Battling is generally believed to have originated in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1970s. One of the earliest and most famous battles was in December 1981 (evidenced by BB’s DJ asking if the crowd is ready for ’82) when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starski – Busy Bee Starski‘s defeat by the more complex raps of Kool Moe Dee meant that “no longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller”, which KRS-One also credits as creating a shift in rapping in the documentary Beef.

Photo Johnny Leo Johansen(c) for FB Drift from Fredrikstad and Adept from Oslo.

Johnny Leo Johansen(c)

In the 1980s, battle raps were a popular form of rapping – Big Daddy Kane in the book How to Rap says, “as an MC from the ’80s, really your mentality is battle format… your focus was to have a hot rhyme in case you gotta battle someone… not really making a rhyme for a song”. Battle rapping is still sometimes closely associated with old school hip-hop – talking about battle rapping, Esoteric says, “a lot of my stuff stems from old school hip-hop, braggadocio ethic”.

Some of the most prominent battle raps that took place on record are listed in the book, ego trip‘s Book of Rap Lists, and include such battles as the Roxanne Wars(1984–1985), Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions (1986–1988), Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J (1987–1991), MC Serch vs. MC Hammer (1989–1994), Dr. Dre &Snoop Dogg vs. Luke (1992–1993), Common vs. Ice Cube (1994–1996), MC Pervis & Brand New Habits and LL Cool J vs. Canibus (1997–1998) – all of which includememorable battle rap verses.

Some Digital Hardcore bands (e.g. Atari Teenage Riot) also use freestyle rap as a part of their music, but they do not battle. In many cases, diss tracks are written to “battle” or “attack” other rappers.

Johnny Leo Johansen(c)

Recent history

Battling has been mostly an underground phenomenon since the early nineties, partly due to rap lyrics becoming considerably more complex in terms of rhyme scheme and meter.

In the early 21st century, freestyling (particularly freestyle battling) experienced a resurgence in popularity of sorts as successful freestyle battle competition TV shows were shown by both BET and MTV. In addition, Eminem’s movie 8 Mile brought the excitement of the freestyle battle to mainstream movie audiences. “Freestyle Friday” is a watered-down battle segment on BET’s popular show 106 & Park airing on Fridays. Two rappers compete in a freestyle battle before the studio audience and three celebrity judges (the DJ sometimes acts as the 3rd judge). Each competitor alternates freestyling for thirty seconds in each of the two rounds (originally one when the segment first began). The rappers are not allowed to use profanities or sexually suggestive lyrics, punishable by disqualification. After the battle, the judges decide the winner, per majority vote. Also in Hackney, London, there was a competition called Jump-Off famous for its two World Rap Championships.

In Cuba, freestyle battles often follow organized concerts and juxtapose composed songs with ‘flowing’ lyrics that are relevant to the present situation. Freestyling can allow audience members to integrate into the performance stage. This provides a forum for up-and-coming underground artists to engage in a musical discussion with already prominent underground Cuban rappers. Freestyle battles often turn political when artists incorporate perspectives on social disparities and issues plaguing the Cuban population.

More recently battle rap has been revived in the form of pre-written battles.

In late 2010, Appalachian Apps, LLC. released the first real-time audio based mobile battle rap app, Rah Digga’s Straight Spittin, which is a hip-hop social network that allows users anywhere in the world to battle each other live on multiple mobile platforms. The application won AT&T’s OpenCall contest in 2011 for the Open Category, a first runner-up in Microsoft’s Fast Pitch 2011, and a third place winner in the N8 Calling All Innovators 2011 contest for the entertainment category.

In late 2011, Jump Shot Media released a mobile battle rap game, Battle Rap Stars that could automatically evaluate and score a users rap performance without the need of a crowd and majority vote.

King of the Dot, also known as KOTD, hosted a 3 day event which had 8 countries participate in it, called World Domination 2 in August 2011. In November 2011,Organik hosted Flatline, an event in which rapper Drake co-hosted the main event between Dizaster and DNA.

Don’t Flop is the largest UK rap battle league founded in 2008. Since then, notable appearances include RizzleVerb TMystro, and Harry Love.