When the Ultimate Rap League brought their Survivor Series to Richmond this past January, it marked the first time that a national battle rap group established a platform for the talented emcees of my hometown.
The group, known as SMACK/URL, has an international following for their battles, which they usually host in New York City and Los Angeles. Their venue for this event was The Top, promoter EJ Lewter’s club in Shockoe Bottom, and it was packed with rap fans of all ages for the battle, which was streamed live over Pay-Per-View for the folks at home.
Originally printed in RVA #32 Spring 2018, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
When I stopped in to catch the action on Jan. 20, Lewter introduced me to Smack White, the owner of URL. “It’s my pleasure,” White said of hosting a battle in Richmond. “Richmond has been the city that’s been supporting me throughout my whole career, [from] the DVD era all the way to the battle rap culture. We got like 15-16 years of support from the city of Richmond so I wanted to come back and show the city some love.”
Battle rap has a place right at the heart of hip hop, said Radio B, a Richmond artist and one of the owners of the local Southpaw Battle Coalition.
It is the true sport of hip hop, and the original essence of rap. It’s really high-level lyricism — rap, spoken word, stand-up comedy, and debate, all rolled into one.
If battle rap is the sport of hip hop, Survivor Series DMV is the major leagues of emcee sparring. This event brought out almost all of battle rap’s heavy hitters in the region; Baltimore’s Tay Roc, soon-to-be top-tier performers Chess of New York City, T-Top from North Carolina, and arguably the most exciting newcomer to URL, Nu Jerzey Twork, who has performed in RVA and moved up the ranks in Northern Virginia’s Showtime Battle Arena.
The DMV area is home to a lot of talent, but often overlooked, White said. “I don’t think they get enough light. That’s why I’m here, to show the city some love and to establish a presence in the city. Hopefully, this can be one of many events that I do out here.”
Some of the DMV-area artists included the Goonies Crew, comprised of Twork, League of Champions-member Ryda, Richmond’s own Jakkboy Maine, Young X from Portsmouth, and one of the most anticipated rappers, veteran battle emcee and Black Money Mobb head Moon.
Originally from Paterson NJ, Moon has been a Richmond resident since the ‘90s. He has an impressive resume for a rapper, including a feature in MTV’s Fight Klub and a famous rumored battle between him, Wu-Tang’s RZA, and Juice Crew member Craig G.
When I asked him if really happened, he answered, “I got a $30,000 watch from it.” Battle rap is about building legends, and Moon has legends for everybody in the club.
He’s one of the top performers in the Survivor Series, and the word survivor suits him well; the night before the battle, a fire consumed his Southside home. Just like my question about the battle, it didn’t phase him.
After the battle, I met up with Moon outside his temporary apartment to talk battle rap and RVA in general. “It’s a different time of battle rap from what I come from. What I come from, we didn’t even write your battle raps. When you battled somebody, you ran up on they ass,” he said, comparing the calculated approach in today’s game to the more free-form early bouts.
“Back in the day, it was, ‘Let’s bet some money,’ or just bragging rights for your ‘hood. You didn’t have time to prepare for a nigga, you didn’t know his grandmother… It wasn’t about how much information you had on the nigga. You had to be nice, you had to be lyrical.”
One factor that makes Moon a rising star in the battle world is his honest approach to rapping; he still sticks to his rhyming principles. “That’s the difference,” he said. “I respect what they do now. I’ve had to grow into some of the things they do. But I don’t change what the fuck I do, because that’s what makes me me.”
He’s one of the older battlers active on the scene today — something he doesn’t try to hide onstage — and he’s fiercely loyal to the Richmond music scene. Whether it’s a Southpaw Battle or League of Champions (LOC) battle around town, you’ll find Moon and some of his Mobb brothers in attendance. He’s a hardened veteran of the scene, and he’s not afraid of any challenge. He referenced two house fires he’s survived when he joked, “I’ve survived some wilder shit than [a battle].”
As a touring battle rapper who’s been on MTV, Pay-Per-View, and had recent bouts in Ohio and New York City, Moon described the impact Richmond hip hop has had on him. “Richmond Virginia brought me back to life, man. I had really left battle rap, rap period, alone. I wasn’t really doing rap like that, but I was dibbling and dabbling.”
In particular, he credits a few local folks with his return. “Shout out to Rocstagis, LOC, that’s where it all started. Me and Bravo had the city on fire, you can go look at our first battle. We actually brought battle rap back, me and Bravo. That brought my career back.”
Battle rap might be new to some, but hip hop has always had a competitive edge. Everybody talks about who has the best crew or DJ, but it all comes down to skill. This was established in the early days of hip hop, when Coke La Rock and Keith Cowboy became celebrities for their skill with the mic.
There have been hundreds of rap battles on tapes and TV recently, but they’re the tip of an iceberg. Most battles are face to face, held wherever, from the street outside a concert to a quick confrontation in a studio. It’s rare that these get recorded, and they’re almost never caught on video, especially in the early days. But those that are watched 20 to 30 years later and the winners are still subject to debate.
One of the most legendary crew battles caught on tape was between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantic Five, recorded live in 1981 at the Harlem World Battle of the Heavyweights. The audio is all over YouTube, where commentators argue over who should have won.
For emcees, the most famous is probably one of the earliest recorded, a battle between Chief Rocker Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee from the Treacherous Three, also taped in 1981. For many hip hop fans, this was the first time we heard one rapper go after another face to face on the same stage.
Since then, the battle has been the proving ground for many up and coming rappers, but many of their early matches have become legends, passed on only by word of mouth. No tape exists showing the DMX versus Jay-Z battle in the early 90s, but every serious emcee has heard the tale.
The new wave of rap aggression in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s brought high profile rappers like Nas, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, Beanie Sigel, and Jadakiss into rap beefs with each other, and the conflicts drove a spike in sales from consumers wanting to hear more battle rap.
As a college-aged hip-hop fan, I came of age with Fight Klub battles on MTV2, and seeing RVA’s own Nickelus F as the Hall of Fame champion on 106th & Park’s Freestyle Friday. These battles kept it clean for TV, but there were rawer, uncensored battles which we picked up from the neighborhood DVD seller. Floor-to-floor and door-to-door, they’d deliver the latest movies, albums, and plenty of rap battles recorded on DVD for an underground audience of diehard fans.
This is where Queens, NY native Troy Mitchell, alias Smack White, made his debut. His pre-YouTube-era series SMACK (Streets Music Art Culture Knowledge) was a touring show that visited different cities to show street life from the perspectives of local hip-hop royalty and more. In 2003, those videos first introduced me to Big Meech and Black Mafia Family (BMF), with club scenes and even a segment where Bleu DaVinci and the crew hang out in a Miami hotel lobby with the city’s mayor.
The local culture was fascinating, but not the main attraction. Somewhere in the middle of the DVD would be a battle or two. Sometimes they were set up at the park, sometimes a clothing store or a project hallway in NYC. These weren’t the battles in movies like 8 Mile or The Shelter. There were no beats, no backing tracks, no famous actors. They’re just two rappers, mostly unknown outside their city limits, standing across from each other, ready for lyrical war.
Early DVDs showed a three or six-round battle, but as the series progressed, you’d see a lot more trash talk between rappers, some who weren’t even in the battle. The conflicts sparked anticipation, and we all looked forward to the next SMACK DVD as the battles and conflicts took center stage.
Still pre-YouTube, we’d meet up outside Foster Hall at Virginia State University, and argue over whether Murda Mook beat Jae Millz or vice-versa. Every emcee wanted to make it to a SMACK DVD; this inspired White’s creation of the Ultimate Rap League, which took off immediately.
Today, URL’s artist roster features the best rappers from all over the country, from different leagues in every region, and they all head up to New York City or Los Angeles to battle.
As battle rap has grown, other leagues have sprung up, especially here in Richmond. The two prominent leagues in the city now are the long-standing League of Champions, owned by Sonny Kolfax, and the upstart, Radio B and Bravo’s Southpaw Battle Coalition, who count Chance Fischer as a member.
During the photoshoot, I sat down with Kolfax to talk battle rap and what it’s like to be live on stage during the battle. “You can’t buy [the feeling] nowhere,” he said. “It’s so easy to have a concert and people rock with the music, the lyrics don’t necessarily have to be there. But when you’re battling, there is no music. Everything you say counts. If you on stage and there’s no music and you’re giving everything to your opponent and the crowd is rocking with you, that energy transfer is a high almost.”
He noted Richmond’s place in the history of battle rap, and the impact of SMACK coming down I-95. “You look at the DMV area and you look at the URL and it’s heavy here now, it’s prominent…and people never realize that those guys started out here,” he said. “Ryda came up through LOC, Jakkboy Maine’s first battle was on SRL [the Southern Rap League].”
Kolfax noted that it’s just getting bigger here. “The growth that I’ve seen in the scene from 2014 to present has been tremendous,” he said. “Because now battle rap is almost synonymous with hip hop in the city. When I started out battle rap wasn’t that big, like, ‘You’re a battle rapper? OK’.”
Kolfax thought URL’s battle was a good sign for the city. “It’s a blessing to see where it’s at now, because this is only a precursor to what can happen — and we showed the city what can happen.”
But more important, he said, will be Richmond capitalizing on the newfound attention from the rest of the battle world. “Don’t think just because Smack came that’s the end of battle rap,” he said. “No, we still have leagues out here. Pack our events now. Because URL already took notice, now it’s up to us. Even if you never been to a battle rap event, [you’re] just a fan of music, check it out.”
Gigi Broadway, from Kolfax’s LOC, shared his sentiments regarding hip-hop in RVA and battle rap in general. “Battle rap in this region is exploding,” she said. “URL is invested in the battlers here, and are always looking for talent out here. The music scene is really growing as well. The industry hasn’t quite set their eyes here yet like battle rap has, but it’s definitely turning in our direction.”
Broadway gave shoutouts to some local talent that’s been in the news lately. “Artists like Michael Millions, Mutant Academy, Noah O, and more have gotten a lot of national coverage last year, so it’s coming. I would say now is the time to get involved, because they are looking at how the city responds to and supports the artists. The time is now,” she said. “Once battle rap becomes more mainstream here, it will open the door for RVA to get more respect in the hip hop culture in general.”
Every person I spoke to about the future of battle rap and hip-hop in Richmond agreed; the time is now. When the #1 battle league in the world shows you this type of love, it’s time for the whole city to take notice of the crews, the leagues, and the venues like Lewter’s The Top.
Battle rap may have started underground, but it’s driven hip hop for decades, and with this type of buzz, it’s time for the form to take its place at the front of the scene.
Photos by Branden Wilson. Art Direction by Natalie Jackson
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