Battle Rap: Scotland's Bubbling Underground Scene
New films from Eminem and the BBC suggest battle rap is back in a big way – we investigate Scotland's bubbling underground scene
Battle rap conjures up different images depending on your generation. For those old enough to remember hip-hop’s inception, it means braggadocios back-and-forth street raps of a competitive nature between skilled emcees. For those young enough to find Epic Rap Battles of History entertaining, it means comical characters trading goofy Dr Seuss-esque rhymes for the sake of parody.
But for most people, battle rap is associated with the witty and spontaneous raps depicted by Eminem and his rivals in 8 Mile. The film’s abiding spectacle reflected pitched freestyle battle tournaments that occurred in real life, like those that took place at Cincinnati hip-hop festival Scribble Jam. Rappers are typically given one-minute rounds to attack opponents with creative punchlines, with crowd reaction deciding the winner.
Fifteen years later, Eminem is involved with another film about battling, only this time as a co-producer. Bodied, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, presents a style that has evolved almost beyond recognition. The film, which tells a story of a fictionalised college graduate stepping into the ring, features a host of real life emcees showcasing battling as it is today. Bars are pre-written, memorised and performed without a beat on a stage, sometimes in front of crowds of thousands.
It makes sense why Eminem would dip his toes back into the scene given these changes. In the past decade, battle rap has become an underground phenomenon with hundreds of leagues set up around the globe. The UK scene is no different – in fact, the BBC have co-financed a battle rap film of their own, called VS., which is set to drop next year.
The timing of these films makes sense: battles on YouTube-hosted channels like URL, Don’t Flop and King of the Dot now regularly reach over a million views. The theatre of it is obviously a draw for many viewers, with rappers playing up to characters with slogans, props, stunts and meme-worthy antics.
But Tom Kwei, who runs the UK-based Battle Rap Resume podcast, believes the increased emphasis on pre-writing material is also a key reason for its popularity. “It’s a refuge for people who miss good writing in hip-hop,” he says. “The lyricism is now in the battle ring. Battlers are able to flip material, use double entendres and multisyllabic schemes. Competitive writing is a really difficult and impressive skill and the a capella format allows you to focus on that.
“Battling used to be a distillation of pure rapping pre-YouTube days, whereas now it’s more of a competitive performance art. The modern era is more self-referential and it’s become more about the parade of personalities. It’s still hip-hop, but it’s centred around the sharpness of the writing and insults. The original characters are what make it compelling.”
If there’s one thing Scotland’s own battle scene doesn’t lack, it’s lively characters. The annual Bristo Square street event in Edinburgh on 30 September was particularly representative of the seemingly contradictory nature of Scottish hip-hop (at least to outsiders). On one hand, it was what you’d expect from a street gathering of Scottish hip-hop heads: shouting, swearing and drinking in public. The battlers themselves possess next to no respect for modesty or political correctness, as demonstrated by headline battler Ryza when he yelled graphic (and, of course, entirely invented) descriptions of his opponent’s mum in front of elderly passers-by.
But the battlers’ dexterity and level of creativity wasn’t lost on the gathered crowd. Each rapper comfortably delivered several minutes’ worth of memorised material with the same defined syllabic structures used by American or English counterparts. The only discernible difference was the accent and trademark Scottish emphasis on humour and comic timing.
The Glaswegian battlers in particular demonstrated this with pun-based jokes about everything from their opponents’ age to their weight to their rapping style. Popular up-and-comer Acre mocked his opponent MCLean with: “You cross fit, as in you’ve got a list and you cross ‘fit’ off it.” When Bold Yin told his opponent Zebadee “I hope you kick the bucket like a clumsy window washer,” the cheers were almost deafening.
Performing in the street is also only one aspect of the culture. Most battlers will tell you the real test is performing on stage in front of hundreds of people for one of the established leagues in the UK or North America. Scottish battlers might lack the profitable accent of their stateside peers, but, unlike with music, they can go far if they get the right push. The best example is Fife’s Soul, who went from battling on internet forums to winning real life titles and battling in front of Drake at the huge Blackout PPV 5 event in Toronto.
Renfrewshire’s Mackenzie is another rapper who’s crossed the Atlantic to perform. As head of the Iron Barz league in Glasgow, he understands the various pressures involved in the creative process from pre-writing to memorising to delivering on the day. ‘Choking’ is still a common occurrence in battle rap due to performers being required to remember reams of material.
But as much as it is now a performance art, the confrontational aspect of battling makes it more brutal than comparative forms like slam poetry. Many leagues have even been affected by YouTube demonising videos with “inflammatory speech”. Mackenzie argues battling is therefore doomed to remain an underground movement as opposed to a mainstream concern. “It’s a really cool and fun subculture to be involved in because of the pantomime element of it for sure," he says. "But that’s only one part of it. Fans love to see a good, aggressive battle where people are in each other’s faces. It’s that primal kind of thing. I’m not a hostile person in reality, but battle rap is an outlet for me to get that aspect of my personality out.
“It’s not just performing. These days it’s about taking angles and breaking down the aspects of someone’s character. It might just be their style and weaknesses or it might be personal. When Caustic battled Jefferson Price on Don’t Flop he exposed that he’d been cheating on his girlfriend. People never heard from Price after that. It’s about making people aware of the opponent’s character flaws – that’s what wins.”
Battling might sound intimidating, but more and more young hip-hop heads are giving it a go and entering local leagues and tournaments. For those who enjoy the light-hearted side of the scene, this month sees the return of the Comedian Rap Battles at The Stand in Glasgow, which pits rappers against comics.
If you prefer your battle rap raw and intense, the annual Breaking the Barrier tournament also returns in a few weeks. Pitting eight emcees against each other in a knockout format, the goal is to find the best new battler in Scotland. The winner might not be starring in an Eminem-produced film any time soon, but organiser Craig ‘Cain’ Hain believes the movement has never been stronger. “There are plenty of smaller leagues throughout the UK with potential that seem to be holding their ground,” he says. “I think as long as we are fuelling the battle scene and motivating folk who would like to get into it then I don't see a problem.
“Everybody has their own style. Some aim to please the crowd with jokes while others go for a more technical approach. This year alone has seen a major step up in the standard of quality with battlers being more technical, working on their wordplay and focusing on their flow rather than just the notorious mum jokes. How would I describe the scene? Highly entertaining, always!”