”More than punch lines and rhymes”: The empact potential of Battle Rap by the example of oxxxymiron-dizaster battle

Rap Battle is one of the most important, fastest developing, influential and criticized components of hip-hop culture. Getting out of New York suburbs and spreading across many countries around the world, Rap Battles are not perceived definitely by humans until today, and many even consider it dangerous for the public. Nevertheless, it is undeniable fact  that this sub-category of hip-hop is getting more and more popular: today Rap Battles are held not only at the national level, but also have become a competitive platform for rappers representing different countries, the videos illustrating them have millions of views on Youtube, the original battles become a subject of researches for linguists, psychologists and culturologists, and some even become symbolic ones.

At first sight, the rap battle reminds of a hostile competition between two people who  offend each other and earn money by the way. On the other hand, Rap Battle is a rich subculture based on the traditions and values of the afro-american community and is a powerful way of communication which lets people to express their ideas and speak about problems. Critics emphasize the fact that touching risky themes and calling messages specific to  Battle Rap promotes and make “normal” such expressions of aggressive and unhealthy behavior as violence, use of drugs and alcohol among the public, especially among the young. They also lead to the devaluation of school, work, family, and other traditional norms. The other side, however, considers Rap Battle as a means of education and learning, emphasizing that touching of such topics allows to speak about the systemic issues in the public, makes them the subject of  discussion and  raises awareness of such risky factors. Such contradictory perceptions and the pace of development of the Battle Rap raise questions about what does it mean and what are the affects of this subculture.

We will try to answer these questions by analyzing the battle of Dizaster the representative of the US  and Oxxxymiron the representative of Russia taked place last year, which  already is considered historical.

***

On October 15, 2017, at the 7th annual World Domination event, representatives of two reputable battle rap platforms, Dizaster representing Canadian King Of The Dot Entertainment and Oxxxymiron from Russia’s Versus competed with each other. Battle took place in Los Angeles within the framework of  World Domination, the annual event of King of the Dot. This platform differs by the fact that it has an international character and  the best MCs of different countries are struggling with each other here. At the battle, Oxxxymiron emphasizing its Jewish and Dizaster’s Arabian origin and the “dying” Arab-Jewish and Russian-American relations, made an important consideration: ” Cause look: you’re an American Arab, right? I’m a Russian Jew… It doesn’t look like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Cause in Hevron or in Beirut we’d have some cruel intentions

But verbal feuds may have potential to cure this patient slowly dying Arab-Jewish-Russian-US relations… What I’m trying to say is battle rap is crazy of lately. You chill with people you are normally expected to hate. Cause of the media, the parents, teachers, preachers you hate. And politicians whose egos inflate. So you face your opponent, tell him that his girl’s a dyke. He calls you a dirty kike but his verse is tight. And then you get this weird feeling as your words collide. It’s like you’re looking in the mirror cause you’re both alike. And yes, it’s sexist and racist homophobic smut… But in times of war, look at today: the sport evolves. Cause if you hate someone, you don’t trade dirty jokes you kill him…

I’d rather every Arab told every Jew “your mother”.And vice-versa every day, than let them shoot each other. Cause I’ve seen this with Ukraine… As if nothing happens and only music numbs the pain. And I’m not saying that battle rap is gonna change the world. And I’m sorry for being preachy, instead of raping his girl. Shitting on her.But I think battle rap could be more than just punchlines [i]and rhymes”[ii]:

Thus, Oxxxymiron drawn the attention of the people to the impact potential of battle rap as the cultural dialogue phenomenon. What is the essence of the battle rap today, why has it so widespread and what impact can it have on people? To answer these questions, we  have first to look at the history of the Battle Rap and understand how it was used before and what applications it has now.

The origin and the evolution of the Battle rap

Battle rap is one of the rap subgenres. The latter is one of the four cornerstones of the hip-hop culture (graffiti, rap, DJ, and break dance). It was formed in the 1970s, in one of New York suburbs, called Bronx, mostly inhabited by African Americans,  which was also called “the worst slum of America”[iii]. The origin of Rap Battles is associated with club parties where DJs or event makers, called MC (Master of ceremony ), frequently made a speech to occupy the audience during the breaks. Gradually, the role of  this component of club life began to grow, and MCs began to read their texts with music accompaniment, to move the crowd and compete with each other, thus laying the bases of Rap battles. But Rap battle is not the same today as it was in 1970s. As the legendary MC Grandmaster Caz has noticed, “Battles were a test of skills previously”[iv]. Each MC performed in its style, and the crowd decidided who was the best. Everything changed in 1981 by the battle between the Busy Bee and the Kool Moe Dee,  which is considered as the first battle gained universal recognition. In 1981, Busy Bee was performing at the Harlem World nightclub and was trying to move the crowd simultaneously showing his superiority over the other MCs. Kool Moe Dee, who was present at the club, also took the stage, but instead of referring to the crowd, he began to criticize Busy Bee. The act of Kool Moe Dee was so impressive and influential this evening that the this form of bottle rap had quickly spreed. Thus, Rap Bletle ceased being a way of entertainment and just a skill test, it moved to a personal field and turned into a certain interpersonal conflict.

In 1979, after the Rapper’s Delight thee  hit of Sugar Hill Gang it became clear how big is the potential of rap from the commercial point of view. Gradually, more and more people began to deal with rap, and as a result, the role of rap battles also grew, as it was often the only way for beginners  to present themselves and gain recognition. The situation was strained by the emergence of gangsta rap, which was directly reflecting the violent lifestyle and aggressiveness of the American ghetto. As a result, the meaning of the word MC  has also changed.Now it was not only connected with rapper’s reading techniques and skills, but it was also necessary for MC  to remain committed to his statements, community, and gang. And when Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG  the two major rappers of that time were killed as a result of the sharpening east coast / west coast battle in the 1990s, a lot of concern had raised about how far the MCs could go. On the other hand, in the 1990s, it became clear that the Battle Rap can help young and still unknown MCs to gain recognition  and become the beginning of their successful music career, as it did for Eminem. The latter attracted people by his unique style after his battle with Juice in 1997  and was invited to the Sway’s Wake Up Show radio program with a with a suggestion to act freestyle. After the program Eminem captured Dr. Dre’s attention and began to make history. Although not all MCs used Rap Battle to access to the music industry and did not act out of the battle platform more frequently remaining  unknown for the wide frames of public.

But the situation has changed dramatically in the 21st century. Today, some battle MCs have greater fame  than many rap industry artists, and Rap Battle has achieved an unprecedented level of popularity. Two factors have played a major role in this regard,  Eminem’s 8 Mile thanks to which Battle Rap has attracted the attention of the masses and television channels and increased access to the Internet, allowing Battle Rap to be move that platform too. In 2008, “King of the Dot” appeared in Canada and “Do not Flop” in Great Britain. These leagues together with URL and Versus are the best in the world today. Due to these platforms, Battle Rap has such a wide spread today,   and certain game rules that are almost the same in all battle leagues. We will try to get acquainted with  more details about Modern nature of battle and its impact capabilities by the example of Oxxxymiron–Dizaster battle.

General Characteristics of Modern Rap Battle by the example of Oxxxymiron-Dizaster Battle

Modern Rap Battle assumes a conflict between 2 rappers, where everyone tries to detect and hit the opponent’s “weak points” and show his advantage over him. We will refer to more details below:

Location

The place of the event has great importance for Rap battles. As a rule, rap battles are held on one of the MCs’ native platform although sometimes a neutral version may be chosen (with agreement of 2 sides). The battle between Oxxxymiron and Dizaster took place at Los Globos, Los Angeles. Although, as Oxxxymiron had confessed in an interview with VLADTV, Dizaster had expressed readiness to act in Russia, but taking account of the fact that Russians did not know English so well and could not understand many parts of the speech contents , eventually a decision was made to hold the battle in Los Angeles[v]. This meant that Oxxxymiron would perform under the roof of the opponent and would have t aproblem of winning the audience’s sympathy, unlike the opponent who would initially have the support of fans. However, as it turned out, about 60-70 percent of those present at the battle, as the Russian rapper mentioned in the same interview, was Russians. This circumstance, as Oxxxymiron emphasized later, gave him confidence and played a great role in his successful speech. On the other hand, Oxxxymiron, however, had an issue of introducing himself to the American audience, as most Americans did not know him and did not know what to expect from a Russian performer who first performed in English. But, in the end, this factor of unexpectedness also played in favor of Oxxxymiron.

The audience

Except for audience support, audience feedback, noise, laughter, whistles, silence are very important for MC, which can say much about Battle and Rapper’s performance. In practice, the response of the people is an assessment to the MCs’ punch lines. In this regard the most undesirable response is silence, and desirable responce is laughter. If the punch line is powerfull, but not ridiculous, the crowd begins to applaud or shout out to express their approval. In practice, this kind of response is exactly what all the MCs are trying to achieve, as Escher and Rappaport say, “Rapper, who captures the crowd, is wins the bottle”[vi]․ The crowd as a rule expresses  his dissatisfaction and disagreement by whistling and rarely by speaking.During the battle between Oxxxymiron and Dizaster, fans often responded to the MC’s punches, making noise during the battle as a result of which the rappers had to ask the audience several times to keep silent.

The format of battle

The next important factor is the choice of battle’s format. As a rule, Rap Blatl is in the presence of audiences and, depending on the selected platform and format, can be accompanied by DJs’ music or performers can perform acapella, so without playing. Rap Battle begins with the procedure of presentation. First, the announcer represents the jury and the participants, then declares who will start the battle. This rule is not always strictly adhered to, and one of the participants may  agree with the organizer and start the battle first. Each battle  consists of 3 cycles as a rule where each participant has a fixed time to answer his opponent. But this rule is not always adhered to, too. For example, in KOTD you can see that during the 3rd cycle, participants get an unlimited time for the performance. The winner is determined by jury voting or by the noise of crowd, and in some cases nobody judges the battle and the opportunity to choice is left to the public. The latter could be seen in the Oxxxymiron vs. Dizaster battle. Here, as a result of  drawl Dizaster had started the battle, and in each of the 3 cycles, the MC had an unlimited time for their performances.

Text and Theme selection

As rap battle assumes a clash of 2 performers the goal of which is to determine the best, it’s natural that most of the MC’s speeches are related to them and their opponent’s personalities, but as P. Edwards  notes, anything can be a theme for hip-hop artists[vii]. In this regard selection of the topic is extremely personal, but it is also very  important because strong text helps MCs attract the attention of the audience and play a big role in determining the winner. If the theme touched by the performer is interesting for the people, they listen to it more attentively. The majority of MCs prefer to refer to the real-life topics that are either from their autobiography or are one way or another related to them. In this case, it is easier for the performers to express their emotions and fully convey the feelings they have had on their own experience.

Nevertheless, the presentation of fictional stories by  MCs  is not less common. Performers never limit their imagination. Such content can make the text more vivid and impressive, entertaining the audience and bringing on their response. Besides, the use of a fantastic component give an opportunity to the audience to imagine things that they would never do in real life. But more often, MCs use either fantastic or realistic elements in  their texts. In their speeches, MCs are constantly touching such issues as violence, sex, politics, drugs, power, money, etc. There are no sacred and untouchable topics in Battle, and participants are free to  humiliate anything, including traditional, religious, sensitive values: racist, sexual curses are often heard. This is one of the main reasons for which many people criticize and consider rap battle as unacceptable, emphasizing that touching of such topics has a negative impact on the society. These and a number of other factors make an impression that the negative content dominates in rap battles.  Actually, MCs refer not only negative, but also positive phenomenons.

Generally, this happens when performers refer to political or social issues and want to make positive changes by their messages. All this can be seen in the battle between Oxxxymiron and Dizaster. In the very beginning, both sides touched upon a number of political issues that were very up-to-date in the face of tense relations between Russia and the United States. In his speech, Dizaster referred the people’s lifestyle and communism in the USSR, Ukraine and Crimea,  nuclear weapon, mocked Russia’s inability to compete with the US in the space, and touched upon Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States and the  ‘’participation’’ of  Russian President Vladimir Putin in it, a number of stereotypes related to Russia, for example, Dizaster often touched the perceived perceptions that Russian girls are easily available ones. Oxxxymiron spoke about Jewish-Arab reletionships, about the reasons for identifying  Muslims and terrorists, about  American and Arabic cultures, the US and Donald Trump. The speeches of the parties included also sexistic, racist, homophobic passages. In general, this battle provided a great thematic coverage, which was greatly promoted by the fact that there would not be a winner and loser in this battle.

As for the text, in the rap battles the text generally consists of jokes and insults addressed to the opponent, which are presented through the punch lines and setups.

Punch line                                                                        

Punch line is a particularly strong phrase  in the lyrics, which hits  the listener stronger. It can be a funny or interesting metaphor, a clever wordplay, smile, or anything else that can make an impact[viii]. The role of  punch lines is so great in rap battles that the rappers often write punch lines at first then build the story around those.

There were many powerfull punch lines in  Oxxxymiron and Dizaster battle well-analyzed by rap bloggers Jay Black, Vada Fly and Tech 9, as well as MC jaz the rapper. As one of the best punches we will put out the following words of Oxxxymiron, which he said to his opponent, referring to his Arabic origin:’’ “Let’s ask a simple but deadly thing. “What a feeling this is, raise a flag of a country that is covered by the blood of your own people”[ix].

And the setup is the first part of a joke that gives the audience the necessary information and makes people to wait for something[x], so prepares the audience to hear and perceive the upcoming punch.

The slang is the important component of the text too. It helps to make the content more colorful and to creat a connection  with a specific location and time.  Although it was Oxxxymiron’s first English performance, as MC jaz the rappper noticed when analyzing this battle, the Russian MC was able to use a number of American jargon words and impressed him[xi].

Braggadocio

Another important part of MC’s speeches is boast (Braggadocio) when rappers try to prove they are the best. According to Paul Edwards, they can do it in different ways, from the simply saying that they are the best MC  to boast a deeper and more ingenious way[xii]. The parties are trying to show their courage and opposing their rivals to emphasize their advantage over them. This phenomenon is noticable both at Oxxxymiron and Dizaster. The 2 rappers  tried to boast of their knowledge of the languages during the battle. For example, Oxxxymiron read in his speech in English (the third language for him) and in Russian, Arabic and German. At the same time, as the Russian rapper spoke in English in most of the battle, he did it so quickly to impress the audience and show his opponent that he did not concede him also emphasizing that it was nothing in comparison with what he could do in Russian.In some cases Dizaster also read in Russian.

Wordplay

Wordplay  is one of the most important trump cards for rappers. Wordplay  is a game with words and their meanings, which suggests  the clever use of the language[xiii]. As an example, we will separate the best word games used by Dizaster and Oxxxymiron. There was such an interesting phrase in  Dizaster’s speech when he skillfully connected the Chernobyl disaster with his name, emphasizing his inevitability:”Plus, we seen what happened to Chernobyl
You people don’t know how to handle disasters at all”. In the other example, he cleverly exploited the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin: ” But, to tell you truth, this is not good position to be Put in”.

In Oxxxymiron’s speech the most influential was the following wordplay: “Oh, you mad cause I’m Joseph Stalin/stylin on you? “. Oxxxymiron  not only want to emphasize that he could be rude with his opponent like Stalin but also hinted at a battle of Nyckz vs ENJ in the United States, during which Nyckz said: “Oh you mad cuz i’m stylin on ya”, after which he was hit on his face.

In the second case, the wordplay was already in Arabic and Russian meanings of  the word “Baba”:” I’m the baba in Arabic, you’re the Баба in Russian”[xiv]:

Although in rap battles text is pre-made by the participants, but during the performance it should be corresponded with the current situation, so making good text is not enough in the battle, it is often becomes more important to see how the author reads the text. Here comes what rappers call the flow.

Flow

According to P. Edwards the flow of a hip-hop song is simply the rhythms and rhymes it contains[xv]. Almost all MCs agree that a strong flow is extremely valuable, either as a way of conveying the content clearly and effectively or as an element that takes center stage to impress the listener. Even artists who focus more on the content of the lyrics still stress the importance of the flow, because it largely determines what the song sounds like. From the point of view of ensuring the diversity of flows, pauses are also very important which are used by rappers to emphasize the important parts of their text, to create the necessary effect, and to give the audience time to understand and response important punches.

The image of MC

MC’s image is very important in rap battles. Rappers often appear as leaders who desire, and most importantly, have the ability to voice their views and their supporters, and then contrast them with other points of view. From this perspective, the rapper should be ready to enter into an ideological struggle with those who oppose him. As a leader, they must be ready to present their point of view and philosophy to the audience, as well as to resist the criticism from the opposite side, not to lose self-control and keep cool. Dizaster was positioning himself as a homeowner from the very beginning of the battle, and Oxxxymiron, constantly activating the crowd with his gestures, performing confidently during every circle showed that felt himself in a familiar environment and is not restricted to anything, even in the language. In general, Battle went through a friendly atmosphere: both rappers treated each other with respect. They realized the importance of the battle and felt responsible the message they spread.

Thus, the battle rap is a unique dialogue platform where anger, courage and intelligence are measured. MCs puts their communication, analytical, research, social skills, intellect and personal flow to attract the audience and show their superiority in the battle. It gives freedom to MCs to form new ideas, new words, new styles, gives apportunity for self-expression and getting recognition. Besides, the Battle Rap is also a platform where rappers can talk about a number of  important and vulnerable issues for the public, offer their solutions, address a message  and bring together millions of people around their ideas. It also was shown by the battle between Oxxxymiron and Dizaster, which currently has about 11,700,000 views and proves how much global event can be a rap battle. As a conclusion we dare to finish Oxxxymiron’s last words in the battle with Dizaster: “Rap Battle can be more than punch lines  and rhythms because it has the greatest potential to unite people.”

 

[i] Փանչ լայնը տեքստում առկա կոնկրետ արտահայտություն է,  որը առավել ուժեղ է խոցում ունկնդրին

[ii] «Նայի՛ր, դու ամերիկացի արաբներ ես, այնպես չէ՞:  Ես` ռուս-հրեա: Սա նման չէ գեղեցիկ ընկերության սկզբի: Հեբրոնում կամ Բեյրութում մենք որոշ դաժան մտադրություններ կունենայինք: Բայց վերբալ թշնամանքը այս հիվանդին (դանդաղ մեռնող արաբ-հրեական, ռուս-ամերիկյան հարաբերությունները) բուժելու պոտենցիալ ունի: Ես փորձում եմ ասել, որ բաթլ ռեփը վերջին շրջանում խելահեղ է դարձել: Դու շփվում ես մարդկանց հետ, որոնց սպասվում էր, որ պետք է ատես մեդիայի, ծնողների, ուսուցիչների, քարոզիչների պատճառով, որոնց ատում ես  և քաղաքական գործիչների, որոնց էգոները ուտում են իրենց: Այսպիսով, դու բախվում ես քո հակառակորդին, ասում, որ նրա ընկերուհին լեզբուհի է: Նա քեզ անվանում է կեղտոտ հրեա, բայց նրա հարվածն ամուր է: Եվ այդ ժամանակ, երբ ձեր բառերը բախվում են, դու ունենում ես այս տաօրինակ զգացումը: Դա նման է հայելու մեջ նայելուն, քանի որ դուք երկուսդ էլ նման եք: Եվ այո, դա սեքսիստական, ռասիստական, հոմոֆոբիկ աղբ է, բայց պատերազմական ժամանակաշրջանում, նայիր այսօրվան, սպորտը զարգանում է: Քանի որ, երբ դու ատում ես ինչ-որ մեկին կեղտոտ կատակներ չես անում, դու նրան սպանում ես… Ես կնախընտրեի, որ յուրաքանչյուր արաբ ամեն հրեայի ասեր. «Ես քո *** » և հակառակը, քան թույլ կտայի նրանց սպանել միմյանց: Քանի որ ես դա տեսել եմ Ուկրաինայի պարագայում: Կարծես, թե ոչինչ տեղի չի ունենում և միայն երաժշտությունն է մոռացնում ցավը: Եվ ես չեմ ասում, որ բաթլ ռեփը կփոխի աշխարհը: Ես ներողություն եմ խնդրում քարոզելու համար նրա ընկերուհու մասին կարդալու, նրան ծաղրելու փոխարեն:  Բայց ես կարծում եմ, որ բաթլ ռեփը կարող է ավելի լինել, քան պարզապես հանգերն ու փանչ լայները» (թարգամանություն՝ Հ. Ա.)

[iii]E.G. Price ‘Hip Hop Culture’ ABC-CLIO, 2006, p.4 https://books.google.am/books?id=Q84TiHcqDqcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+hip+hop+culture&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjmhYTDgMLcAhXCYZoKHQ5iAsgQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=the%20hip%20hop%20culture&f=false

[iv]Grandmaster Caz: Kool Moe Dee Upped Standard for Battle Rap- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN8wCgO3gUE&t=5s

[v]Oxxxymiron on Russian Hip Hop, Battle Rap, Dizaster, Putin (Full Interview) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLx2boiXAvY&t=2855s

[vi] Ю. Августис ‘Производство порядка в рэп-баттлах: управление паузами и их отсутствием’, с 284 https://sociologica.hse.ru/data/2017/09/30/1158753154/SocOboz_16_3_280-302_Avgustis.pdf

[vii] P. Edwards ‘How to Rap: The art and science of the hip-hop MC’, Chivago Review Press, 2009, p.3

https://books.google.am/books?id=ZemzPXFgeEoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=how+to+rap&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicy6jtk7zcAhWDDywKHekoCpgQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=how%20to%20rap&f=false

[viii] P. Edwards ‘How to Rap: The art and science of the hip-hop MC’, Chivago Review Press, 2009, p.58 https://books.google.am/books?id=ZemzPXFgeEoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=how+to+rap&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicy6jtk7zcAhWDDywKHekoCpgQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=how%20to%20rap&f=false

[ix] KOTD – Oxxxymiron (RU) vs Dizaster (USA) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldK9qvRBkMI&t=2s

[x] Ю. Августис ‘Производство порядка в рэп-баттлах: управление паузами и их отсутствием’, с 284 https://sociologica.hse.ru/data/2017/09/30/1158753154/SocOboz_16_3_280-302_Avgustis.pdf

[xi] http://rhyme.ru/champion-analyzes-oxxxyvsdiz-battle/

[xii] P. Edwards ‘How to Rap: The art and science of the hip-hop MC’, Chivago Review Press, 2009, p.25

https://books.google.am/books?id=ZemzPXFgeEoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=how+to+rap&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicy6jtk7zcAhWDDywKHekoCpgQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=how%20to%20rap&f=false

[xiii] P. Edwards ‘How to Rap: The art and science of the hip-hop MC’, Chivago Review Press, 2009, p.56 https://books.google.am/books?id=ZemzPXFgeEoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=how+to+rap&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicy6jtk7zcAhWDDywKHekoCpgQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=how%20to%20rap&f=false

[xiv] https://genius.com/12868393

[xv] P. Edwards ‘How to Rap: The art and science of the hip-hop MC’, Chivago Review Press, 2009, p.63

https://books.google.am/books?id=ZemzPXFgeEoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=how+to+rap&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicy6jtk7zcAhWDDywKHekoCpgQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=how%20to%20rap&f=false

Author: Heghine Aleksanyan.   © All rights are reserved.

Translator: Nelli Karapetyan.

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