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Plan of Attack

DISPATCH: The year the “new battling” took over Boston

By Chris Faraone

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix (December 2011)

There’s one thing that most people know about battle rapping: 8 Mile. Since the release of Eminem’s auto-biopic nine years ago, I’ve had to explain to countless folks why — despite being a historic scene and all — there could never be real battle rapping in a movie. Films are scripted. Battle raps are not.

Or at least that used to be the case. Over the past few years, battling in its raw, original form — improvisational raps, surprise background beats — has slipped into obscurity. From the art form’s gradual vanishing from underground clubs to the 2008 shuttering of Scribble Jam — the annual Ohio showdown where the real-life Eminem cut his teeth (but never gold medaled) — it’s clear that “old battling” is over, replaced by another sport all together, in which competitors, rapping without backing beats, get weeks of advance notice about opponents.

“They’re two completely different entities,” says Boston rap icon and Scribble Jam alum Esoteric. “The way we did it was like reacting to a Mack truck seconds away from steamrolling you, and the way they do it is like reacting to a meteor approaching earth from 200 million miles away.” Still, these days even OG battle vets like Eso welcome the new hype. “The most interesting part to me is that they drop inside jokes that the hardcore fans seem to get but that the casual observer would have to research to appreciate. That’s valuable in terms of building a bigger following.”

That following largely belongs to Grind Time. Started in Miami six years ago by Plymouth native Drect, this league of extraordinary degenerates has now crept into pop culture consciousness, evicting old-style battling along the way. After Florida came Grind Time West Coast, then Grind Time New York, then a nationwide outbreak, the battles documented extensively on YouTube. According to Dubb Sicks, chairman of the Austin-based Texas Battle League Grind Time affiliate, the seismic shift was inevitable.

“At a time when mainstream hip-hop has been severely lacking in lyricism and creativity, a cappella battle rapping filled a void,” says Sicks, a battle-master of the dozens in his own right. “In these videos, fans have the chance to see skilled lyricists from a variety of styles square off in a no-holds-barred style. There’s nothing like hearing a person tarnish another man’s race, reputation, mother, and religious preference. Rap battles accomplish this, and generally they shake hands at the end.”

Boston officially joined the “new battling” bash in 2011. But despite being late to the party, the Hub has fast established itself as a destination for competitive MCs — in large part thanks to the likes of street champ Chilla Jones and his Shark Tank league, and the April advent of New England Grind Time. Longtime local rap scenester Aztech, who franchised the league with Boston rhyme legend Edo G, says that in true battle fashion the Bean stepped strong and earned a mean rep this year.

“We got a lot of hate when we first announced that we were starting the division,” says Aztech. “Boston’s never spoken about in these kinds of hip-hop circles, but when we dropped the first battle video — Moroney versus 40 B.A.R.R.S. — it got like 20,000 views in one day. After that, pretty much everyone who battles anywhere near here was trying to get down. I think the change in battling is good, but what’s wack are battle rappers who don’t make fucking music. At this point a stand-up comedian can come and win every battle. Fuck that — come here and prove that you’re a raw MC.”

Read more of Chris Faraone’s rap archives here …