The Birth of the Rap Battle (Know Your History: Episode 19)
Posted on December 8, 2011
Battles are as old as hip-hop itself. The crowd was the ultimate judge when it came to the early days of this culture. Whether it was to determine who ruled the dance floor, which neighbourhood had the best deejay, or who could rock the microphone the hardest. Battles have been a staple of hip-hop since its very inception, but not in the way you might think.
Welcome to Know Your History. I’m your host Chase March, and we’ll be exploring all those questions and more in Episode 19: The Birth of the Rap Battle. You can download this episode for free or stream it with the player at the bottom of this post.
To start off, let’s go back to 1981. Imagine an era where hip-hop had to be experienced. You would go to a party and hear a DJ throwing down long music sets where the tracks all blended together seamlessly. There would be MCs on the stage rhyming and rhyming and rhyming. The microphone would be passed around but the vibe was pleasant and cheerful.
Most of the MCs at the event would take a few lines to praise the DJ. They would then spend a good portion of their rhymes telling the crowd how awesome they are. Sometimes rappers would tell stories that were humorous and playful but most of the time, it was an exercise in bragging.
In fact, that is exactly where hip-hop started. The DJ would be spinning a set and occasionally jump on the microphone to hype up the crowd. He would say short rhymes to get the crowd dancing and to remind them of just who it was, providing the musical entertainment.
DJs were awfully competitive and tried to improve upon their skills. They soon employed MCs or master of ceremonies, to hype up the crowd so they could be free to concentrate solely on the music. It wasn’t long before the short rhymes became longer and longer and developed into entire songs.
Recorded rap music was still fairly new at this point in time, however. There were roughly two hundred 12” singles put out in 1981. You can find a list of those releases on RapHistory.net.
200 releases in one year. Nowadays it feels as if there are that many rap singles released every week. And with the ease of the Internet, mixtapes, soundcloud, bandcamp, blogs, etc, that number might be even higher.
One of the most popular records of 1981 was this one. I want to play it for all of you to help set the scene for a special night around Christmastime that year where everything in hip-hop changed. I’m not kidding. Stay tuned to figure out what it was. This is “Feel the Heartbeat” by The Treacherous 3.
All right, Chase March back with Know Your History. You just heard “Feel the Heartbeat” by The Treacherous 3. The group consisted of Kool Moe Dee, who went on to have a successful solo career, LA Sunshine, Special K, and DJ Easy Lee. The boys were riding high on the success of that record in 1981 and were invited to host The Harlem World Christmas Rappers Convention.
There were several MCs performing at that legendary, but now defunct New York night club for the event. The Treacherous 3 were there as hosts and were not scheduled to perform. All of the MCs that did perform that night had that same light-hearted, bragging-type routine similar to the song I just played. This is what is known as old-school rap.
No one knew it at the time, but a new era was on the precipice. This event would go down in history as the start of a new culture of rap battles.
Today, we are all familiar with what a rap battle is. Most everyone has seen a battle on television or in the movies. Eminem’s 8-Mile was a pretty good portrayal of what you can expect to see at a rap battle. 106 and Park on BET has a segment called “Freestyle Fridays,” Aux-TV has “The Ultimate MC,” and Toronto has “The King of the Dot” contests.
If you haven’t seen a battle, it basically works like this. Two emcees are pitted against one another and have a set amount of time to perform a short freestyle rhyme. Someone goes first and then the opponent responds immediately with their own freestyle. There are often two or more rounds. The object is to deliver funny and witty rhymes that tear down your opponent. The goal is to one-up them and come up with the best rhyme. Of course this is putting it in the simplest of language. Rap battles aren’t all about the rhymes.
This Christmastime show at Harlem World wasn’t a battle as we know it today. It was more of a showcase that allowed rappers to get up on the stage and display their best rhymes, to hype up the crowd, and to just have fun with it.
Before we go any farther, let’s make it clear that this rap showcase turned into the historic Kool Moe Dee vs Busy Bee Starski rap battle. It started off innocently enough as well.
Busy Bee Starski was one the biggest acts in hip-hop at the time. He had an incredible stage performance and delivered fluffy party rhymes in the classic old-school style. He was always a crowd pleaser and felt pretty confident that he was the best MC on the bill that night.
But like I said, earlier, hip-hop has always been competitive. There was always a desire to show that you were the best at rocking the microphone. And ultimately, the crowd was the judge of this. Hip-hop fans aren’t content with album sales, radio spins, or artificial ways of determining who is the best. It all comes down to skills and a show-and-prove mentality.
Troy L. Smith interviewed The Treacherous 3 about this battle. In the article, you can see how the fans at the show wanted to see who the better MC was, Busy Bee or Kool Moe Dee. You can see exactly how this battle came to be. It’s a really interesting read and I suggest you go to Tha Foundation website to check it out.
Kool Moe Dee is quoted as saying, “Busy Bee got beside himself that night and I let my ego get caught up in it.” End quote. Basically Busy Bee was on stage doing his bragging type rhymes and they sounded nice. Someone in the crowd suggested that Busy Bee was only safe because Kool Moe Dee was not on the bill.
Busy Bee couldn’t do much else but respond to that little comment. He didn’t explicitly disrespect Kool Moe Dee. He simply repeated that he was indeed the best rapper in the house and that no one could touch him.
L.A. Sunshine told Smith, “I was laughing at him when he was talking shit. But Moe took things to heart. I felt what Busy Bee said was kind of harsh.”
Kool Moe Dee recalls, “So the agitator is pushing the fight, so Busy has to defend himself and he ends up dissing me by saying, ‘It don’t make a difference who’s in it. Ain’t nobody beating me.’ So I’m like did he just say that?” End quote.
You can see that both rappers egos were on the line here.
Kool Moe Dee continues, “So this night I am hosting the show because we just finished putting out a record. We were hot so I was like the celebrity host. After he said those words I was standing there, saying did he say that? And one of the brothers screamed out, ‘What you going to do now?’ So I am literally pushed into the circle to fight. So I’m like oh shit. I run upstairs and I tell Charlie Rock who is also hosting the show, ‘Yo put my name on the list.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Put my name on the list. I’m in the contest.” He’s like, ‘You getting in it?’ I said, ‘Yes and put my name right after Busy Bee.’ Charlie’s like, ‘Alright.’
That’s the story behind what happened. But you really need to hear the entire exchange that happened on the stage. Kool Moe Dee’s response wasn’t the typical old-school style rhyme we were used to. I’m going to leave it at that for now, play you the clip from 1981 and be right back to talk more about what many people call rap’s first battle.
You could hear Busy Bee getting a lot of audience participation in that clip. It was a typical of what you would hear in the live hip-hop events back in the early 1980s.
What Kool Moe Dee did, however, was anything but typical. He decided that instead of just bragging, he would actually come out swinging. He starts by attacking Busy Bee’s old-school flow and actually tells him, “You ain’t shit.” This is quite a departure from, “I’m better than the rest.”
Kool Moe Dee continues his verbal assault of Busy Bee by criticizing his name, claiming that he stole rhymes, saying that his verbal skills were repetitive and boring. Kool Moe Dee continues to take shot after shot at his opponent.
This exchange has been credited as the first rap battle. At the very least, it was hip-hop’s first direct attack of an emcee that we have on tape or record. It signaled a shift in the culture as well.
Kool Moe Dee had some time to figure out what he was going to say in that rhyme. He admits that he threw it together quite quickly, jotted it down, and that it wasn’t exactly a freestyle.
A freestyle is a completely improvised rhyme. Nothing is written down. You basically think of a line or two before grabbing the microphone. You start with what you have and then just keep going.
It’s a difficult skill and not every great rapper is able to do it. It’s kind of like juggling. There are so many different things you need in play for a freestyle to work.
The best advice is that practice makes perfect. You can only get good at something by doing it. So get yourself some instrumentals, start rapping, and record your rhymes. This will allow you to figure out what sounds nice. In fact, you can even write down your favourite lines and start collecting them like weapons you can stow away until they are needed.
Observe what is around you. If you can add details of your surroundings, you can really get the crowd on your side. They can tell that you are in the moment and will respect it. It also gives you specific things in which you can attack your opponent.
Good freestyle rappers don’t have routines. They make up their rhymes right off the top of the head. They are quick and witty, but this comes from practice, attention to detail, and a good memory.
One of the best freestyle rappers is Supernatural. Every time I have heard this guy he has blown me away. He has done shows where fans hand him random objects in rapid succession and he manages to fit them all into an improvised rhyme that flows, makes sense, and uses humour in completely novel ways.
That was the brilliant freestyle rapper, Supernatural. There are plenty of rappers out there who can come up with rhymes off the top of their heads. When rappers use improvisation this way to come up with lyrics, we call it freestyling.
I know many people listening to this, myself included, who have been in an argument with someone and walk away steaming. Ten minutes later, we think of a brilliant comeback and will then kick ourselves for not being quicker. Freestyle rappers can just come up with this stuff instantly while in that moment.
Freestyling is a skill but it is also a talent. Not every successful rapper can freestyle and not every freestyler can compose a great song or album. But it does earn you respect and can open the door to a promising career.
When it comes to battling, freestyling is probably your greatest asset. If you have to write all of your rhymes, you might not have something that will completely suit the moment. I have been to battles where it is obvious that the rappers were reciting rhymes that they had already pre-written.
If a rapper is truly freestyling, they should never repeat the same rhyme. It is like talking because most of the time you don’t rehearse what you are going to say. Also, the freestylers just sound better, in my humble opinion.
You know, an emcee can display technical skill, have amazing rhyme schemes, and literally out-rap their opponent and still lose a battle.
Because the audience doesn’t often pick up on all that stuff. It does get the humour, however.
Humour is something we can all relate to. It’s universal. When you hear someone making fun of another person and doing so in a clever rhyme, you can’t help but laugh. That is one of the appeals of battling.
Several rappers have made their careers out of being witty. Eminem, for example, puts so much into his rhymes with punchlines, situational comedy, and sometimes he even pokes fun at himself. I think he often puts people off with his offensive lyrical content, but when you look at how he puts his words together and the beauty behind exactly what he is doing with his rhymes, you have to marvel at what he does.
Eminem actually established himself in hip-hop by entering battles, and totally destroying his competition every step of the way. He is definitely one of the best emcees ever in the way he puts his words together. He is, in my humble opinion, the best wordsmith the English language has ever seen.
If a rapper is truly freestyling, they should never repeat the same rhyme. It is like talking because most of the time you don’t rehearse what you are going to say.
We’re just about done this month’s dose of hip-hop knowledge. Time flies. I didn’t even get to the answer record yet. I was hoping to, but we are running out of time.
We covered a lot of hip-hop history today. We started talking about how hip-hop began with improvisation. DJs would say short rhymes to hype up the crowd. This lead to MCs bragging about their DJ and about their own rhyming skills. This lead to friendly competition and then to outright battles.
The rap battle became a culture unto itself in the early 1980s thanks to the legendary battle between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee. A few years later, this blatant attack of fellow rappers jumped from the stage and live venues to records. We then got something called the answer record. But that is another tale for another time. Next time, actually,
This has been Chase March for DOPEfm bringing you your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. Thanks for tuning in. Remember to check my blog, chasemarch.com, for transcripts and free downloads and, of course, the show’s website dopefm.ca for all of your hip-hop needs.