It is not very commonly where I write about hip hop culture, although it does happen from time to time  at least in passing. I recently started an online course on the history of the Slave South, which seeks to look at this history, of great personal interest, from the perspectives of those who are not the usual slaveholding elites. What I will be discussing today is not something I am aware of reading about in any sort of systematic way, nor is it an observation that appears to be well-known. Furthermore, the origin of the phenomenon of which I speak is unknown, and I do not even know if many of the people involved in it themselves have thought about it as part of a pattern or recognized that this area is a matter of ritual where a consistent pattern of behavior and outcomes can be seen, at least from the limited examples that can be found. So, what I would like to do today is to trace a phenomenon and discuss my awareness of it and to leave it to others to follow up on the insight if they so choose and seek to uncover its origins and meaning and significance. The phenomenon I would like to discuss today is the ritual of rap battles.
Battle raps are one of the better known aspects of hip hop (at least to fans of the genre) but it is a matter which is somewhat below the radar for more casual fans. At times rap battles have led to very real bloodshed, as was the case during the notorious feud between the East Coast and the West Coast, where a rapper ended up bragging about sleeping with another rapper’s wife and both of them ended up dead in a mysterious cloud of bullets. Most of the time, though, rap battles serve as a surrogate for bloodshed between rival gangs, where the winner of the rap duel is generally given a certain amount of respect and preserves his street cred while the loser is consigned to a status of disrespect and dishonor and often sees his career suffer greatly. There are some important elements of ritual that take place here. For one, the battles often occur between members of the same gender. Nicki Minaj and Foxy Brown may feud, for example, but it would be improper for Eminem to directly feud with Mariah Carey, even if Eminem can insult Mariah Carey in a rhyme and provoke her (now-estranged) husband Nick Cannon to fight back, and even as she can sing about him in a hit single (“Obsessed”) that is nevertheless not considered part of the rap duel, because she is not considered as having standing to participate in such a duel. Most of the time, rap duels are limited to mixtapes and other ritual contexts, but occasionally someone will try to gain popularity by putting a rap duel on a mainstream album release, which has generally backfired (see, for example, Cannibus’ track “Second Round Knockout” and the track “Plastic” by PM Dawn) on those who have done so.
There is even a ritual combat in the way that the rap battle tends to take place. First, there is some times of provocation (at times this is mutual). A rapper may brag about his sexual prowess, or insult his rival for being too popular with women (and therefore unmanly) or being somehow effeminate (rappers love to question the manhood of other rappers), and may suggest their rival is somehow “soft.” This provocation occurs best if it is brief, like a guest verse in someone else’s rap, or a negative statement made in a radio station interview that is heard by hip hop fans, or an inside reference in an album track that is known to others and something likely to provoke a response. Some rappers (Eminem among them) are particularly skilled in baiting their rivals into an ill-advised attack. The key is to provoke while remaining restrained, so that someone overreacts to the attack and shows themselves to be insecure, and not strong enough or secure enough to take it. Rappers are constantly being needled about some aspect of their behavior or another, and those who are the most successful can point to their success and wealth and sexual prowess and tell those who insult that they are just being jealous and envious, without even deigning to name such rivals or devote an entire song to dealing with them, because such critics are beneath dignity, and one only duels one’s equals.
It is rather the insecure that start a rap duel by making a diss track about a rival. The first attacker, therefore, is in a position of weakness. There are two qualities that can make someone successful in a rap battle, either restraint and dismissiveness, or overwhelming force, and it appears that many of the more insecure practitioners of battle rap (Cannibis perhaps chief among them) seek to provoke an assault on a more popular rapper and try to demolish them through aggressive rhymes that follow from a thorough study of the target. Yet as much attention as is paid to the initial assault, a more fundamental miscalculation is made by starting a rap duel in the first place. After all, I have never seen an initial blow in a rap duel serve to overwhelm an opponent, no matter how skillful. That said, I have seen several careers ruined (Cannibis and Everlast) because they were provoked into making a diss track and then the target of that diss track has responded fiercely and (in the court of public opinion) victoriously. Rather than dethroning existing rap elites (like LL Cool J or Eminem), the rap battles I have seen have only served to confirm these elites by showing their critics to be thin-skinned, and therefore lacking in manliness, with the loss of respect that follows. At least one rap battle whose ending I saw immortalized in a painting in a hip hop haute culture men’s magazine edited by Mark Ecko involved the rapper Omarion, and though I did not know who the rapper he was battling was, the painting of Omarion in defeat at the feet of his rival in a painting that appeared several months in a row in a magazine of high importance in hip hop was a clear message to fans about the folly of starting a hip hop duel one is not prepared to win.
The most clear antecedent I know of to the rap duel is the affair of honor, practiced especially by hotheaded Southerners (although not only by them ), a similar ritual where restraint and responding second had major advantages. Here too there was a ritualized response to social provocation where someone who was insecure and thin-skinned would challenge someone he considered as an equal, and the challenged party set the terms of the duel in a way that would be advantageous to him. Additionally, the second mover in the duel itself often had the advantage, as refusing the first shot and then responding with cool and deadly accuracy was highly valued when firearms were not as accurate or deadly as they are now. It would appear that in some fashion the ritual of a duel was transformed into a verbal duel at some point between the 19th century and today, via means that appear somewhat obscure in origin at this point. As a side note, in rap duels as well as in affairs of honor, the challenger only dueled those he (and it was almost always a he) considered as an equal. If someone was considered of lesser status, the response was either to ignore the blows of the insignificant peasant or to come with a posse of one’s friends to beat the miscreant, which would usually result in no punishment, since defending one’s honor was often considered a proper course of action by most jurisdictions, whatever the law stated about the criminality of such violence. It is therefore unsurprising that in hip hop battles, the truly powerful usually did not comment unless a directly personal attack was made in a public fashion that threatened one’s face and standing, and where one could be seen as a defender rather than aggressor, and where attacks from one’s lesser could be safely ignored as the responses to jealous and envious people trying to punch above their weight class, so to speak.
The end result is that within the hip hop community (regardless of race, as the examples of Eminem and Everlast demonstrate) there is a survival of this prickly manhood of the 19th century. In this hotbed of insecure manhood, where rivals are quick to attack on behavior as being unmanly and where one’s wealth and success with women must be constantly bragged about from the start of one’s career as a way of showing oneself a gentleman (in a very narrow, tawdry sense of the term) and therefore worthy of respect by others, we see a survival of the rituals and forms of 19th century insecure Southern manhood in a different context today. We see an environment of constant ridicule and abuse, where one must always try to judge the difficult line between being restrained when it comes to the attacks from those who are not worthy of being responded to, and yet being able to defend one’s manhood from threats, because if one does not ever respond, the attacks will be seen as true and one will lose face and respect. We see a tendency for the initial challenger to be seen as particularly insecure, and therefore likely to lose whatever the response of the challenged party, unless the challenger finds himself of a higher class and thus free to respond to libels and slanders with brutal and decisive force (often including a posse for backup) for which no punishment will be given despite the obvious disparity in strength and status. Given that such patterns are not new, and can be clearly seen, it is a wonder why the personal psychology of rappers prevents them from acting in ways that are contrary to their interests, and why they cannot act with more wisdom given the contexts in which they live and operate.
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