-- KRS-One, "Build Ya Skills"
A friend recently convinced me to lift my ban of Eminem's sadly predictable movie 8 Mile, revealing that the closing rhyme battle made the 118-minute semi-biographical flick worth seeing. So I took a chance and have now decided to ask him to reimburse the $2.99 (plus tax) rental fee I invested in something that should have been titled When Rocky Meets Rap. (Besides, rumor has it that poorly executed scripting should be the least of 'Em's worries right now!)
I will admit, however, to being slightly amused by the climactic scene during which Eminem's character Rabbit steals the show from a menacing, veteran battle lyricist who calls himself Pappa Doc. The film's premise made me wonder how Hip Hop history might have changed had the late Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (widely considered two of Hip Hop's greatest MCs) squared off in a man-to-man, no-holds-barred, freestyle battle as opposed to trading insults and innuendos through pre-recorded tracks and televised interviews.
Though we now know that their feud was fueled more by the activities of crooked cops and shady label execs, at least the world could once and forever decide which of the two artists had the greatest rhyme skills.
Remember, this is Hip Hop. Back in the day, without skills you had nothing.
Sadly, the truth is that such a battle would likely never take place between "the best" Hip Hop has to offer. I suspect that few established MCs would want to risk looking foolish in front of their fans by participating in unscripted and unrehearsed freestyle battles, which, by the way, represent the most original form of the phenomenon we now know as rapping.
As it stands, record labels are making millions peddling what I refer to as "lyrical colonialism," profiting off of the divisiveness, crushed egos and hurt feelings that are a part of the Rap game. Publicized disagreements -- whether actual or manufactured -- between Rap artists help boost record sales, radio ratings and magazine circulation.
While great drama for those caught in the web of the Matrix, Hip Hop purists need to hold artists accountable. Anyone can regurgitate pre-written insults in a controlled studio environment, but how many are ready to go face-to-face and rhyme-to-rhyme against their opponents while the entire Hip Hop world watches?
Battle rhymers like the legendary Supernatural and newcomer Jin the MC (a winner of 106 & Park's Freestyle Fridays competition) have tapped into that corner of the soul that enables them to spit bar after bar of unrehearsed metaphors, punchlines and narratives on the fly. In every city where Hip Hop exists, there are cats barely more than a paycheck away from living on the streets who have mastered the art of extemporaneous lyricism. Shouldn't our platinum-selling artists be equally adept?
Imagine if Jay-Z, Nas, KRS-One, Nelly, 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Beenie Siegel, Busta Rhymes, DMX and other rappers who claim to have "beefs" with one another would agree to compete in a live freestyle battle. During the competition, each MC would be granted 60 seconds to launch their most visceral lyrical attacks upon their opponents as they competed for the title and, more importantly, the unified respect of the Hip Hop world.
Some would stumble over their rhymes. Others might choke. There would be no-shows and excuses ("Regretfully, our man won't be able to compete due to a prior commitment"). A few MCs might even try to smuggle in a few bars of pre-written lyrics under the guise of freestyling. Yet only one lyrical gladiator would emerge as the ultimate battle rhymer.
But we know this would never happen. Even if a given artist were willing to participate, label execs, A&R reps, agents and other handlers would likely pull the plug to minimize the risk of damage to their "commodities."
Once again, the Hip Hop underground is showing the world how it's really done. Scribble Jammers know what I'm talking about.
So we're left with the same old warring Hip Hop factions -- or "camps," as they're now known. In some cases, the beefs are taken lightly and are in relative good nature. Others are sparked by misconstrued verses taken out of context and recycled through mix-tape circulation. But history has shown us what can happen when these get out of hand.
The Universal Zulu Nation (founded in the BXNY, November 1973) has declared that November is Hip Hop History Month. Battling has always been a part of what makes Hip Hop a beautiful and dynamic urban cultural phenomenon. It's time to get back to the true essence.
If Pac and Big had to do it all over again, I'm sure they would agree. R.I.P.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.