Battle Rap – From Shoreditch’s Streets to the Ministry of Sound
“I’d say perseverance and faith played a big role,” said Freddie ‘Cruger’ Scott-Miller when talking about the success of Don’t Flop, the battle rap league he co-founded with Rowan ‘Eurgh’ Faife.In the beginning, there were only two hungry, young battle rap fans with a vision of starting a league. Now, there is Don’t Flop – the UK’s biggest battle rap league, it has a collection of over 100 battlers, 351,111 YouTube subscribers and nearly 100 million views.
‘Cruger’ and ‘Eurgh’ created Don’t Flop in late 2008. The decision was made after they finished competing in leagues like Jump Off and then had nowhere else to compete. The lack of options led the pair to create their own league on the UK streets for rappers to showcase their talent, and it was not long until they discovered some good names and the scene started to expand. Freestyle battles progressed into organised events and that was when “it slowly turned from a hobby into a business”, explained Cruger.
Last month (November 14th-15th) marked Don’t Flop’s 7th Birthday, and to celebrate they held the UK’s biggest battle rap event to date. Before the term’ battle rap’ was coined, there was the ‘Dozens’ – an African American tradition of street rhyming and verbal combat that ruled urban neighborhoods. The practice can be traced back to chattel slavery, when violence among slaves was a property crime, leading verbal sparring to become a substitute. This is seen as the foundation for the rise in popularity which freestyle rap battles underwent in the late ’70s. Fast-forward a few decades and the concept is the same, but with a more complex format and higher skill level.
How does battle rap work?
It is not a fact, but it could easily be passed as one that every rapper has a song about them being the best lyrically. Battle rap gives those brave enough the opportunity to put this to the test in three 90-second rounds. In the past, a panel of judges would select a winner and provide feedback, but these days the live crowd and online commenters determine who won the battle.
Welcome to America
Breaking into America is a dream that many rappers have. Impact, a 26-year-old battler, said: “America is where hip hop originated and where a lot of rappers that inspire me are from. It had always been a goal to battle there.” Being battlers themselves and not just businessmen means Cruger and Eurgh know firsthand about these goals.
This is why for their recent 7th birthday event at Ministry of Sound, the pair took a massive step forward and paired up the hardest-working battlers with prominent international opponents.
While discussing the importance of giving UK battlers the opportunity to go up against internationals, Cruger said: “It’s important because in doing so, you’re opening them up to a new audience that might not normally watch a battler from England and vice versa for the Americans. International battles tend to have bigger hype around them as well and are more anticipated by fans.”
Setting the standards
As the crowds get bigger, the standards get higher. The lyrics become more intricate and the rapper has to step even further out of the box to dwarf anything said in the past. Multi-syllabic rhymes are used, the artists’ similes involve art references and their metaphors incorporate themes from pop culture, current affairs and politics.
Impact said: “Having thousands listen to every word that you are saying means rappers have to become more creative by using a mix of humour and intelligence.” Impact explained that as rappers are having their careers develop in front of the camera, it pushes them to constantly self-improve.
This video shows Arkaic vs. Soul Rap Battle; a good example of the standards being set.
When Cruger looks for try outs, he is not only looking for a good rapper but “originality, personality, confident performing skills and someone able to connect with the crowd.” Unlike most entertainment industries, battle rap holds no prejudices: in any one event, you can find people of all ages from a range of backgrounds. Case in point: the face-off that took Don’t Flop to a milestone by going viral was the Mark Grist vs Blizzard battle, which involved both the ‘teacher’ and the ‘student’. In addition, although the battle rap scene is largely male-dominated, more women have recently been joining too.
The battle rap community
“The battle rap audience is made up of all difference types of people, you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of hip hop to be into battling. I think through the internet it’s opening up to new people who might not usually listen to rap” (Freddie Scott-Miller)
Depending on which battle you see first, these competitions may seem overly aggressive and intimidating. However, once the rapper steps off stage it is all laughter and camaraderie. This is found between battlers and fans both at events and on the web; on the ‘Don’t Flop Forum’, for example, you can find battlers and fans interacting and joking with each other daily.
Cruger explains: “Most battlers are down-to-earth people who are fans themselves and who started out their careers as fans, so it’s natural. At events fans and battlers can interact with each other and I think that’s what gives it a community feel.”
Having a healthy community is important for the battle rap scene as everyone supports one another. Many battlers also create music, but with mainstream music dominating what most people hear, it is difficult for these artists to make sales. However, battle rap fans often become fans of individual rappers and can make up a large part of their musical fan-base.
The explosion and direction of battle rap is an achievement for the hip hop scene. Creative individuals are able to utilise their talents in rapping inventively to pursue a career in what they love and to reach a wide audience. While the audience is being entertained through comedy, the skill of rap gains appreciation and the negative, thuggish stereotype that has been attached to hip hop artists is being left behind.
To hear our full interview with Impact, be sure to watch the video clip below: