In Hip-Hop music and culture, the battle is an intrinsic event. Hip-hop battles have been around since the mid-1970s, and have taken many forms over the years. However, many things about the hip-hop battle are not clearly understood, and the name itself can cause confusion, with the word "battle" causing some people to automatically think of nothing more than an eruption of anger. (A belief that many rappers share guilt in perpetuating). Thus, I have decided to write a short primer on the different types of hip-hop battles.
Two notes before I begin: first, I say that battles are intrinsic to hip-hop culture. One thing that is hard for myself, and other hip-hop scholars to describe, is how the various cultural beliefs and practices in hip-hop relate to the technical composition of the art form. Simply put, how can I say that hip-hop music, with rhythmic instead of melodic singing, intrinsically leads to battling? The answer is, currently, I can not explain exactly how. My second note is that this writeup considers only hip-hop music, and not dancing on graffiti battles.
The earliest hip-hop battles date well back into hip-hop's murky prehistory (before there was music on wax) in the 1970s. These battles were between DJs, and not between MCs, however. Two different DJ crews rocking a block party might compete to see who had the best records, the best techniques, or, failing that, the loudest systems. Around this time, the first MCs were chanting out the first simple call and response lines with the audience, and it is probable that this is how MC battles begin: simple rhymes inciting the audience to gravitate towards one sound system, or mocking a rival DJ crew. By 1981, when Kool Moe Dee had his famous battle with Busy Bee Starsky, the MC battle was already established. Over the next decade, the classical hip-hop battle would produce many defining moments for hip-hop culture.
There are three different types of hip-hop battles. As with all classification schemes, these are simplifications, with many battles falling between them.
- The classical, or lyrical battle: this is a battle that was started as a show for the audience, first for a live audience, and later on for the audience on wax. Any two MCs would battle each other, trying to come up with the best lyrics to move the audience. The two MCs challenging each other might not have any personal rivalry, or might be strangers or even friends. The point wasn't to actualy damage the other person's reputation, let alone to harm them, but simply to amuse the crowd with clever rhymes and the idea of competition. Of course, human nature (especially the nature of young men) being what it is, it was not always as gentle as this, and real anger could come about from a lyrical battle, but for the most part, these battles were about being sharper and smarter than your opponents, not causing them real harm. Some example of these battles include the early Kool Moe Dee rivalry with LL Cool J, the Boogie Down Productions battle with MC Shan and the Juice Crew. Later examples include LL Cool J and Canibus, as well as the famed battle between Nas and Jay-Z (which, while it did contain some moments of real anger, still was mostly a lyrical battle).
- The personal battle, aka the vendetta or the beef: unfortunatly, this is what comes to many people's mind when they think of hip-hop battles. A personal battle is when two MCs, for some reason, are personally enraged at each other, and make records attacking each other. Often, these go beyond just records, and these kind of battles can lead to real violence. The most famous example of this is the feud between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., a feud that probably was the cause of both of their murders. The reasons behind a personal beef can be numerous, but the root cause usually has to do with young men, and their egos. Personal vendettas can also turn into vendettas between crews, cliques or (in 1996), entire coasts. Serious personal vendettas in hip-hop are actually not that common, although most battles do involve a degree of peronal animosity. Besides the infamous 1996 wars, the battle between Nas and Jay-Z was one of hip-hops longer running personal feuds.
- The ideological battle: this is a battle in which two MCs write rhymes assailing each other's ideological positions, real or percieved. These can be some of the best battles, in that the listener can hear a very concise, poetical form of argument. Ideological battles are fairly common, and most battles have some form of ideology attached. I use the word "ideology" somewhat loosely, since sometimes the substance of the debate is not over articulated positions, but rather over the percieved moral value of an MC. For example, Common's fight with Ice Cube was over the fact that Ice Cube, while supporting The Nation of Islam, also endorsed malt liquor, as well as other aspects of a less than upright lifestyle. Often, an ideological battle is where rappers accuse others of hypocrisy and immorality. Nas' recent battle with 50 Cent seems to be along these lines. Sometimes, more substantiative issues are brought up in battles, but it is often difficult to form too articulate of a message in a rhyme. KRS-One, being the lyricist that he is, managed to do so in his 1992 record "Build and Destroy", where he criticized X-Clan and other rappers for being blindly afrocentric and anti-white.
That then, is a short primer on the type of hip-hop battles that you may observe. Next time you hear about a hip-hop battle, you can try to deduce how much the MCs are battling because they simply want to, because their emotions have gotten the better of them, or because they have something to actually discuss.