Hip-Hop started out in the park.
While battle rap can trace its roots to New York (specifically the North Bronx), its infectious rise to subculture status can be attributed to one man and his small team of devoted partners: SMACK.
In the early 2000’s, Troy Mitchell aka SMACK WHITE flooded the street with DVDs that captured Hip-Hop in its most raw form. Packaging raw footage interviews of Hip Hop’s brightest stars with unrefined talent and then sourcing it directly from city streets proceed to be a winning formula for this Hip-Hop hustler. And while many other people fancied themselves as DVD kings (even rapper French Montana tried to hop in the action), SMACK distinguished his brand by including battle rappers predominately from the cold streets of Harlem and the Bronx. Soon the rappers came from the popping Midwest where Eminem was discovered, Philly where Meek Mills found his rap footing and even as far west as Cali for rhyme-for-rhyme the children of Project Blowed came to stake their claim. These battle rappers not formally introduced us to the acapella style of rap, they brought back raw lyricism lost in mainstream rap. But by 2007, no one was checking for his DVDs (even as they were checking for the talented emcees he presented to the world).
SMACK DVD couldn’t compete with YouTube… so he joined them.
Artists no longer needed the antiquated DVDs to reach their fans. With the internet and social media, they could produce and package their own media content. And always the hustler, SMACK and his partners/ team Eric Beasley, Chico, Norbes & NuNu Nellz, realized they had cultivated a rich audience that was eager to see the spectacle of battle rap, they just had to give them an easy vehicle to access this ever-growing pool of battlers. This is how SMACK/URL (Street. Music. Art. Culture. Knowledge Ultimate Rap League) was born. Their website, YouTube, large venue events and special appearances helped him restructure the operation and thus becoming the WWE of the rap industry. And while they cracked open the doors for the New York rappers that helped them amass over a billion views on Youtube, they busted it off the hinges for rappers from other regions. The Midwest had their run with A Verb, Calicoe and Hitman Holla (who is now a regular on Nick Cannon’s Wild N’ Out on MTV2). Even the West rose to prominence with the unorthodox antics and brilliantly creative Daylyt. But none of them have tsunamied the scene like the south has over the last five years.
The catalyst? The collabo between SMACK/URL and BET’s 106 & Park resulted in a segment called Ultimate Freestyle Friday (UFF) that opened the playing field for emcees from all over to get their chance to perform for the world— and most important SMMMMMMMMM-AAACK! And out of this crop of “PGs”— short for Proving Ground rappers which is the lowest tiers of battlers— came the leagues biggest 2017 stars. And what seems crazy is that an uneven amount of these stars are from the DMV, North Carolina and Georgia.
Leading the pack is Tay Roc. Straight out of Baltimore Maryland and voted #1 our top 20 list, he is considered SMACK’s gunner. He is also a member and probably the only one respectfully holding the banner for the legendary Harlem battle crew Dot Mob (Murda Mook, T-Rex and Chayna Ashley). First inspired to rap by Loaded Lux, he rose to fame by taking an epic “L” against Charlie Clips (not once but twice) in the Lionz Den. But that only made him stronger… and better. Few can say that they don’t tremble when they stand in front of the “Gun Bar King”. When asked why so many consider him the best of 2017, he expressed it is probably because he does not back down from a battle with rappers regardless of their tier or status:
“anybody can catch the smoke.”
He also believes charisma and language is what sets southern emcees apart from others in the league. This why his own crew, Cave Gang has been able to come in and dominate. Cave Gang is composed of mostly dudes who speak with a slight drawl, grew up watching battles online but don’t get it twisted know how to infuse a street narrative of their southern reality into each bar and punchline. Dopeness has no region.
New rappers Chef Trez (Atlanta, GA), Brizz Rawsteen (Raleigh, NC) and Ave (Norfolk, VA) are Cave Gang and have put in work this year. They all had their own ideas on why the doors have opened up for them and why fans have responded to their unique style of rhyming.
Hailing from Norfolk, VA, Ave says he grew up respecting the NY emcees that have paved the way before him but believed that regions outside of the Big Apple were overlooked. Being overlooked only fueled his hunger to succeed.
“I am the voice of VA,”says Ave and then he proclaimed like Tay Roc, “If it makes sense, I’ll take on anybody.”
Originally from Raleigh, NC, Brizz Rawsteen gave us his raw perspective. As a young’un in his late 20s, he didn’t pay much attention to battle rap in its early days. You can tell. The unorthodox way he spits is evidence that his style is all his own, birthed out of an intensity that mirrors the popular rap scene. For Rawsteen, southern battle rappers stand alone in terms of originality, while other regions rely on gimmicks.
Remarkably, the baby of the crew Chef Trez has done his homework and looks to vets for inspiration— and tutuleage. The Atlanta native paid homage to Philadelphia’s battle culture stating that before hitting the URL stage he would visualize himself in a class amongst Philly’s legendary battle rappers. Fans might glean this from his unique freestyling gift. THE KID IS SPECIAL. What makes him so special is that while battle after battle he shows up as a force to be reckoned with (and yes there are some battles that are debatable and even a loss here or there), he remains humble. Trez, barely old enough to buy cigarettes, remains humble and hungry, a characteristic not usually found in battle rappers and definitely not found in millennials.
And then there is T-Top. Not a member of Cave Gang, but he is straight fire just the same. Top proudly reps his squad NWX. But who is he? Remember that UFF segment on 106 and Park? Well, he won it. In a battle judged by Kid Capri, Pete Rock, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep, he beat a hungry Brizz Rawsteen. And has not look back since. Ranked 2 on our 2017 list, “The Bear” has the aggression, word play and story-telling ability to give him longevity in the industry. Almost undefeated in his professional career, he has changed the way top tier battlers are viewed. No longer does longevity dictate your status… you become a vet by that work you put in. And that work translates not only in the battle world but soon on radio stations near you. His new EP, Bear Necessities will drop this Spring and fans are sure to look past his vocation as a battle rapper and consider him as the next next joining the ranks of the other rappers from the south that are dominating the airwaves.
Let’s not be fooled. There were many that believed that the southern hype is just that… hype. They look at the last few SMACK/ URL events (SMACK Vol. 1, NOME 7, Born Legacy 4, Double Impact 1) and point to others who still rep for “The City That Never Sleeps” and of course they would have credibility. URL is the authority of battle rap and thus have the best emcees competing on the highest level possible. But our list survey fans, industry influences, battlers and bloggers and overwhelmingly, while they touted the East as the best, their faves kept pointing down through I95.
We caught up with SMACK/URL owner, Eric Beasley, to ask why the south region seems to dominate the league and he believes it because they grew up on URL which afforded them the luxury of learning from the vets:
“A lot of the southern guys were young when we started”
He also expressed similarities between southern battle rappers and newer mainstream rappers of today . Citing that southern MC’s have no desire to conform to what is considered acceptable. With a bright outlook on the future of the league as well as battle rap, Beasley says,
“We’ll grow-bigger venues, expansion. I want to fill stadiums.” And maybe the next wave of dominance will have an international ring. We are here to watch.