Change is inevitable. Sometimes when we love something and it no longer looks the way we remember it, we say it’s dying. I’ve seen this play out with basketball. Every generation remembers the “golden years” of the NBA and calls previous decades outdated. Basketball never dies. Every decade it’s just played differently. Recently I was talking to a friend who claimed battle rap would be dead in two years. I initially agreed, but when I got off the phone it hit me like trash that needs to be taken out. Battle rap isn’t dying, it’s transforming into something that’s unrecognizable to original fans.
To make my point clear, I’d like to explain my brief and rudimentary definition of three cultures: mainstream, subculture and counterculture. A mainstream culture, in any society, is the pervasive culture of the region. It’s typically promoted and defended by the majority demographic of a population be it race, gender, religion, or some combination of the three. A subculture is the culture of a less politically and economically influential group of people in a society. They can either be minorities or the majority population in a society, but hold moderate to no power. They also serve as the bridge between the dominant culture and the less cherished members of a society: the counterculture. The counterculture can be part of the mainstream culture or totally disconnected from society. They represent a smaller demographic whose views are typically polar opposite to the majority’s perspective. At the onset of his popularity, Yung Jeezy’s “Snowman” shirts were banned from being worn in some public schools. That was a counterculture moment. Another counterculture moment was students and adults across the United States of America meeting in Washington D.C. to take part in the Million Man March.
What does this have to do with battle rap? Everything. Hip - Hop has jazz, r & b and spoken word all in its DNA, but it was born from battle rap and lived in the subculture. If I could describe hip – hop in four words it’d be, “I’m better than you.” Obviously there are different types of rappers, but their essence is akin to the Highlanders mantra because “There can only be one.” “I am THE one” is what every fire rapper has been saying since before L. L. Cool J’s “Rock the Bells.” That genetic coding comes from BATTLE RAP. Hip – hop’s meteoric transition from the subculture of the U.S.A. to mainstream media platforms made it a cultural and globally influential force within a decade of its inception. And while hip – hop enjoyed the mainstream’s love affair of the black experience, its essence, battle rap, was not brought along for the ride.
Battle rap’s journey started in what I refer to as the Unrecorded Era. Shout out all the lunch room Pee Wee Kirkland’s, rapping to someone beating on cafeteria tables, who will never get remembered in the archives because they battled in a generation that couldn’t envision a separate lane for this art form. There are countless battles that were never recorded, because the idea to tape a battle and put it out like a WWF event never occurred to anyone with the ability in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. This era featured folktales and legends of rappers, like Beanie Sigel, signing a contract with Roc-A-Fella Records after slaying someone in a rap battle with Jay-Z present. Or DMX and Jay-Z’s battle that only few witnessed. Battle rap was part of the counterculture during its time in the Unrecorded Era because rap beefs turned (and still turn) real and the idea of “battling,” leaving emotions out, and keeping everything business was beyond that generation’s innovation. Respectfully.
Most would say the next era of battle rap was the 106 & Park Era. The year is 2000 and we’re all glad to still be alive after conspiracy theories of the “Y2K” bug bringing the apocalypse were proven false. This era created a clear distinction between battle rappers and rapper rappers. Most battle rappers did not embrace solely being a battle rapper. It was regarded as not being good enough to be an industry rapper. During the 106 and Park Era, battle rap was relegated to 30-second one rounders (later changed to two 30 second rounds). At the time it felt like battle rap gained mainstream recognition, and maybe it did, but the format made it seem more like an appetizer before an entrée. Battle rappers were limited by extreme time restrictions, language restrictions, and one platform, once a week, at the end of a show. Battle rap’s flirt with mainstream ended by 2004 and many believed it actually died. However, when a canopy tree falls in the rainforest, plant life at the next level gets the opportunity to grow from the new sunlight.
The next era of battle rap, 2004 to about 2007, is known as the DVD Era. Fortunately, its fall from the mainstream did not land battle rap back in the counterculture. However, it was still seen as a novelty act, placed at the end of grimy DVD’s about street life. I won’t get into the different names (S.M.A.C.K.), but these first generation bloggers didn’t create their street DVD’s to primarily push battle rap. Thankfully those parts of the videos were wildly popular and the absence of “Freestyle Friday” left a huge demand and opportunity for innovators like S.M.A.C.K. White. The modern era of battle rap was born here, in a subculture backdrop, still envious of the riches industry rappers enjoyed across the tracks. Battle rap was not lucrative to this point and most rappers willingly spit the bars of their lives for FREE because they cared more about the respect than they did the check.
Battle rap’s popularity grew exponentially with the popularity and monetization of the You Tube Era. The legends that came out of the DVD era now had an unfiltered platform to spew their most hateful lyrics, freed from dependence on a physical DVD. The You Tube Era also brought about an attitude change. It was no longer shameful to be predominantly known as a battle rapper. DVD names like Murder Mook, Loaded Lux, or Math Hoffa, gained viral popularity with larger online subcultures. The added incentive with the fame from views was money generated by reaching certain viewership numbers, leading to ads, which translated to the poster of the content getting checks from You Tube, leading to battle rappers getting regularly paid to battle. However, I believe money robs innocence. The authenticity those of us who watched battle rap since the beginning loved, began to change when consistent money got involved. Performance increasingly became more important than bars. Theatrics became equally important to wordplay. Personal angles became more necessary to ensure a battle went viral. Again, change is inevitable. While You Tube did not directly sponsor battle rap, it did propel it to its current era.
The App Era of battle rap generated revenue never before seen in the art form and major powerhouses like K.O.T.D. and the URL flourish doing business with media outlets like Caffeine and Twitch (shout out the RBE movement). The App Era officially brought battle rap back to the mainstream, unlike the 106 and Park Era, because league owners (who didn’t exist during the 106 & Park Era) gained control of their product and were able to increase profits by cutting out the middleman – You Tube and privatizing their business on mainstream applications. The App Era has already featured progressive moments like Kings vs Queens, where every battle featured a well known male battle rapper vs. a well known female battle rapper and legendary battles like Tay Roc vs Murder Mook. However, be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.
The Worldstar effect battle rap provided is now charged up like Bane on his super strength serum due to the popularity and visibility provided by major media platforms. We use to only really be concerned about fights, as far as battle rap being seen in a negative light. However, the first physical punch that shook battle rap went so viral it was used as a selling point to promote. Imagine if Hoffa connected with Dose in 2021 on Twitch. We’ve recently witnessed trans rumors, a gang flag getting dropped by someone not gang affiliated, paper work for snitching, paper work for statutory rape, a female battle rapper slapped on her ass by a male battler, another female battle rapper cupping a male battle rappers meat while on her knees mid-battle, and a polling system battle rappers swear they don’t pay attention to, as far as controversial moments. Every battle rapper now knows what you do is as, or more important, than what you say. The “great pens” that lack theatrics are not as celebrated and don’t get looks on more popular events. I comprehend this to mean an artist like J.C. isn’t considered top tier because he doesn’t have enough skits and antics. An artist like Chilla Jones gets looked over for Champion of the Year because he doesn’t have enough click worthy moments. An artist like B. Dot experiences a bump in popularity once he becomes more willing to go back and forth on social media with other battle rappers. I don’t devalue performance; I overvalue lyrics. But that makes me a dinosaur in the age of robots. So to answer the question, no, battle rap will not be dead in the foreseeable future. My only hope is it doesn’t become oversaturated with performance and gimmicks over bars.