#BARS: The Evolution of Battle Rap in the Internet Age

#BARS: Chapter by chapter

A chapter-by-chapter look at what's inside:

1. Overview: 'THAT'S the way you talk to your son!'

The first chapter focuses on the evolving definition of battle rap over the past 20-plus years. Originally done almost exclusively over beats in settings where it was frowned upon to use written or premeditated rhymes, battling gradually reinvented itself as more of a theatrical event where combatants would perform pre-written verses in an a capella format. Some purists long for the days of the freestyle era, but there is little doubt that the current format has been able to appeal to a larger audience. Through the chapter, dozens of rappers and other figures in the battle scene discuss that evolution and offer their feelings on what battling was and what it has become.

2. New York City: 'I was in cyphers, rhyming with lifers'

A detailed look into the various parts of the battle scene in New York, widely acknowledged as the birthplace of both hip-hop culture in general and battle rap in particular. While there are references to older battles and such, this chapter focuses largely on the "organized" battle scene, which really began to develop in the mid- to late 1990s. Different open-mic freestyle competitions such as Braggin Rites are featured, as well as 88HipHop, the first live-streamed hip-hop radio show on the Internet. At the same time that this freestyle scene was flourishing, though, a second battle culture was emerging in the city — one where a capella street battles were king. Those battles gained exposure through the distribution of the Smack DVD series, which helped set the stage for the modern "written era" of battle rap.

This chapter will include a sidebar on Supernatural, one of the most influential freestyle battle emcees of all time, as well as another on the Philadelphia street battle scene, which was becoming prominent around the same time that Smack DVD was elevating that pre-written format in New York.

3. California: 'I'll just yell out Fresh Coast ... and they'll all go crazy'

While New York has long served as the epicenter of hip-hop culture, the West had its own thing going on — and as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, there was a seismic shift in battle rap that saw emcees from the "Fresh Coast" emerge as the dominant figures in the scene. Freestyle standouts such as The Saurus, Illmaculate, Nocando, Okwerdz and Franco began dominating on the national level, bringing light to what had long been a vibrant scene in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and elsewhere.

4. Scribble Jam: 'I only see one of you ... I ain't scared of none of you'

During the freestyle era, the who's who of battle rap would descend each year upon Cincinnati, Ohio for Scribble Jam, an annual celebration of hip-hop culture. Beginning in 1997, the festival's second year of existence, Scribble became the ultimate prize for anyone who claimed to be the world's best battle rapper. Eminem famously finished second that year — and while nobody else has matched his crossover to mainstream success, several other notable Scribble competitors such as Rhymefest and Mac Lethal have built larger audiences off of their battle success. Scribble Jam was battle rap's Super Bowl for a decade before financial trouble and the dawn of the "written era" led to its demise.

This chapter will include three sidebars — one on the Rap Olympics, an event held in Los Angeles after Scribble Jam in 1997 that helped launch Eminem's music career into orbit; another on Eyedea, the 1999 Scribble Jam battle champion and an icon in the underground culture even after his unexpected death in 2010; and one on the Budget Host hotel, a landing spot for many out-of-town rappers coming to Cincinnati for Scribble Jam and the setting for some intriguing side stories.

5. The post-8 Mile rush: 'Fuck a beat, I'll go a capella'

Following the widespread success of Eminem's semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile, there was a brief attempt by mainstream outlets to capitalize. Both MTV and BET produced battle rap competitions during this time, and those helped to set the stage for a few new battle ventures in New York in the mid- to late 2000s — most notably Fight Klub, which had a brief relationship with MTV. Fight Klub, along with the Smack DVDs that were growing in popularity at the same time, helped smooth the transition to the "written era" — a transition that was accelerated by a simultaneous boom in online video.

This chapter will include a sidebar on the Detroit battle scene, which helped to spawn Eminem and provided the inspiration for 8 Mile.

6. The JumpOff invasion: 'The British are coming! The British are coming!'

Between Scribble Jam and various other outlets, battle rap was very much alive in the mid-2000s — but it took two ambitious brothers from Great Britain to light the fuse for its explosive growth. JumpOff, the operation put together by Harold Anthony and Ara Stevens, brought battle rap to the Internet in a way that it hadn't truly existed there before. Their decision to come to the United States and bring American battle stars under their umbrella — and then distribute those battles online — at the very moment that YouTube was taking off played an instrumental role in battle rap's growth in the years to follow.

This chapter will also include a sidebar on Iron Solomon, whose widely viewed (for the time) run of battle victories between 2005 and 2007 made him battle rap's first YouTube superstar.

7. The 2007 World Rap Championships: 'Now that shit done jumped off ...'

Building on its success in 2006, JumpOff went all in a year later for its production of the 2007 World Rap Championships. Eight divisions were set up in four different countries, and the tournament that followed may still be the most important event in battle rap's history. The WRCs not only finalized the shift from freestyle to pre-written battles, making the latter format far more acceptable to most freestyle purists, but they also laid the groundwork for three of the major leagues that emerged when JumpOff folded — Grind Time, King of the Dot and Don't Flop.

This chapter includes a sidebar on The Saurus, who partnered with Illmaculate to win both the 2006 and 2007 WRCs. Those victories, combined with his triumphant runs at Scribble Jam in 2006 and 2008, cemented his status as the most decorated battle rapper in the freestyle era.

8. Grind Time: 'All right, look ... here's how the story goes'

In 2008, JumpOff  and Scribble Jam both went belly up, and there was a vacuum to fill. The first to step in and fill the void was David "Drect" Williams, who parlayed his love for the culture and his connections within the battle scene into Grind Time, the first real major battle rap league. Originally based locally in and around Orlando, Florida, Grind Time quickly grew, setting up divisions on the West Coast, in New York City and in numerous other places. Despite its numerous groundbreaking accomplishments, though, Grind Time was eventually done in, largely by infighting among the company's leaders.

This chapter includes two sidebars. One will focus on Dizaster and Hollow Da Don, two rappers who were largely overlooked during the JumpOff era but vaulted to superstardom on the Grind Time platform and have remained on top of the battle world ever since. The other will be a brief look at the battle scenes in Atlanta, Miami and Orlando that laid the foundation for the birth and growth of Grind Time.

9. King of the Dot, Don't Flop and URL: 'You look like Tom Cruise mom's shoes'

As Grind Time slowly fell apart, two other leagues that had started on a smaller scale in 2008 — King of the Dot in Toronto and Don't Flop in London — continued their growth. Meanwhile, Smack also returned and made the transition from DVD to the Internet with the birth of the Ultimate Rap League (URL), which quickly established itself as a major presence in the culture. Those three, all of which evolved from JumpOff and Grind Time in different ways, have pushed the battle culture forward in the 2010s. They firmly established themselves as the three "major" English-speaking battle leagues during the past decade.

This chapter will feature three sidebars — one on St. Louis, which has a vibrant street battle circuit that has contributed mightily to URL's growth; one on the Elements League, a Canadian circuit that was a precursor to many of today's written leagues; and another on the various battle scenes around the world, including in Russia and in the Philippines, where the Flip Top battle league has gathered more YouTube views than any league in the world.

10. The evolution and the overkill: 'I'll run in FilmOn with a camera and Avocado'

Battle rap has evolved significantly since its early days, and even in the years since it made its way onto the Internet. How battles are filmed has changed dramatically, going from hand-held camcorders to the same high-tech equipment used on Hollywood sets. At the same time, the economics of battle rap have changed — rather than competing in freestyle battles for prize money, today's top battlers are paid just to show up and rap, win or lose (if there's even a judgment, that is). The pros and cons of that metamorphosis were most visible through two of the battle culture's most famous hiccups — the Total Slaughter and Ether events in 2014.

This chapter includes a sidebar on Kyle "Avocado" Gray, the man most responsible for the improvements in how battle rap is presented on camera.

11. Bodied and beyond: 'I'm all up in your face now ...'

In 2017, battle rap made perhaps its biggest step forward with the release of Bodied, a film written by battle rapper Kid Twist and directed by Joseph Kahn that features many of the scene's elite emcees. Will that be as good as it gets, or will the culture be able to create real sustainable growth off of this success? Many of battle rap's key figures weigh in on where they feel the scene is headed.

The chapter concludes with a sidebar showcasing various opinions on the burning question: Who is the greatest battle rapper of all time?