In a packed basement in the heart of Sheffield, northern England, two burly men—one wearing a hoodie, the other sporting a fitted New York Mets baseball cap at a jaunty angle—face off against each other and proceed to spar in verbal combat. For the next twenty minutes or so, they try to degrade each other, using a mixture of personal attacks and comedic insults, all delivered in rhyme form. It’s an arcane spectacle for the uninitiated. Like many, I was first made aware of this strange and slightly forbidding art form by Eminem’s on-screen debut 8 Mile, but I was to discover that, in real life, battling is not so much an element of hip-hop culture as a thriving subculture in its own right. In modern battling, there are no beats or microphones. Rounds are pre-written weeks in advance and are performed a capella. The emphasis is less on cadence and rhythm and more on lyricism, theatricality and delivery. Verses are intricately structured: complex, multisyllabic rhyme schemes generally earn the most kudos.
Neck tattoos and snapback hats abound here in the Stockroom, a live music venue in the heart of the city center and, among the crowd of hip-hop purists, I feel like something of a bumbling middle-class interloper. The sort of participants attending these events don’t fit the clichéd image of young aspiring rappers from the ghetto, earning their stripes in the hopes of landing lucrative record deals. The image of battling as portrayed by Hollywood is largely mythological. In reality, battling is its own thing and consists largely of hip-hop hobbyists and enthusiasts passionate about their craft, unencumbered by the need for fame and aware that their underground sensibilities are unlikely to ever translate into mainstream rap success.
That’s not to say that people aren’t paying attention to battling. Quite the opposite. Owing to the format’s popularity among the YouTube generation, battle leagues have sprung up unexpectedly across the world and regularly garner hundreds of thousands of online views. Canada’s premier battle league known as King of the Dot, with its glossy, cinematic production values, is the most viewed in the English-speaking world and has even been endorsed by rap superstar Drake. The UK-based Don’t Flop league is the second most popular and has been featured on Channel 4 but still, despite mainstream coverage, retains its distinctly underground feel. In the Philippines, emcees code-switch between English and Tagalog at Flip Top, the most watched battle league in the world. Even in China, amid a climate of pervasive censorship, aspiring rappers cut their teeth at Iron Mic, a yearly rap battle competition in Shanghai, which has attracted a small but devoted following.
Battling’s uniqueness as a spectator sport is due to its synthesis of stand-up comedy, theater, spoken word poetry and competitive hip-hop culture. The purpose of a battle is essentially to degrade your opponent in the cleverest way possible and there are literally—and I mean literally—no lines that cannot be crossed. Every aspect of a person’s identity and appearance can be used against them. Anything goes—including race, sexuality, physical defects and family members—just as long as it rhymes. In any other situation, such insults could get you in a lot of hot water, perhaps even beaten up or killed. However, despite the homophobia, racism and sexism thrown around, the battles have their own moral code. While discriminatory epithets and taunts are par for the course, being as offensive as humanly possible won’t necessarily guarantee a rapper victory if that offence isn’t delivered creatively and with panache. Groans and sighs will quickly emerge if a rapper’s verses dissolve into shtick or descend into a stream of unimaginative, recycled tropes. If an MC’s pen game isn’t on point, the crowd knows how to signal its disapproval.
Back in Sheffield, Flex Digits (real name Santi Pérez), a rapper of Spanish descent known for his multisyllabic rhyme style and gravelly northern accent, is about to begin his first round against The Ruby Kid, an indie rapper of Jewish heritage. Flex does not hold back from attacking Ruby’s race. Immediately, he launches into an invective about his big nose, Yom Kippur, Israel, Schindler’s List, and, as the verse crescendos, he delivers a fatal punchline about sending Ruby to “the death camps.” Ruby responds, rather less vituperatively, by dissing Flex’s Latin roots, mentioning the Spanish Inquisition and his swarthy complexion. However, in a later round, Flex’s most eye-watering haymaker stuns even the hardened battle rap crowd: “the reason that Jews don’t eat pork is that it’s practically cannibalism.” There’s a brief silence before the Flex resumes his round and continues his merciless assault on Ruby’s race. Though no winner is officially decided at the end, it’s clear to any viewer that Flex decimated his opponent through sheer ruthlessness.
You’d think that after such a combative exchange, the two rappers, both of whom are friends in real life, might have severed ties. On the contrary, Flex and Ruby clap it up and buy each other a beer afterwards. All is good. They remain best buddies. Rarely after a battle is there lasting beef between two rappers. If anything, battling breeds friendships, not feuds. Far from fostering prejudice and bigotry, the battle rap scene heartily embraces diversity. Don’t Flop events attract all sorts. There are gay battlers, disabled battlers and battlers who are open about their mental health issues and every denomination of human being can be found amid the watching crowd.
Such free speech absolutism puts rap battling in a category of its own. Where else can you say anything you like without the fear of serious ramifications? In an age of stifling political correctness, there are few arenas in which one is truly free to express oneself in ways deemed by polite society to be grossly offensive. The anything goes ethos of battle rap is an intoxicating escape from the Orwellian climate in which we increasingly find ourselves. As comedians are subject to ever more social media scrutiny, rap battlers—their edgier, more profane counterparts—remain, for now at least, immune. But even if they were all to shut down tomorrow in a haze of moral condemnation, there’d quite simply be nothing else like them.