the art of the rap battle: from london to leeds the mc battling scene is growing every day
Around Britain boys of all ages -- and it’s nearly always boys -- are taking turns to slag each other off, viciously, wittily and – crucially – in front of a camera.
The best of Britain's rap battle scene racks up millions of views on YouTube. Battling and verbal sparring, with its roots in 70s hip hop culture, has been turbo-charged by the internet and the popularity of events like the Jump Off, Lord of the Mics and, more recently, Don't Flop. As view counts sky rocket, the last decade has seen Britain's battling scene mutate into an unlikely, somewhat Anglo-Saxon male bonding ritual.
Somewhere between the chest beating theatrics of a wrestling match, and a four am trawl through the endlessly inventive invective of 4Chan's notorious /b/ board, everything is permissible in the land of battle rapping, no insult is too taboo, and to say that battle videos come with trigger warnings is like calling Little Boy a Rio Snapper.
Don't Flop is the premier YouTube channel devoted to the form. Started in 2008 by two battle loving MCs, Eurgh and Freddie Crugar, the first recorded Don't Flop battle took place in the basement car park of a Brighton hotel. "We had a shitty little video camera," Eurgh remembers, "We'd put a thing out on a forum saying we're starting a new battle thing come down, and about 30 or 40 people - way more than we thought were gonna - came down." Predictably the hotel was less than enamoured with a mini horde of kids rocking up to their car park.
"The hotel staff came into the basement and really shakily asked us to leave - they were really scared because we were all congregating in this big circle... That was the first battle. The second battle was filmed in the pissing rain in the park down the road because we had nowhere else to film. We had to get someone to hold an umbrella over the cameraman. It was so amateur, it was funny."
Things have changed since these early days. For the first three years, the Don't Flop team ground away, becoming a word of mouth institution where one rapper would come, battle, then bring two more friends the next time. Don't Flop gradually started putting on events around the country, although the quality of performers was - ahem - variable. "One of the battlers in one of our Northern events was bought by one of his friends," Eurgh remembers, "and he was drunk out of head, headbutting a fence when I met him. I'll never forget it. I was like, this is not the dude that's battling today? He was just headbutting and shouting at the fence over and over again. I was like 'Why have you bought this guy? I'm trying to do something positive here...!' As it turned out he was actually alright at battling…"
Nutters aside, as Don't Flop continued to film battles and put them online, they found themselves tapping into an ancient British hobby; taking the piss. As they rose in popularity, they gradually started unearthing rappers who elevated the delivery of threats and insults into a finely honed artform. Fan favourite Shotty Horroh, a tall, almost translucently pale Mancunian, looks like a Dickensian villain on day-release from the workhouse. He stalks the stage snarling intricate cascading narratives, gothic fantasies of murder and revenge as lyrical as the poetry of playwrights. At the other end of the spectrum is Mark Grist, an MC who was still working as an English teacher when he first appeared to battle. A supremely unlikely battle champion, the 30-year-old Grist rolled up wearing a teacher's suit that made him appear to be on the verge of giving Year 7 a lecture on To Kill a Mockingbird. His inaugural battle against the then 17 year-old MC Blizzard went viral when it was shared as the 'student Vs teacher' battle on Facebook. Millions watched Grist destroy the young MC, kicking off a successful career as a performance poet in the process.
As stars have emerged, the channel has grown bigger, putting on larger and larger events and branching out into touring the States. It's uncertain just where it will go next. Mainstream success is knocking, and rappers such as Lunar-C and Shotty Horroh are now branching out from the battle scene into careers in music. However, with sensitivity to offensive language running at an all-time high, Don't Flop is almost certainly too extreme to cross-over. Eurgh acknowledges that almost any kind of prejudice you can dredge up, from homophobia to racism, has been used in battle raps and will continue to be - and he notes that it's very unlikely that any corporate sponsor would risk getting on board only to be tarnished by association. Realistically, and quite probably rightfully, Don't Flop have only managed to deliver such unfettered content because they're remained on the underground (and, conversely, they're remained on the underground because of the nature of the content). But with battles such as Shotty Horroh vs Arsonal commanding over 7 million views, they're rapidly becoming visible on a wider stage. It's quite likely that a rapper who started their career on Don't Flop is going to breakthrough and become a mainstream artist, and once they're appearing in a pop context, they may find - as X Factor winner James Arthur did - that even the slightest history of no-holds-barred battle raps can come back to bury a career.
"And we can't complain about that." Eurgh acknowledges. "I've told the battlers who want to be celebrities, as long as you're coming into a battle and saying you're a slut, you're a faggot, or whatever - this is the level you're gonna be at. Unless we all come to an agreement where every bad word is banned, we have to accept that this is our level. I dunno. It's gonna be a long road..."
As with wrestling, there's a feeling that everything that happens in the ring is sheer fantasy. The rappers aren't (by and large) the stream of crazed bigots their raps would sometimes suggest, it's more accurate to see them as playing the part of bogey men, acting up like naughty kids flouting the school rules. Right now though, Don't Flop offers an unusually honest window on a huge subculture. It's a chance to see young men (there are currently only three women rapping on the channel) working out what taboos they can break, playing with language, bigging up their chests and trying every single way they can to be the man. Here are some highlights from over the years…
Tony D vs Shotty Horroh
Tony D was Don't Flop's three-time champion before retiring from battling. Battling Manc Shotty on his home turf made for a crazy, much disputed conflict, that perhaps best displays the artistry of Don't Flop. The two rappers offer completely different styles; Shotty spitting manic syllables, his hands grasping empty air as though he's pulling the words from the ether, whilst Tony D has the stage presence and an utterly unflappable swagger of a champ.
Conceited vs Cruger
A US vs UK battle that ended up being watched and re-tweeted equally on both sides of the Atlantic, this one illuminates the difference in approach between countries. American Conceited comes with skilful wordplay closer to traditional rap, whilst Cruger is all about sharp punchlines, notably mocking the US rapper's obsession with talking about guns: "It's not that hard to rhyme a bunch of different words for gats together/ but that's all he does in every acapella/ he relies on that shit to make his rapping better/ Cos without it he'd be wack as ever/ you use guns as a crutch like the bitch from Planet Terror."
Oshea vs Sensa
In a title battle that tested the sensibilities of even Don't Flop's generally unshockable army of Youtube commenters, Norwich's Sensa got stuck into the Scouser Oshea with some jibes about the Hillsborough disaster and the then recently murdered Liverpudlian 12 year-old Rhys Jones - it's one of the only videos on Don't Flop where you'll find fans suggesting an MC has gone to far. Perhaps the judges agreed; Oshea (who, to be fair, is rarely more than a couple of lines away from saying something gleefully offensive) won the title.
Mark Grist vs Blizzard
One of the site's most widely shared battles, whilst this may not be the best contest on there, it's certainly the oddest. The aforementioned teacher Grist easily wins the battle, but Blizzard - who has since bagged a record deal of his own - still drops enough bars to stop this being a complete rout. Plus we can imagine shirty school kids countrywide borrowing at least one of his punchlines to terrorise supply teachers: "you nob head/ I hope you drop dead/ if I punch you in the face who are you gonna call?/ OFSTEAD?"
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Text Ian McQuaid
Photography Charlie Hyams