“The supreme Art Of War is to subdue the enemy without fighting”
This is just one of the most noted lines in the book The Art Of War by Sun Tzu. In the world of Hip Hop Battle Rapping, this book can be a great tool. People often ask, “What’s the definition of battle rapping?” From what I have gathered, it is a contest in which two or more rappers compete against each other using improvised lyrics. However, nowadays that has been altered a little because of the way today’s Hip Hop Culture has evolved as far as style, wordplay, and tactical impressions on the public.
“The supreme Art Of War is to subdue the enemy without fighting”
This is just one of the most noted lines in the book The Art Of War by Sun Tzu. In the world of Hip Hop Battle Rapping, this book can be a great tool. People often ask, “What’s the definition of battle rapping?” From what I have gathered, it is a contest in which two or more rappers compete against each other using improvised lyrics. However, nowadays that has been altered a little because of the way today’s Hip Hop Culture has evolved as far as style, wordplay, and tactical impressions on the public. I’ve noticed these changes in the past decade from the presentation of the battle scene. It used to be based on who has the best rhymes, metaphors, similes, and clever phrases. Today, though, it can be based on your stage presence alone. On July 13, I attended a battle entitled “The Thrilla In Virginia,” which was headlined by battle veteran Moon (aka Moonie D) and RVA’s own Bravo. I was highly impressed with every emcee that night, but one thing I noticed was that battles are now more of a showcase or stage performance than a barrage of vicious wordplay. Recently, I interviewed a handful of local battle emcees, and in the next few paragraphs I will talk about what has changed, as well as the challenges, the fame, and also the fails that are part of RVA’s battle rap scene today.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”
Most battle rappers today have strategy or tactical measures that they use to ensure their win. “Aggression is a must,” says local battler Artillery Da God. “Giving a raw and rugged performance and showing the crowd expressions with metaphors can easily win a round.” Tactics are actions you take to gain a specific goal; which tactics are used can change in order to meet local conditions. Strategy is an overall coordinated plan; when you use strategy, it remains the same regardless of local conditions. Use of expressions and metaphors is a tactical action; it can win a crowd, but sometimes you need to adapt with the audience. “The way I battle depends on the opponent,” says local female battler Deisel. “You can’t come at everyone the same, so you figure out their style and show no mercy.” There is nothing wrong with taking a tactical or a strategic approach in a particular situation, but which one you go with should depend on the opponent, conditions, crowd, and appearance.
A lot of emcees also use a method they call “doing your homework,” which can give you an easy win in any battle. This is an example of a strategy, and its strength comes from doing research. Most Hip Hop heads have heard the story about what Jay-Z said to Nas when they had their battle in the early 2000’s: “You don’t want to be the next contestant on the Summer Jam screen.” This was a reference to the time at Summer Jam, the annual New York hip hop festival sponsored by radio station Hot97, when Jay-Z put a picture up of Nas’s close friend and Mobb Deep emcee Prodigy in a ballerina outfit. Jay-Z was able to embarrass Prodigy (and Nas) this way because he did research. Finding flaws or weaknesses in your opponents, and letting the public know about them–even though to some it may look like a small thing, it can send your opponent’s image, and their career, into a quick crash and burn. Local battler Fastlane Fame can tell you a lot about doing research. “I have never been intimidated, so I learn from other artists. I watch a lot of footage, and see what I need to work on.” Watching your opponent’s battles and looking at Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram (see Loaded Lux vs. Calicoe) can give the upper hand in any battle. Whether tactical or strategic, there are many ways to defeat your opponent. All it takes is some careful analyzing and a good memory.
“If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer defeat”
In the mid to late 80s through the early 2000s, it was a problem to come to a battle with rehearsed rhymes, or as they were usually known, “writtens.” In today’s battle world, though, pre-written verses can be an advantage to an emcee if he practices and continuously learns his opponent. “Battles were respected more back then due to it all being a freestyle [a rhyme that is not written or rehearsed, but thought up at the moment of delivery], but today it’s all about talent, or giving the crowd [not just] rhymes but a show,” says Jay-Dash, a local emcee and member of Young Richmond Outkasts. “It is now acceptable [to pre-write lyrics]. A lot of emcees write for weeks, then go to a battle.” For some, it is not easy battle rapping on the spot, but when you condition yourself, it can be done. However, it can be an advantage or a disadvantage. The disadvantage comes because at any given moment a mental distraction can cross your mind while you try to release that punchline, causing you to completely stumble over your rhyme.
Regardless of recent acceptance, some still don’t agree with the whole “rhyming with writtens” factor. “I don’t write,” says local battle emcee Gooch. “I usually observe my opponent, treat it like a boxing match, counting every attack, and make my call off of their actions.” Being an intimidating person while battling can give you the upper hand over your opponent. It’s not just about the words you say, but the way you move, gain crowd participation, step into an opponent’s personal space, or even just make simple eye contact. The ways you can take your opponent off guard are infinite, but using the right one at the right time can lay the groundwork for an easy win. At certain points in the battle, you may feel like you have victory in your clutches due to the tension you can sense in your opponent. I’ve seen an opponent literally sweat because he was so nervous and knew he was going to lose. This brings up another important point–battling without confidence is like battling without your sword and shield. Your guard is down and makes it easier for your opponent to strike–which can lead to death, or at least defeat.
“To Know your enemy, you must first become your enemy”
Some people see battling as a sport. Others see it as a war. A lot of times battlers come into a venue where fans are outnumbered by the opponent’s crowd. This can make for a tense situation for any battle emcee. Northern Virginia battler Corey Crack has been through many situations like this, not because of his talent at battling, but because he’s Caucasian (see 8 Mile, starring Eminem). “I’ve been slandered because of my color before, but I’m a humble guy,” says Crack. “At the end of the day the crowd will leave saying that the white boy is nasty.” Similar issues come along with being a female emcee. Being anything besides your typical battle rapper can provide your opponent with an advantage, which goes back to the intimidation factor. “When I battle I get anxious to see what my opponent has in store next,” says local battle emcee Bravo. “I have no intimidation. I strive for competition.” Most people will do anything to win the crowd over, but by the end of the competition, most of these emcees develop close friendships. The local battle scene is a different realm of hip hop. It’s not exactly rapping, and it’s not break dancing, but it has the aggression of both. You can be a rapper and not battle, just like you can be a breaker and not battle. But as with everything that is a showcase of talent, there will be a competitive side. You must know what you are getting into before you decide to become a battle emcee. It is definitely not a route for the easily offended or soft-hearted.
“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley”
I recently caught up with Rocstagis, one of the most happening battle promoters in RVA. He is the head of local battle promotion team League Of Contenders (L.O.C.), and the host of some of the most recent battles that have happened in RVA. “I come from an era of real Hip Hop,” says Rocstagis. “Nowadays, battles keep the originality and creativity of Hip Hop alive. I find [battling] to be more of a challenge to the art, and allows it to be more exciting. I want to start making this almost like the NFL or NBA, where we have sponsors and endorsers for the craft.” As time goes by, I see local battles happening more often, due to their popularity both locally and out of state. Many battle representatives like MSB Studios, local female emcee Mz. Fancy, and Goonie Battlegroundz, which is hosted by Cain Denim, will make this art more than just a simple branch from hip hop. Rocstagis is also expanding to New York, doing more promotions, working on more Hip Hop competitions (DJ battles and break dancing contest), and even doing an L.O.C Dream Team to market out-of-state battles with Virginia battle emcees. With leaders of the art like this, there is so much more to come in this line of competition.
“The Art Of War is self-explanatory”
So this concludes a crash course in the world of hip hop battle rapping as it exists in Richmond, VA. There is so much I learned just talking to the different emcees and promoters that I almost want to get into battling myself. Overall, this sport is more than just lashing out and destroying your opponent. It’s an art. It’s a competitive bout between the mind and body. At the end of the day, you can go home, clean your cuts and bruises, and still wake up to see another day. Competition is needed in any art form. It makes the art of Hip Hop fresh and keeps the people asking for more. After all, we are in a competitive world, aren’t we? Let’s keep it clean and above the belt.