The Art of Battling, Part 1: The Live Battle

Anyone who wishes to properly call him- or herself an MC or a rapper better be battle tested. The battle is one of the basest forms of rap. Two lyricists standing toe to toe hurling verses at each other like Randy Johnson fastballs in order to see who the crowd thinks is the nicest. It’s the perfect place to showcase the egoism at the heart of rap music. The battle is all about telling everyone why you’re the best and your opponent is not.

Now there’s various ways of battling/types of battles. Right now I want to focus on the live battle. If you’ve ever known anyone who raps with any serious and you’ve spent any time with them then I’m sure you’ve witnessed it. The rules are generally the same no matter where you go, who’s in attendance, or what language is being spoken. Each rapper spits a verse and you judge the winner based on the crowd’s reaction. Some battles are as short as a verse from each person and some continue on for hours, such as the legendary battle that took place between DMX and Jay-Z before either had blown up.

The live battle draws three kinds of rappers:

The first is the rapper who has already written their rhymes. These written rhymes can be something that has been prepared especially for the person that’s being battled; they can be loose “freestyle” verses; or they can be part of a song that just has a battle edge to it. This is generally the wackest type of live battle rapper. Nobody really wants to hear you recite a rhyme that’s been written in advance, especially if it’s something they’ve heard before or will hear again. One of the worst insults that can be hurled at someone while battling is the accusation that their verse is written.

The second is the true freestyle rapper, i.e., the rapper who improvises on the spot and crafts their rhyme based on their surroundings. They may know something about the person they’re battling or they may not, but either way, they can take a look at the person and come up with something to say right then and there. This is generally what you’re looking for in a live battle. You want to see two people really talking about each other based on what they see, hear, smell, and feel in the moment.

The third type is a hybrid of the first two types. This is the freestyle artist who also writes and weaves the two together. This is really the most common type of battle rapper that you’ll find. They’ll approach the battle with either a written or memorized rap and then ad-lib as necessary, or they’ll start freestyling and then insert some prepared material when it fits or seems appropriate. This prepared material can be from an entire song or just a stockpile of punchlines that were crafted for use in such situations.

The second and third types are preferable for live battles. Save the written material for wax (and we’ll discuss that in the next post). The first type of rapper is also at a disadvantage in some ways. For example, my cousin was set to battle his friend. They both prepared verses and the battle was going to be recorded at the studio where we made our songs, but when it came time to battle, my cousin ended up forgetting part of his verse! It was a disaster! Suffice it to say that he lost. He’d go on to record the written verse and add another in a finished song that was amazing, but by then it was too late, the damage had been done.

In the next installment I’ll discuss battles on wax (i.e., finished recorded songs), as well as what’s acceptable, and at what point the line is crossed.

B”H

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