In 2012, knowledge on how to run a good battle rap event is largely shared by those invested in the scene. Legitimate and reputable venues are rented out, professional video crews are hired, and top-tier battles are booked. However, one area that remains an enigma is the crowd, whose comportment from event to event remains erratic and unpredictable. A good crowd can bring energy to an event, act as a boon to the battlers by holding them to a high standard, and allow everyone involved (including internet viewers) to have a good time. However, it is a rare occasion when a battle rap crowd actually behaves like this, often eschewing positive, controlled hype and respect in favor of disconcerting rowdiness, hometown bias, lack of knowledge, and intolerable harassment of the battlers that they have paid to see.
First off, can we all agree that the crowd does not impact the result of a battle? Good. Now that we’ve established that (and really, there’s nothing to establish – it’s practically a truism), we can begin discussing what role the crowd does and should play in the battle rap world, as well as analyze the behavior of some of them around the world.
The Don’t Flop crowd has frustrated me in the past. They have a tendency to laugh at bad jokes and stand stoically when someone is actually rapping something of value. The most extreme example of this is the rise of Lunar C, who crushed weak opposition before quasi-retiring without facing any top-tier battlers. His stationary style would not have survived in any other battle league, where he would have been forced to improve and test himself by a crowd that would hold him accountable (except perhaps the all but defunct Grind Time, but that is no compliment. Were this an isolated incident, it would not be so bad, but the Don’t Flop crowd (and judges, too) have failed to be the quality control that big time battle leagues need. Don’t Flop has showed indifference to this (but alarm at the fact that people are complaining about it) stating recently on their Facebook page, “All that matters is that the crowds at our events are the ones who bother to pay and come watch it live, which funds the next event. Who are we to judge their level of interest in the scene when they are the ones who mean we can continue to do shows?” While I respect and sympathize with this point of view, I have to disagree.
Regarding the first half of the statement, what the post fails to mention is that not everyone can pay or watch it live. Take me, for example. I am a huge Don’t Flop fan, and have been following the league since 2009. But I have never attended an event. Why? Because I live in New York City. They have not yet had a PPV event a-la Vendetta, something which I would gladly pay for. Obviously, not everyone’s situation reflects mine, but there are a myriad of reasons why “hardcore” fans cannot attend a Don’t Flop event. As for the second part of the statement, it is not as much a judgment of interest as it is one of respect (and to be fair, Don’t Flop clarified in the comments section of this post that they are attempting to expunge the chatter that goes on from the back of the crowd in many battles from their shows). While it is appalling to me that a new fan of Don’t Flop would not want to at least peruse some of the league’s back catalogue, he/she should not be forced or expected to do so. What they can be expected to do, though, is to respect battlers that they don’t know or that are not their favorites and to enter battles with an unbiased attitude, giving both rappers their rapt attention, and not heckling one in particular for being white, black, skinny, gay, female, American, Malaysian, et al. You get the gist. To read further about crowd bias, check out David Masters (who, despite holding no official position in the battle rap world as far as I know, is as much of an authority on these matters as there is) blog post on this website (for the record, I started writing this post before his article was posted and I was not aware that he was writing it, hence the overlap).
In a vastly different world exists the Ultimate Rap League crowd, which is mainly filled with dedicated, intense fans that, due to their lack of patience for anything which they deem to be below the utmost standard of quality, force the league’s battlers to perform to the best of their abilities. Always. In the URL, even a minor choke, which in other leagues like King of the Dot or Ozone Battles would be largely pardoned and met with support for the rapper, will incite heckling and jeering that cannot be recovered from and that damages a rapper’s credibility for months to come. It is often unfair, but ultimately, it is good for the quality of the battles, because rappers never show up unprepared.
Where this intolerance becomes a problem, though, is when it spills into the domain of style, with many URL fans unwilling to accept rappers who don’t perform in the “street” fashion (gun bars, exposing the other rapper to be a fake gangster, etc.). At its worst, this can become tantamount to racism, which makes it intimidating and difficult for battlers of different styles (especially if they are white) to attempt to ply their trade there. Recently there have been signs that this attitude is changing. Real Deal, who is white and does not rap in the “street” style, has broken in to the league, but only with a great deal of work. In his most recent battle, versus B-Magic, Real Deal put in a daring, even intrepid performance. But some of the material that he used to fantastic effect in his later rounds (“I’ll take your wig off like a Native American”, “But what happens when the black goes up against the white and loses/ Aight then”) would not have been possible had he not brought the crowd over to his side early on. Deal was smart to acknowledge that he is different from the typical URL battler; he is. One of his first bars was to hint at URL’s catchphrase, “Real nigga time”, without saying it (which would have been disastrous), forcing the crowd to fill in the missing words for him, and then thanking them for “making the exception”. This communicated to the crowd that, yes, he is different than them, that yes, he understands that, but that yes, he was going to come to their stage and perform, and that they should try to understand where he was coming from. And, to their credit, they did. As far as I’m concerned, this is a positive development. It shows that at least some of the URL crowd is able to accept rappers of different backgrounds and styles as long as they put in top-tier performances.
If that trend continues, the league will truly dominate the battle rap world. However, there is still a long way to go. One only has to scroll down to the comments section of the Real Deal vs. B-Magic battle to observe the (euphemistic) xenophobia coming from many of the fans of the league that are afraid of change and development. Smack White must be daring and take the uncharted path of tolerance if he wants his league to be as successful as it can be.
In a way, it is good that these two companies are dealing with this similar problem, and the reasons are twofold. For one, “crowd control issues” is distinctly a problem that a successful brand has. If these two companies were really struggling, no one would be discussing the crowd, as there would probably be more pressing issues. This is the problem of two companies verging on the brink of (relative) mainstream attention and success, attempting to figure out how to best put together their package before making that jump. The second reason is that both fans and people within each respective organization are talking about this openly, and discussion will lead to education which may even help, in part, to solve the problem.
However, the problem still does exist, and there is only so much Eurgh or Smack can do to help solve it. The fans have to take it upon themselves to be more respectful and open-minded, and only then will we achieve that electric atmosphere that can make battle events so classic all the time.
- Why Cliquishness is Harming UK Battle Rap (tomclementsuk.com)
- Hip-Hop Rumors: Canibus Chokes During Rap Battle – The Move “Disturbs” Talib Kweli (allhiphop.com)
- The Dreaded Rap Battle Choke (tomclementsuk.com)