battles such as 'Scribble Jam' and 'Rocksteady'. Televised battle and the aforementioned 8 Mile boosted the mainstream appeal of Rap Battles. Jump Off TV's 'World Rap Championships' (WRC's) premiered in London 2006, featuring American and British rappers.
in 2008, King of the Dot (Canada), Ultimate Rap League - URL (USA) and Don't Flop (UK) furthered the popularity of Battle Rap by posting battles on Youtube. There are numerous battle leagues but as this blog is about writing I'll keep it very basic and not get into the history too much!
How a Battle Works
Most battles are 3 rounds in which battlers take alternating goes. The rounds are usually timed. Before I started watching the American and Canadian battle leagues I mostly watched DONT FLOP (UK) where battles used to be 1 minute or 90 second rounds. This has now evolved and most rounds last from about 3 - 5 minutes. The battles used to be judged frequently but this has now stopped and the onus is really on the viewer at home to decide for themselves who won or lost unless the League is having a 'title' match in which case the battle will be judged.
The Battle is usually judged on a round by round basis like a boxing match with battlers judged on their content, punchlines, personal attacks, rebuttals to the opponents insults and overall delivery. The worst thing a battler can do is choke (forget their lines)
The best writers in battle rap have whats known as a great 'Pen game'. Battle Rapper Chilla Jones has said "To be a great writer... you must be able to do it all... Punchlines, Angles (what direction you're verbal assault/ breaking down of opponent's character goes in), Schemes (eg a Sports Scheme where all the lines in a verse have a connection between sports in some way), Multi's (Multi-Syllables), Entendres etc..."
While I have a huge amount of favourite battlers and there are so many great rappers/rounds to choose from the 3 I have selected to give you newbies a sample are the ones I first watched and then immediately rewatched paying particular attention to the writing. The wordplay and detail is crazy!
Daylyt v Chilla Jones
Two of my favourites writers in Battle Rap are Daylyt and Chilla Jones (Whom I quoted a second ago). Daylyt is a rapper from Watts California and is known for his great writing and his controversial antics in several battles. In this battle however he plays it straight apart from putting on his trademark ski mask or as we'd call it in Ireland his Bally (Balaclava). Chilla is a rapper from Boston, Massachusettes who also is known for his pen game and intricate schemes. The two collided here in one of my favourite battles of all time.
I suggest you watch the battle first and then rewatch it pausing it and using the link below to help you understand each reference and double meaning that you might not catch the first time. It was seeing the words on paper and analysing them that gave me such respect for the writing on display here.
Loaded Lux v Calicoe (Lux's 3rd Round)
Loaded Lux is a rapper from Harlem, New York and is considered by many to be one of the greatest battle rappers of all time. His 3rd Round vs Calicoe has gone down in battle rap history. Here is a video of his 3 rounds in that particular battle with subtitles but pay particular attention to the 3rd which also reads excellently.
Again I add the lyrics page which can explain the references you may not understand straight away.
Soul v Cee Major
One of my favourite writers in Battle Rap is Soul who is from Fife, Scotland. He was a long time champion of DONT FLOP battle league and is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever UK battlers. This battle for the vacant title was against London rapper Cee Major. A very close battle to call. Check out the superb writing from both in this one.
So those 3 examples should be accessible enough using the annotations provided. Like anything it takes time to adjust your ear to pick up on how good it actually is. We don't always understand Shakespeare or The Wire on first listen do we? So it's the same thing.
Rap isn't for everybody and battle rap can turn many people away as the insults do fly. However, I would like to think that much like in Eminem's work it is being used in a subversive way to say something about the culture and that the smart writers can use our differences to show that there's actually no difference between us all in the end. Too simplistic? Maybe.
If you enjoy these clips then go to youtube to check out battlers Pat Stay, Charlie Clips, Hollow the Don, Arsonal, Lunar C, Shotty Horroh and from there you will quickly find everyone else you need to know.
No need for annotations on this battle between Shox the Rebel and Tony D
We mentioned the word 'schemes' earlier. Anyone remember Street Fighter? Course ya do! Who do you think did this Street Fighter Scheme better? Mike P or Daylyt?
Aye Verb's unbelievable 3rd round against Hitman Holla. Forever to be known as the 'Big Gerald' Round. Well worth a watch.
To sum up I don't believe that I will be writing in this style any time soon but certainly it makes me look at writing in a different way and at the power of wordplay. It must also be said that when you read the verses on the page and then watch them back, the timing, delivery and performance which has obviously been rehearsed to a tee is incredible and worth the viewing alone.
Would love to know what you make of it.