This past July, New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom hosted an event that tried to change battle rap forever.
Backed by Eminem’s Shady Records, Total Slaughter had huge hype behind it, and was banking on making a huge profit off millions of pay-per-view fans across the world. It had the overblown air of a Vegas prize fight, with the top bout being a rematch between battle legends Murda Mook and Loaded Lux. It even came with its own Fuse TV reality show, Road to Total Slaughter, where a group of wild card rappers competed to win a spot on the ticket.
But Total Slaughter didn’t change battle rap forever. Not even close. The rappers’ microphones didn’t work. Shady Records artist Joe Budden walked off mid-bout after the crowd booed him. And many fans had to be refunded by broadcaster In Demand Media after their PPV streams refused to work. The only thing Total Slaughter did was show that running a good rap battle needs more than money and a fancy venue.
Total Slaughter may have had a troubled start, but its existence isn’t surprising. Battle rap has never been in finer fettle. It’s a lucrative industry (the leagues won’t discuss exact numbers, but most claim to make around six figures each in annual revenue). There are dozens of leagues across the world, and its top battlers command thousands of dollars every time they rhyme. Collectively, the leagues are responsible for nearly 500 million YouTube views.
Five of battle rap’s biggest movers and shakers talk to us about why they run their leagues, what they’ve learned, and what’s going to happen next.
King of the Dot
Travis Fleetwood (Organik)
Organik photo by Justin Main
You’d think that a league named after the city it was created in – Dot as in T-Dot, as in Toronto – would have changed its name once it got as big as KOTD has. No chance. KOTD is proud of its origins, has had Drake host its events, and has made Canada a primo destination for battle rappers.
Its operator is Organik, born Travis Fleetwood, a former steel worker from Bolton, ON, who has yet to hit his 30th birthday. A battle rapper himself, he’s built a lean, powerful battle machine that has put out some of the best – and most controversial – battles of all time. Their highlights include the Canibus vs Dizaster battle, where Canibus all but ended his rap career by choking disastrously, and the bout between Dizaster and Math Hoffa where the former lost his cool and punched Hoffa’s lights out mid-battle. There’s no definitive list of top 10 rap battles, but if one did exist, then KOTD would have numerous entries.
Organik says that running a league is an enormously demanding job. “It’s all about micromanaging, booking battles, arranging contracts, dealing with staff and rappers,” he says. “It’s the business end of running any international company. The only thing I don’t do is the video work.”
“I used to watch battles on 56K modems when I was a kid,” Organik says. “I grew up having a love for it. It’s what I always wanted to do.”
Grind Time Now
Joshua Carrasco (Madd Illz)
Photo via Grind Time Now
The centre of battle rap in the United States? Not New York. Not L.A. Not even other traditional homes to hip-hop, like Atlanta or Houston. For the home of battle rap, you need to go to Orlando.
The Florida city is the home of Grind Time Now, one of the biggest battle leagues in the country. It was set up in 2008 by Joshua Carrasco, better known as the battle rapper Madd Illz, and has gone on to become one of the most powerful names in the industry.
Like many league owners, Illz is critical of Total Slaughter – “it wasn’t put together professionally” – but he says that it drew a renewed interest in battling from viewers who would otherwise never have come across it. Now, he says, he wants to make battlers aware that what they do off-stage is just as important as what they do when they’re on it. “A lot of the battlers are still stuck in 2008,” he says. “Not material wise or anything like that, but it’s their mentality. They don’t understand branding or marketing, and the work that goes into building a name for yourself.”
Troy Mitchell (Smack White)
Beasley (Smack/URL co-founder) photo courtesy Smack/URL
This is the big one. By any measure you care to name – YouTube views, subscribers, Twitter followers – the oddly-named fusion of Smack and the Ultimate Rap League is the largest battle league on Earth.
The league’s annual Summer Madness event has become a must-watch date on the battle calendar, and they’re responsible for the original Loaded Lux/Murder Mook match that Total Slaughter tried to emulate. Pinning down their founders, or any one of the staff members that keeps the YouTube channel overflowing with videos, is an exercise in frustration, but league founder Smack White (born Troy Mitchell) has made a name for himself as a first-rate entertainer. He has a huge contacts book, and has shown a knack for spotting talent, introducing fans to battlers like Tsu Surf and Hollow Da Don.
Garry McComasky (Decoy)
Courtesy Got Beef?
In the world of battle rap, Got Beef? looks pint-size, with a mere 5 million YouTube views and only 927 Twitter followers. So why is one of their battlers on the cover of Rolling Stone?
Plenty of battle rappers have tried to launch on-record rap careers with mixed success, but not 360. The MC, whose album Utopia is currently crashing the Australian charts and who found himself on the cover of the Aussie edition of the storied music mag, started his career as a battle rapper. Ditto for Kerser and The Kid, whose stars are both on the rise. Battle rappers are becoming as well known as regular MCs, but only in Australia has this gone to the next level.
“We’re the league that’s gotten people noticed,” says Garry McComasky, better known as Decoy, the cheerful Aussie who runs Got Beef? “I think industry people here are paying attention to it. It gets respected as a sport out here, and that’s why we’ve thrived.”
Decoy’s success highlights another important skill in running a battle league: picking the right people. Sure, you could pay Loaded Lux $20,000 for his services, but who’s going to become the next Loaded Lux?
Got Beef? may not be as big as its brethren in the US and Canada, but it punches way above its weight. “I do it because every rapper that we’re putting on right now – I was that guy, four years ago,” says Decoy. “Kerser was just a street guy, from Campbelltown in West Sydney. He had no hope of being signed to a label. People like him don’t get opportunities. I took a gamble on him, and now he’s a huge name in Australian hip-hop.”
Rowan Faife (Eurgh)
Courtesy Don’t Flop
Rowan Faife has developed a reputation in battle circles for his hard-nosed, combative approach to staging events. But behind the gruff exterior is someone truly skilled at creating memorable battles – and doing it, by and large, by going local.
Instead of shouldering the costs of flying out big-name battlers, and getting them past the notoriously sticky UK customs officials, Don’t Flop opted to create its own stars. Now MCs like Sensa, Innuendo, Unanymous and the pint-swigging Liverpudlian wonder that is OShea have become battle royalty.
Eurgh wasn’t available for interview, but league co-founder Cruger (Freddie Scott-Miller), who handles all their video work, says that they’re enthusiastic about what technologies like streaming pay-per-view offer. “We’ve only done one PPV event, Sunburn, which went pretty well,” he says. “We’re going to do more in the future. For us, it was a chance for us to find a source of revenue, and also so that the fans could get it straight away, rather than having to wait for YouTube, or if they couldn’t go to the event. I think it’s a natural progression.”