America’s Poets: Battle Rap Gets Real
In the 24-hours before a rap battle, T-Rex likes to be alone. “I say the rhymes as much as possible,” he said. “Try to say them faster. Say them slower. To be a great performer, you’ve got to write.”
At the Hammerstein Ballroom on Saturday, July 12, eight of America’s greatest poets faced off for the title of Total Slaughter battle rap champion. The show was the culmination of the Road to Total Slaughter, a four-part reality series that aired on Fuse, and the Internet, and pared a league of battle rappers down to its most talented performers: Big T, Arsonal, T-Rex, and Daylyt.
Co-produced by Eminem’s Shady Films and WatchLOUD.com, the Road to Total Slaughter brought America’s battle rap leagues closer to the mainstream, giving the genre the full reality treatment.
The audience gathered was mostly male, with a smaller number of female fans sprinkled throughout. Together, they formed an almost impenetrable sea of fitted baseball caps surrounding the stage. In the second- and third-floor balconies, men leaned over the railings and stood on the arms of their chairs, all to get a better look at the contenders for the Total Slaughter battle rap crown.
The sport featured prominently in Eminem’s 2003 film 8 Mile, and its popularity has propelled the various leagues into competition for legitimacy. Total Slaughter is only one of several battle rap leagues vying for national prominence. Others include the Queen of the Ring, Scrambles4Money, and All Hip Hop All the Time. Still, the modern battle recalls the genre’s earliest days with icons of the style among rap’s all-time greats: KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee, Snoop Dogg, Rahzel.
Like many battle raps, the Total Slaughter battle is organized into three rounds with no accompaniment. Except for the final battle, where a technical malfunction forced one of the performers to abandon their wireless mic in favor of a more traditional hand-held device, the battlers had only their voices, their words, and their gestures to augment their performance. Most of the rappers dress in a plain style: jeans, sweatpants, a hat. Even the wardrobe is a potential minefield for competitors. Choose something too mundane, and they would be ripped apart for their lack of style, choose something too outlandish, and their eccentricity would become a lightning rod for mockery.
While individual lines would incite the crowd to explode in favor or condemnation of a performer, the audience was mostly silent, listening intently to the intensely fast-paced flow of the rhymes.
The first two battles of the night would determine the winners of the Road to Total Slaughter reality show competition. The last two were the main events, promising an epic showdown of lyrical skill.
Backstage, a coin toss determined the order for each of the battles. MTV’s Sway Calloway introduced each match and acted as referee, stepping into the ring between rounds and keeping the time. Battle rap is an intense competition, with rappers engaging in direct verbal attacks on their opponents, who must remain on stage during the response. And the verbal jabs can get vicious.
The first showdown was between Newark, New Jersey’s Arsonal and Chicago’s Big T. Arsonal went first and achieved a momentum of language that carried him to an easy victory over Big T’s slower, more deliberative style. Displaying equal prowess with their words, in the end it came down to the crowd, whose energy Arsonal channeled with precision. Combining lightning-fast rhymes with an energetic stage presence, he literally rapped circles around his foe in the final round: “You’re knee-deep in some shit and you just tore your ACL.” (To his credit, Big T never faltered, even when it was clear he was on the defensive and that Arsonal’s early lead would be impossible to overcome.)
The second battle of the night was the Total Slaughter championship between New York City’s own T-Rex and Watts, California’s Daylyt. T-Rex went first in each round, delivering a solid performance by the book, saying, “You run your mouth loosely / I come with my Uzi.”
In the weeks leading up to the battle, T-Rex—who began battle rapping in New York City when he was 12-years-old—said he practiced in train stations, where the noise from the passing subway cars helped him focus his attention. “If anything happens, within the crowd, or a reaction, nothing will throw me off,” he told me before the match.
And his ambition doesn’t stop at Total Slaughter, when asked who he would battle if given the opportunity to challenge anyone, without hesitating T-Rex said Jay-Z. “I would take a long vacation,” he said. “Go somewhere alone where all I could do was study rap. No women, no drinks. Just rap.” The focus showed in his performance, with T-Rex unquestionably winning all three rounds.
If T-Rex is a rapper by which to set your watch, Daylyt is something of a controversial showman.
Well known for his gimmicks, Daylyt entered the stage in a Spawn costume that could stop traffic at Comic Con. The audience wasn’t impressed, saying little while, for the first two rounds, Daylyt maintained a blistering attack and sustained equally impressive jabs from his opponent. Before closing out the second round, he raced to the edge of the stage, long cape flowing behind him, raised his hands to the sky and said, “I got that Kool-Aid man / I bust through the wall with the big picture.”
Going first in the final round T-Rex delivered another solid rap and assured his position as champion. His challenger responded with an act so bold, it stunned all those present. When his turn arrived Daylyt said nothing, tore off the mask, and rent his clothes, removing his microphone in the process. Deprived of amplification, he silently stripped down and collapsed onstage. Aside from a generous helping of boos, the audience was speechless. Even the judges were unsure what to make of the drama. They criticized the move as Daylyt lay motionless on the ground, committing to the bit long after the match ended. It was the most electric moment in the entire show.
In most battles, the rounds focus on battlers tearing each other down or hyping their own mastery of battle skills. T-Rex won the match, but Daylyt’s quiet performance gave the crowd a rare glimpse into the mind of a battler and exposed the medium’s raw potential for artistic growth.
At the show, on Twitter, and in the next day’s Internet reviews, the stunt earned Daylyt near universal criticism for “wasting” an entire round, but in saying nothing, the rapper spoke volumes. Daylyt downplayed the gimmick, later claiming on Twitter that it was his way of saying he was finished with battle rap.
The final battle of the evening put Jersey City rapper Joe Budden against Hollow Da Don. Budden, the most accomplished rapper of the evening, went into the final battle the clear favorite, with Hollow Da Don claiming beforehand that he was so certain of his impending loss that he wondered if the match might be rigged. In the end, Hollow pulled out a withering attack that outpaced Budden both in speed and viciousness. Like Big T, Budden kept up a technically proficient battle, while being unable to match Hollow’s engagement with the crowd. In the final round, Hollow da Don, who went first, clinched victory by referencing Budden’s real-life domestic violence: “So let’s talk about the women in your life.”
Hollow undercut most of his argument, though, by then repeatedly calling Budden a “faggot” and claiming the correct course of action would be to impregnate a woman, rather than hitting her. By the time Budden began the final round, the audience was vitriolic, already turned against him. He even set the mic down before his time was up, he only finished after being coaxed back onto the stage by Sway.
Despite his loss, Joe Budden remains optimistic about the future of battle rap. “The potential is unlimited,” he said. “We’ve seen the growth, even over the past five years, with so many up and coming leagues picking talent, developing talent, and pitting talent against each other. If they can bring one fan, two fans who are not familiar with what’s going on in the subculture our mission is complete. We want to bring the attention back to where it belongs. The world is watching. The world is excited by it. You have battles with guys having a war with their words getting upwards of 3 or 4 million views.”
The third bout of the night was a long-awaited rematch between famed Harlem rappers Loaded Lux and Murda Mook, whose 2007 battle is a classic of the genre. On hand to witness the historic rematch were superstars like Fab 5 Freddie and Busta Rhymes.
Easily the most accomplished battle rappers of the evening’s event, Loaded Lux and Murda Mook exemplified the very best of the genre. Lux entered the stage dressed head to toe in white, accompanied by an entourage. Murda stared him down, dressed head to toe in black except for a glittering pair of silver sneakers. The entourage, so out of place in the one-on-one battle arena, soon left the stage. What followed was a clear victory for Murda Mook.
If Daylyt was an embodiment of what battle rap can be, Murda Mook is a precision-tuned instrument of absolute lyrical destruction. No one who took the stage came close to his level. The house shook every time Murda Mook spoke. Calling out Lux’s politics, Murda told his rival, “It ain’t for entertainment / It’s cause you’re image tainted / And when you stand in the mirror, you don’t like who you see / So you use these to hide what’s inside [gesturing to Lux’s clothes] / See, this guy diss guys while wearing a disguise / I don’t get it / How a nigga always pretending to be somebody else / Going to have the nerve to tell another nigga to be himself.”
Even Loaded Lux could not keep a straight face, smiling as his competitor established a clear, early lead and never let up. Gesturing toward Lux’s head, Murda Mook screamed, “Since Papi’s so accustomed to switching identities / I won’t be wrong when I turn John L Lux into John F. Kennedy.” Lux eventually brought his crew back for the third round, seemingly less to draw strength from their presence and more just to let them stand close to what was a commanding display of battle rap.