Dating back to the 1970’s, the first battle raps took place in local gymnasiums. These jams offered a mutual ground where the various teenage gangs of New York City could come together and trade lyrical bars. The lyrical exchange was a peaceful alternative to gang warfare.
Battle rap pioneer Busy Bee recalls, “We didn’t even call them battles back then. We called them MC and DJ Conventions, where people would come from all five boroughs and just do their thing. They would perform and the best performer of the night would win.” Busy boasts because for the most part, he always was a winner when the evenings were over, “There would be a flyer and that would attract people. But even if your name wasn’t on the flyer we welcomed you.”
But that was until, he got slayed by a quiet giant. At one of these conventions, rap contests would change the way these “conventions” were perceived. Busy remembers this day in 1981, so well. Kool Moe Dee walked on the stage, took the mic and challenge the reigning champion to a “battle.” Busy was caught off guard, he wasn’t ready.
As time went on, people were called to the table to spit.
And spitting on your corner could be lucrative. People would bet on the best rapper and he or she could walk away with upwards of $100 bucks for 15 minutes worth a rhymes. After proving your skills on the streets, there was potential to step up to the microphone and earn a record deal. Some of your favorite emcees started as battlers: Roxanne Shanté, Meek Mills, KRS1, Cassidy, Rhapsody and Eminem. Shanté took her battling skills to wax by dissing UTFO, inspiring Salt ‘N Pepa (then The Show Stopper) to diss Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick and then inspired a young cat like Nas to light up sucka emcees who came his way– you all do remember “Ether,” right? LL Cool J notoriously massacred Canibus on his joint, “4,3,2,1” (remix). But these efforts don’t really count as “battle rap,” do they? They are commercial. They made money. Like big money. Isn’t it true that once you make money, you can’t be a part of the culture?
Up until recently, many believed that to be true. Many believe that only those who remained in the street manifestation of the artform, were eligible to push the battle rap culture forward. And to an certain extent they are right. Mainstream rappers didn’t value true emceeing over the glitz of Hollywood or a chance to get down with a major label. By turning their backs on their battle rap brethren many lost site of what was to construct and spit a real lyric. But there were organizations that kept this tradition going: Fight Club, Grindtime, Lionz Den. Rappers continued to practice and refine their skills like sharpened steel. These newfound pioneers, many from Harlem but the midwest and LA can claim legacy too, ultimately laid the foundation for what eventually became an industry of its own. As a result, a myriad of battle rap leagues came to exist throughout the country and abroad.
Equally as important to their level of success is their attention to creating a business model and practice that has revolutionized the way of battle rap is consumed by the viewer. They figure one key thing out: This “ish” is wrestling!
Like the WWE, SMACKURL understands that it is the personality of the artist that sells the event. This league has their own Randy Savage (Tsu Surf), Ric Flair (Hitman Holla), Dusty Rhodes (T-Top), The Rock (Math Hoffa), Hulk Hogan (Goodz), Stone Cold (Tay Roc) and Randy Orton (DNA). You need villains and heroes, bullies and teacher’s pets, angels and devils to draw people in and like the big wrestling leagues, they have implemented contracts to tighten up the poaching that happens when other leagues try to take rising talent from another. They also use these contracts to make sure that the best battles always find their way on their stage.
Contracts also provide battle rappers an opportunity to have a home with guaranteed spots on cards and salary brackets. Of course it is complicated and not as easy as one line in a quick history/business profile could suggest, but imagine what it must have been like for Drake to sign with Young Money, Rihanna to sign with Roc-A-Fella, or SZA to get down with TDE. However they do these arrangements, whether actual contracts or handshakes/ phone calls, being down with the winning team is allure enough for rappers wanting a chance to be on the most respected stage in battle rap. Contract or not, there are few battle rappers who don’t want to be down with Smmddddmdmdmdddd…aaaaccckkkk! Don’t believe us?
Why would John John Da Don be campaigning to get Loso on SMACK (even though he has his own league)? We not gonna answer that one. We gonna let you figure that out for yourself.
Cultivating new talent was something that this team did better than most. Having access to top notch industry people, they were able to secure nationwide contests on BET (UFF) and also showcase them as curators of ciphers that have now become a staple in the BET Hip-Hop Awards.
The league’s other strength is its ability to produce events on a high level, is one of the reasons that many consider their live concerts to be must see or be there experiences. Lighting. Sound. Security. Celebrities. They bring excitement to the public and behind the scenes bring security to venue owners. Unlike many rap shows (not just in the battle rap world), they work to ensure that conflict is minimal and crowd management is a priority (Who hasn’t seen Beasley run across the stage to shut stuff down?). This ability to confidently book major venues (Irving Plaza, Warehouse Live in Houston) capable of holding up to 1500 people sets them apart from their competition. Their ability to pack this spots out at $75 -$150 a pop helps with that margin also.
Again borrowing from wrestling, their marketing of their major cards have revolutionize the pre-game hype of each battle. With face-offs the day before, livestreamed on YouTube, fans get a chance to see their favorites go at it promoting the bout soon come the next day. You get to see who looks prepared and who looks a little shook. You crack up at the tomfoolery of the Alpha characters on the roster and root for the underdog. If you are lucky, you could even get to see any one of DNAs multiple personalities. This activation is just the right appetizer to the main course on the next day that over 70K people tune in to watch on a Pay-Per-View (at $50 per subscription). This model has been duplicated by many other national leagues.
Bringing value to the lyrical competition, URL brings sponsors to the table who have grown their brands exponentially. While currently, their lead sponsor is Al Capone cigarillos, artists have found it quite lucrative to purchase ad space at the beginning of trailers and battles on YouTube to get in front of the URL audience that is over 800K on YouTube alone.
Collectively all of these efforts have provided a cross country/ international experiences for fans.
Taking the experience off-screen, fans can now purchase URL branded clothing which has found a retail home on Karmaloop. Karmaloop was created to bring you the latest in streetwear trends from top streetwear brands like Billionaire Boys Club, 10 Deep, Pink Dolphin, Kappa, Adidas, and more. According to their site, Karmaloop is the largest store for urban clothing on the net, since its opening in 2000. Merchandising of battle rap brands was not created by SMACK/URL. Rappers like Hollow Da Don with Loyalty Over Money and Tay Roc’s Cave Gang apparel has clothed fans forever. Still moving to such a mainstream platform to cross market with elite fashion brands is a smart move to bring this sub-culture to the mainstream. Why wouldn’t the energy from this culture have the same impact as skateboard and surfing culture for the consumer.
SMACK/URL had a productive year putting out for the most part fire battles. From the introduction of SMACK Vol 1 & 2 to Survivor’s Series DMV, Initiation Vol. 1, Born Legacy SUPREME 2 and of course the fire NOME 8, this year we saw stars emerge, reborn and fade away. The elephant in the room is Summer Madness 7, which was probably the stain of this season. But fans who blame the league are not operating from a fair space: Smack, Beasley and Cheeko did everything they could to bring the dazzle to Vegas. It is not their fault that they made some of the artists uber comfortable, sitting first class in the jumbo jet of their legacy, and took for granted their battles.
But that’s ok and probably won’t stop the crew. Steve Jobs once said, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” SMACK’s impassioned plea on 15MOFE shows us that they ain’t quitting no time soon. And why would they, after looking back on how far battle rap has come and how they are creating industry one Don Demarco at a time, they are winning.