Battle rap (also known as battle rapping or battle rhyming) is a type of rapping that includes a lot of braggadocio (bragging and boasting) content "combined with put-downs, insults, and disses against real or imaginary opponents". Battling can occur on recorded albums, though battle raps are often recited or freestyled spontaneously in live battles, "where MCs will perform on the same stage to see who has the better verses".
Battle rapping is described by 40 Cal in the book How to Rap as "extracurricular" and he compares it to the dunk contest in the NBA. Battle raps are often written solely for the purpose of impressing people with technically inventive rapping, and knowing a wide variety of rapping styles and a wide range of MCs is recommended. Some MCs started out writing mostly battle raps and battling other MCs before they began making records.
Historically, rap battles draw their roots to the Flyting, a contest of exchanged insults, often conducted in verse, originating as early as the 5th century in Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval cultures. The exchanges would become extremely provocative, often involving accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion. Varieties of the concept have also been practiced by several other cultures, including the Inuit, Arabic naqa'id, and Japanese Haikai.
The modern rap battle is generally believed to have originated in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1970s. One of the earliest and most infamous battles occurred in December 1982 when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starski - Busy Bee Starski's defeat by the more complex raps of Kool Moe Dee meant that "no longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller" thusly, rendering Busy's archaic format of rap obsolete, in favor of a newer style which KRS-One also credits as creating a shift in rapping in the documentary Beef.
In the 1980s, battle raps were a popular form of rapping - Big Daddy Kane in the book How to Rap says, "as an MC from the '80s, really your mentality is battle format... your focus was to have a hot rhyme in case you gotta battle someone... not really making a rhyme for a song". Battle rapping is still sometimes closely associated with old school hip-hop - talking about battle rapping, Esoteric says, "a lot of my stuff stems from old school hip-hop, braggadocio ethic".
Some of the most prominent battle raps that took place on record are listed in the book, ego trip's Book of Rap Lists, and include such battles as the Roxanne Wars (1984–1985), Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions (1986–1988), Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J (1987–1991), MC Serch vs. MC Hammer (1989–1994), Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg vs. Luke (1992–1993), Common vs. Ice Cube (1994–1996), MC Pervis & Brand New Habits and LL Cool J vs. Canibus (1997–1998) - all of which include memorable battle rap verses.
Battling has been mostly an underground phenomenon since the early nineties, partly due to rap lyrics becoming considerably more complex in terms of rhyme scheme and meter.
In the early 21st century, freestyling (particularly freestyle battling) experienced a resurgence in popularity of sorts as successful freestyle battle competition TV shows were shown by both BET and MTV. In addition, Eminem's movie 8 Mile brought the excitement of the freestyle battle to mainstream movie audiences. Freestyle Friday is a watered-down battle segment on BET's popular show 106 & Park. Two rappers compete in a freestyle battle before the studio audience and three celebrity judges (the DJ sometimes acts as the 3rd judge). Each competitor alternates freestyling for 30 seconds in each of the two rounds (originally only 1 round when the segment first began). The rappers are not allowed to use profanities or sexually suggestive lyrics, punishable by disqualification. After the battle, the judges decide the winner, per majority vote also in Hackney, London, there is a competition called Jump-Off. Professor Green competed and he came up through Jump-Off.
In Cuba, freestyle battles often follow organized concerts and juxtapose composed songs with ‘flowing’ lyrics that are relevant to the present situation. Freestyling can allow audience members to integrate into the performance stage. This provides a forum for up-and-coming underground artists to engage in a musical discussion with already prominent underground Cuban rappers. Freestyle battles often turn political when artists incorporate perspectives on social disparities and issues plaguing the Cuban population.
Battle Rap Leagues
El Oh Crew is the oldest website that has conducted and promoted battle rap since 1998. The site is still up and running to this day and was founded by battle rapper Robo Rob. In 1999, battlers Fam Nice and Axe who were members of El Oh Crew, branched out to create the forum style version of battle rap that is currently used today with their leagues New Jerusalem and Sacred Society. Those sites conducted battle rap in text, audio, and video.
Due to the popularity of text battling and battle leagues, battle rap has been revived in the form of pre-written battles where battlers can showcase there writing skills as well as their freestyle rhyming ability. Grind Time Now and King of the Dot both started in 2008, and furthered the popularity of battle rap via video hosting website YouTube, brand marketing, and creating divisions across the nation, other companies like Ultimate Rap League and Don't Flop have also helped to expanded the movement.
King of the Dot, also known as KOTD, hosted a 3 day event which had 8 countries participate in it, called World Domination 2 in August 2011. In November 2011, Organik hosted Flatline, an event in which rapper Drake co-hosted the main event between Dizaster and DNA.
In 2011, one of the creators of KOTD founded the first all-female battle rap league, called Queen of the Ring. Although female battle rappers such as Mis Led and Drizz Mami existed in other leagues, they were significantly less prevalent in the scene. Queen of the Ring garned attention quickly, as well as an avid fanbase. It is now considered one of the "Top Five" big battling leagues (along with URL, KOTD, Don't Flop, and Grind Time Now). Many female battlers are widely known in the community, with female battles in the majority of big events held by any of the other "Top Five" leagues. As female battlers have gained recognition, male versus female battles have also become popular.
In 2012, Rap Grid launched the first website and online marketplace that organizes rap battles from battle rap leagues located worldwide and allows battle rappers to sell their own merchandise directly to fans.
The website VerseTracker was launched in 2012, originally as a database for the music made by battle rappers. It grew into the world's largest database for rap battles, battle events, battle rapper profiles and battle rap news. The website offers users the opportunity to search for their favorite battle rappers, rate them, vote on battle and find new battles based on their searches. It also introduced the first objective battle rap leaderboards based on YouTube views, number of battles and average views per battle. The website has cataloged over 26,000 rap battles and over 13,500 battle rappers from all over the world. 
Major Battle Leagues
1998 - El Oh Crew (EOC)
1999 - Ground Zero (GZ)
1999 - New Jerusalem (NJ)
2000 - The Chamber (TC)
2001 - Sacred Society (SS)
2005 - Let's Beef (LB)
2008 - GrindTime Now (GTN)
2008 - King of the Dot (KOTD)
2008 - Don't Flop (DF)
2009 - Ultimate Rap League (URL)
2011 - Queen of the Ring (QOTR)
Types of battles
A freestyle battle is a contest in which two or more rappers compete or battle each other using improvised lyrics. Each competitor's goal is to 'diss' their opponent through clever lyrics. As hip-hop evolved in the early 1980s MCs gained their fame through live battles with other MCs. Freestyle battles can take place anywhere: street corners, on stage at a concert,in school or even online. The idea of such poetic battles, or jousts, has a long history that can be found in genres of poetry such as Haikai and flyting.
The live audience is critical to a battle as each Emcee (MC; Master of Ceremonies) must use skill and lyrical ability to not only 'break down' his or her opponent, but to convince the audience that they are the better rapper. Appointed judges have been used in formal contests, but even when no winner is announced, the rapper who receives the best audience response is viewed as the victor. In addition, it is considered by some to be an act of dishonor to recite written and memorized raps in a freestyle battle, because it shows the rapper to be incapable of 'spitting' spur-of-the-moment lyrics.
A cypher is any collection or gathering of rappers, beatboxers, or breakers forming in a circle in order to jam musically together - the term has also in recent years come to mean the crowd which forms around the battles, consisting of spectators and onlookers. This group serves partly to encourage competition and partly to enhance the communal aspect of rap battles. The cipher is known for “making or breaking reputations in the hip hop community; if you are able to step into the cipher and tell your story, demonstrating your uniqueness, you might be more accepted". These groups also serve as a way for messages about hip hop styles and knowledge to be spread, through word-of-mouth and encouraging trends in other battles.
Battling is a prominent part of hip hop culture.
References in other media
- Rap battling features prominently in the film 8 Mile.
- In episode 22 of The Cleveland Show, "Brotherly Love", Cleveland Brown, Jr. engages in a rap battle against a character voiced by Kanye West.
- There is a skit in an episode of Robot Chicken in which Elmer Fudd competes in a rap battle against Bugs Bunny.
- Musician and YouTube comic Nice Peter attained massive attention by creating the series "Epic Rap Battles of History". In the webseries, Nice Peter, EpicLloyd and his friends act out rap battles between famous historical and fictional characters, with pairings such as William Shakespeare vs Dr. Seuss or Dumbledore vs Gandalf.
- Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 25.
- Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 27.
- Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 28.
- Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 28-29.
- Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 29.
- "Blow Average".
- Beef documentary, 2003, Peter Spirer, Aslan Productions.
- Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 26.
- ego trip, 1999, ego trip's Book of Rap Lists, St. Martin's Press, p. 236-237.
- Baker, Geoffrey. 2006. "La Habana que no conoces: Cuban rap and the social construction of urban space." Ethnomusicology Forum 15, no. 2: 215-46
- AP Oct. 4, 2004. "Cuban Hip-Hop Reaches Crossroads: Artists Struggle to Meld Politics and Commercialism" CBS News
- "Rap Grid Is The ESPN of Rap Battles". Frank151. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
- "VerseTracker - The Battle Rap Music Index". VerseTracker. Retrieved 22 February 2015.
- Johnson, Simon (2008-12-28). "Rap music originated in medieval Scottish pubs, claims American professor". telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 2008-12-30.
"Professor Ferenc Szasz argued that so-called rap battles, where two or more performers trade elaborate insults, derive from the ancient Caledonian art of "flyting". According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States, where it was adopted and developed by slaves, emerging many years later as rap.
- Chang, Jeff (Nov–December 2007). "It’s a Hip-hop World". Foreign Policy (163): 58–65. Check date values in:
- Schell, Justin. ""This Is What Ya’ll Don’t See On TV": B-Girl Be 2007". mnartists.org.
- Edwards, Paul (2009). How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC. Chicago Review Press, ISBN 1556528167.
- 8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson. DVD. March 18, 2003Larro
- Alan Light; et al. October 1999. The Vibe History of Hip Hop.
- All Rapped Up. Dir. Steven Gregory, Eric Holmberg. Perf. Eric Holmber, Garland Hunt. Videocassette. 1991.
- Blow, Kurtis. Kurtis Blow Presents: The History of Rap, Vol. 1: The Genesis (liner notes). Kurtis Blow Presents: The History Of Rap, Vol. 1: The Genesis.
- Brian, Cross. It's Not About a Salary. London; New York: Verso, 1993 [i.e. 1994].
- Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. Dir. Kevin Fitzgerald. DVD. 2004.
- King of the Dot
- Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)
- Stream of consciousness (psychology)