If you’re reading this then you probably have at least some passing familiarity with battle rap – competitions in which MCs trade bars to determine lyrical superiority – and its brushes with mainstream attention in the past 20 years or so. Eminem’s battle rap background became fodder for the 2003 box office movie, 8 Mile, loosely based on his life. The movie’s climax featured reenactments of rap battles and were the film’s highlights. BET’s popular afternoon Hip-Hop staple 106 & Park featured “Freestyle Fridays” in the early aughts to crown weekly champions, leading to rappers like Jin getting major label deals. MTV’s “Making The Band” featured Jae Millz and E. Ness battling while Diddy watched. The Smack DVD series in which Troy “Smack” Mitchell shot guerrilla style videos of rappers kicking freestyles, ended with rap battles that took place in barber shops, street corners and clothing stores – eventually becoming the most popular parts of the series – reached mainstream recognition in rap circles.
In 2012, Loaded Lux went viral with his catchphrases, “You gonna get this work” and “Look at me, King,” during a battle. Battle rap has always stayed in at least the periphery of Hip-Hop culture. Now, in 2020, battle rap is having another moment – and there really isn’t a better time to dig into one of the most entertaining, true forms of hip-hop expression – as battle rap is poised to become the next big mainstream pillar of rap once again. That moment is coming thanks to a collaboration between three entities: Drake, upstart video streaming service Caffeine and Smack’s Ultimate Rap League (URL).
URL has been the preeminent battle rap league in North America, putting on boxing fight night-like cards in major venues across the country for the past decade. Their shows draw crowds in the thousands, YouTube views in the millions, its own brand of superstars and now a new streaming app of their own that features exclusive battles. So how did this happen? How did the battle rap scene go from fitting into a throwback jersey shop to a landmark deal with one of Silicone Valley’s most buzzed-about newcomers? That’s where Drake comes in.
One of the most underrated big stories in rap is how much Drake has been influenced and impacted by his diehard fandom of battle rap. The Toronto megastar famously attended events for King Of The Dot battle league, based out of Canada, co-hosting a 2011 card headlined by Dizaster and DNA. He did the same for URL’s 2015 NOME 5 card, even teasing a battle with legend Murda Mook. But it goes deeper: battler Hollow Da Don actually sent Drake the Mike Zombie beat that would eventually become “Started From The Bottom.” And when he raps “I’m a let it ring on you like Virginia Williams” in his “Duppy Freestyle” diss, it’s a textbook structure of a battle rap bar.
So when the Caffeine app – think Twitch with a sleeker design and more celebrity partnerships – reached out to Drake for a content partnership, he looked to URL to push as the major conduit for that collaboration. Now, all of URL’s events will be airing live on the Caffeine app for free (events had been on pay-per-view for upwards of $50) with the streaming service contributing added production value, more exposure and potentially a larger platform for battle rap to become a mainstream part of rap culture once again. Now, the only step left is for you to give it a chance again.
Battle rap is theatrical as hell with intricacies, crews, rivalries and storylines that would make George R. R. Martin blush. And it’s a little different than what you may think you know after watching 8 Mile, Freestyle Friday or *shudders* “Drop The Mic.” MCs each get three rounds of three-to-five minutes each, taking turns insulting one another acapella. The time stops for crowd reactions. And yes, battlers do prepare their rounds ahead of time. The “freestyle” aspect is pretty much a thing of the past with the exception of some of the elite rappers who incorporate off-the-top rebuttals to their opponents’ rounds or any other extemporaneous idea that pops in their heads. The result is a competition of essentially a whole album’s worth of material, executed flawlessly one time live in front of unpredictable crowds. Rappers get in each other’s faces. They get extremely disrespectful. They tell jokes. They expose each other’s secrets. They put on unforgettable shows, making themselves stars. Most importantly, they show off the most complex, intricate, diverse displays of lyricism you’re ever going to see. Some of them you’ve heard of, like Wild N’ Out’s Hitman Holla and Charlie Clips, or the aforementioned Loaded Lux and Murda Mook, and mainstays Dizaster and Daylyt. There are reddit threads, Facebook groups, podcasts and even a First Take-like show called Champion that makes this all feel like a sport and cultural phenomenon all rolled into one.
All of that was on display this weekend as Caffeine and URL came to Atlanta to put on their first joint show, Genesis. Atlanta has been a burgeoning hotbed for battle rap over the last couple of years or so, already being home to John John Da Don’s Bullpen Battle League. URL brought Cassidy to Atlanta for his return battle last year and Rare Breed Entertainment, who also had an event in Atlanta this weekend, has had several shows in the city. However, Genesis was the WrestleMania, offering URL – and Caffeine – more eyes at one time than ever before. The event showed what battle rap has to offer and why you should absolutely at least give the sub-genre a try.
The show – which was free for URL app subscribers, of which about 200 or so attended – was main-evented by two of rap’s biggest, newest stars: Nu Jerzey Twork – who has been heavily featured on Drake’s IG page – and Compton’s Geechi Gotti. It really had a big-match boxing feel as the two MCs had been on a collision course for more than a year. Geechi, known for his authenticity and bluntness, was in rare form as he attacked Twork about his name while trying to undermine his affiliation with the Piru Bloods: “How old is you? Its a blessin just to get to them ages. It was coffin after coffin. This sh*t was contagious.” Twork fired back over a Youtube video of Geechi taking cover behind a tree during a scuffle. That’s how much you have to pay attention to the entire culture; whole rounds are based off of insider references, IG posts, videos and interviews that only the most tuned-in know about. Twork was absolutely dynamic, displaying his star-power with lines like “I’m so excited he finally dies…I got Got, God got Got, I can’t even get the words out.” The energy between the two was electric and the room was buzzing the whole battle.
The undercard ran the gamut of the URL experience: Charlie Clips brought his brand of comedy and improvisation – calling out a white heckler in the crowd for booing during Black History Month – in a battle with back-to-back puncher K-Shine. John John Da Don, JC and Rum Nitty were shaking the room against their opponents (Rum: “I could spit three bars for you/ and wipe you out like a dry erase board/ I’m remarkable”). Arsenal and T-Top had brutal, sometimes uncomfortable battle about each other’s kids, babies’ mothers and mothers alike. It was everything you come to love about battle rap, especially the URL brand. The Caffeine stream was flooded with diehard battle fans, causing some early glitches in the night, which is typical growing pains when streaming services put on events like these.
Overall, the Caffeine deal can’t be seen as anything but a positive for battle rap as the inside baseball aspects of it are now stripped away. You don’t have to search specific videos on Youtube, pay for an app or spend money on pay-per-views. Now you can just tune in and watch for free, then choose to go digging for more from the artists you like. Now having a centralized location for fans to tune into battles at one time, sponsored by one rap’s biggest stars means that battle rap can transition from deep cut subgenre of passionate fans to a pillar of Hip-Hop that runs in parallel with the music topping the charts. Especially when you add in the fact that Caffeine may be providing bigger bags and we could see more rappers join the fray – Jadakiss has teased rap battles, Joe Budden has battled before, Cassidy has returned and the golden goose, Eminem is always keeping a close eye on the culture. Add in the glut of young talent on the URL roster, the complexity of the rhymes and the sheer binge-worthiness of battle rap as a whole and the future looks like one where rap battles penetrate mainstream Hip-Hop for good; as well as a return to the forefront of the American pop cultural collective consciousness. It seems like only a matter of time before Nu Jerzey Twork becomes just as much of a household name as J. Cole and battle rap bars get quoted as often as Kendrick Lamar lyrics. That’s the type of potential emergence the future can hold for battle rap.
The next Caffeine/URL is going to be in March some time, but in the meantime here are a few battles that have come out in the past year or so that are sure to get you back invested: