Battle rap’s recent surge in popularity led me to wonder what is the greatest battle performance known to man. When I say known to man, I really mean known to me, because clearly, I haven’t seen some of the ‘around the way’ classics that never got recorded but deserve their just due. Many battles make the list including Calicoe vs Loaded Lux (https://youtu.be/u1-z2hxXxKg), Murder Mook vs Serius Jones (https://youtu.be/ampRuisxBcw), Geechi Gotti vs Rum Nitty (locked away on the URL APP…), and Murder Mook vs Jae Millz (https://youtu.be/eVSuecKL3TY). That’s my personal list in no particular order. What puts these battles in consideration for greatest battle performance known to man (and woman) is each match featured the elites of the industry performing to their full potential against another elite. Each match captured the attention of the culture and had a “Super-Bowl” like atmosphere around it. Most importantly, each match gave the culture moments that aged well with great replay value.
You really can justify almost any battle performance as the “greatest” because they are so subjective. What’s not opinion is the greatest battle performance known to humans (notice how I keep evolving) wasn’t even a rap battle. Sting 2000 featured perhaps the greatest battle in the history of battles, Merciless vs. Ninja Man (https://youtu.be/HZZgGA83bG8). I’m not saying rap battle, but just battles in general. Truthfully, DJ clashes are similar to rap battles and are often unfairly left out of discussions because dancehall is a different genre. However, I’d like to examine Merciless vs Ninja in a similar way we would compare an MMA fighter to a boxer.
Verzuz got lit once Bounty Killa and Beenie Man reminded the world how passionate lyrical competition could get during a pandemic, when most of planet Earth was looking for a pleasant distraction from Covid-19 (https://youtu.be/216ILslDOfs). Dancehall clashes use to be a regular occurrence but decreased with on stage fights. One of the most infamous fights was Vybz Kartel vs Ninja Man (https://youtu.be/2qmo_n7M-hs). A shameful moment in clash history, it led to an increase in physical altercations on stage and the eventual deterioration of DJ clashes. What’s important to remember is these lyrical wars became viral before there was a platform for things to go viral on. There was no Instagram when Merciless went to war with three iconic dancehall legends at the same time. It’s for this reason, stage presence, and his ability to recall songs when needed that I say Merciless’ performance against Ninja Man was the greatest battle performance ever!
Sting was a staple in dancehall culture for about three decades, but was only available to foreign audiences through audio and video cassettes (you remember tape players and VCR’s?) for much of the 80’s and 90’s. I wrote another blog on battle rap and its evolution. The “Caffeine” or “App” era has offered battle rappers an interactive platform to showcase their talents and artists are now becoming wealthy from battle rap and not mainstream success. Why is this relevant to my topic? In a word, accessibility. If Bounty Killa and Beenie Man broke the internet during their Verzuz battle that was really just a repeat of THE MOST LEGENDARY and INFLUENTIAL BATTLE in dancehall history, (https://youtu.be/ZX_eu-bcygQ a subject for another blog), imagine the numbers Merciless would’ve done with Instagram in 2000. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game that’s only been crystalized by the picture of a sign he held up after the game showing 100 on it. Michael Jordan switched the ball from his right to his left hand in mid-air against the Lakers in the ’91 Finals. Jordan had 33 points in that game, but which performance do you remember? And so, the more eyes that are available to see a legendary performance, the greater the legend becomes. If more fans had the opportunity to see Merciless’ legendary performance in real time, you would already agree this was the greatest battle performance ever.
Merciless’ stage presence was next level. Firstly, he came out in a full soldier outfit, equipped with canteens and all the accessories of someone getting ready to be deployed. Ninja Man, displaying veteran savviness, made Merciless wait about three minutes before he made his entrance. Merciless, himself the grizzled clash professional, didn’t waste any of his songs in this space. Instead, he won the crowd over freestyling and asking Laing, the event promoter, “Where is dead man Ballentine?!?” Many artists in a similar situation would’ve have DJ’ed a one chune as a throwaway. Merciless wisely restrained from this temptation and it benefited him in the later rounds of the clash. Merciless’ speeches before his songs raised the crowd’s anticipation for the punch. His most defining moments in part one of that clash, was his ability to lyrically out talk Ninja Man. He bellowed phrases like, “You an yuh likle idiot war affi guh put up. Ah mi name war mi season and cook up. Mi shot pussyhole an don’t even look up,” “You come and tell me bout prison ah hell. And every time you come out you look so well. It look like yuh lef yuh underpants in a Kid Royal bloodclat cell,” and “Me inna pothole, but your career in a drop hole. Yuh bloodclat head fi cutoff an put inna blackhole.” These quotable aren't part of any song. He literally took the crowd from Ninja Man with freestyle speeches. He did the exact same to Bounty Killa with his legendary “Whaddup? Whaddup? Whaddup? Badman nah tek bad up,” moment that would’ve gone PANDEMIC in today’s social media world. Merciless’ display of stage presence created the perception that Ninja Man didn’t deserve to be on the same stage with him, despite competing lyrically, and it also humbled Bounty Killa, who was historically known for those type of pre-song speeches.
Finally, Merciless’ song recall was the reason he was able to have material to counter not only Ninja Man, but also Bounty Killa and Beenie Man. Just to put things in perspective, Merciless clashing with those three icons on the same stage is tantamount to an artist battling Big Daddy Kane (Ninja Man), Jay-Z (Bounty Killa) and Nas (Beenie Man). I know you disagree with my character comparisons, but bear with me, I’m making a point. An artist successful in outlasting all three lyricists would have to know their own material like they were reading a discography on Wikipedia. The ability to recall a specific song that countered the previous song he heard was no easy feat for Merciless. For example, Ninja Man started the clash with a slew of old hits. Merciless matched his energy with old hits. Ninja drew for new chune? Merciless responded with new chune. Ninja sang a song calling Merciless a bowaz; Merciless responded with “Badman nah drink out ah bar glass.” After he snatched the crowd from Ninja with his “blackhole” speech he sang “Bull in a Pen.” That ended Ninja Man’s night and brought out Bounty Killa who wasn’t prepared for what Merciless had planned for him. Again, Bounty DJ’ed a song called “Mr. Wannabe.” Merciless counteracted with “Have mi own image, mi nuh trace like nuh gyal.” Bounty caught an uncharacteristic boo from the Sting crowd after singing a new song. Merciless delivered huge knockout moment singing “Let Dem Have It,” as he brandished a prop (I hope) gun. He ended up calling out Beenie Man, and while his performance level wasn’t the same level he delivered for Ninja and Bounty, he still had songs to spare for Beenie as well. At one point, all three of these iconic figures were taking turns warring with Merciless. I’ve never seen anything like it. The closest recorded battle performance that matches up with this Merciless performance is Ill Will battling both Your Honor and Mz. Miami, one after the other, and arguably not losing a round. However, the stars aligned perfectly for Merciless this night as he performed at the highest level known to any battler in the history of musical battles.