Arts Preview: B.C. hip-hop artists compete in word wars to humiliate, degrade, inform, inspire, and upstage their opponents to take home love and accolades
The art of battle rap
It’s warm in the packed Fortune Sound Club, located near the edge of Vancouver's Chinatown, in the middle of summer—uncomfortably so.
On stage stands a small crowd of young men, two of whom stand forward and face each other. They're about to fight. This fight, though, is not physical, and no fists will be thrown.
Their war is waged with their wit.
One of them looks out to the gathered crowd of more than 200 people. The spotlights turn on and he's visibly warming up. He fans his shirt for some quick air and wipes some of the sweat off his forehead. By now, he’s practiced dozens—hundreds—of times, at home in front of a mirror and to his friends. He knows what he has to do.
The host of the evening picks up his microphone. He stands between the two battlers sporting a baseball cap, a well-groomed beard, and a loose gold chain. He looks comfortable on stage and speaks to the crowd like they’re friends relaxing on his couch—loose and easy.
The event is Gastown 2, the biggest battle rap event in B.C.’s history, put on by King of the Dot, Canada’s premiere battle rap league.
“King of the Dot, Vancouver, put your money where your mouth is! Vancouver, please make some noise!” the host yells into the microphone. The crowd cheers.
“What’s up? I’m your host La Sparka—stacking chips and pumping lips.”
While the host introduces the battle, the two battlers say nothing. They stand looking at the ground now, transfixed, like they're rehearsing a speech in their heads.
The host finishes introducing the match and points to his left. It’s this battler's turn to go first.
He takes a deep breath and turns to the crowd.
From the bottom to the top Battle rap was birthed the minute after hip-hop—the second, unexpected twin who came out with more of an ego and an attitude than its older sibling.
Since its humble beginnings on the streets of New York City, MCs have always picked up the microphone and talked down to other rappers in an attempt to be the “best.” This competitive spirit has survived through the decades starting from as early as 1984 with Roxanne Shante’s diss track “Roxanne’s Revenge” against old school hip-hop trio U.T.F.O. in response to their hit single “Roxanne, Roxanne”—a song about a woman who didn’t care for their advances.
This would prove to be the first of many “diss tracks,” or songs created with the intent of calling out and insulting a specific person or group, mainly other hip-hop artists.
In the following years, rappers would keep rap battling and diss tracks alive and well, from hip-hop legend Tupac to Jay-Z, from Eminem to Nas, and more recently from Kendrick Lamar to Drake. All the big names in hip-hop have gotten into a war of words with someone at some point and used it as ammo in the music industry to appear more legitimate to their peers and the public.
But while these rappers focused on threeminute diss tracks, there are those who battled their ways from streets corners and basements to stages purely from rap battling.
One of those people is hip-hop artist Copasetic, a Vancouverite who doesn’t fit the typical rapper mould. He's an average height, scrawny white guy who could be easily found typing away in computer science class. Instead, he puts together rhymes with a focus on unique, original content, and hits nightclubs around the city in an attempt to verbally slay his opponents.
"Soul Khan referred to it as 'competitive performance art' and I love that definition," Copasetic says.
He views battle rap as an art form in its infancy. It's still niche, he concedes, but with that comes a chance to be creative since there's no precedent to follow. Oftentimes Copasetic jumps on stage in an outfit, charging with antics out of left-field to distract or confuse opponents.
One time he dressed as a cowboy and sang a song, another time he came out with make-up on as an old man with a cane, and more recently he came on stage with puppets—one speaking as the devil on his shoulder and the other the angel.
Hardly a typical battle rap strategy.
While Copasetic uses battling as a stage for his performance art, others utilize it as an extension of their self, and hip-hop presence, such as Nanaimo rapper and freestyle champion Sirreal.
"Aside from my son being born, the first time I stepped into the ring was the most nervous I've ever been," Sirreal says. "But I love to challenge myself. That first battle I had was in Kelowna, where the other guy I was battling was from. I purposefully went off to his home turf to prove I can do it, and I slayed."
Sirreal is "that dude" on Vancouver Island, according to those in the battle rap and hip-hop scene around B.C., but it wasn't always that way.
"When I was young and stupid I used to get into trouble," he says. "I was doing drugs committing theft and other shit.
"Things changed when my father and brother died.”
A year after he put out his first mixtape in 2005 Sirreal's brother, Nick, committed suicide. The loss of his brother and his biggest fan wasn't easy to say the least, but he refused to let his personal turmoil bring him back down a path he knew all too well.
"Instead of going around and acting a fool, I continued on my brother's legacy by making music," Sirreal says.
On top of that, Sirreal also works as a Crisis Intervention Worker at Vancouver Island Crisis Society, sharing his story to inspire those who need it the most.
Still working on new material every day, Sirreal claims he's currently undefeated in battle rap—having bested three opponents. He's willing to continue that streak whenever the call comes in from one of B.C.'s battling leagues.
As battle rap grows, so do the organizations around it.
King of the Dot may be the most recognizable name in Canadian battle rap, but around B.C. there are other groups such as Smoked Out Battles that continue to grow and put on shows based purely off the passion of its employees and volunteers.
This build-up has led to a small but loyal following, with each venue generally packing in between 100 to 200 people on average. This doesn’t include the bigger online community, where battles are uploaded onto YouTube pages where the most popular names in battle rap score more than a million views, sometimes more.
“To me it was always the most street kind of art form,” says La Sparka, former battlerturned- Vancouver’s-rep and host for King of the Dot. “It started by who thought they could rap better, then they met in the park. Eventually people started to organize it.”
Along with King of the Dot is Smoked Out Battles, an organization based out of Surrey. It hosts battles around Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island.
"It's a growing niche for sure," says Mike Simpson of Smoked Out Battles.
"If you look at our old battles versus now, the crowd is really growing."
Simpson has been one of the leading forces behind Metro Vancouver battle rap, and he says the focus right now is to develop talent and bring the larger battling community together in Alberta, B.C., Washington, and Oregon.
"We probably have anywhere from 140 to 150 solid battlers in the Northwest," Simpson adds.
He reiterated what others say about battle rap: it’s a passion project built around the heart of the organizers and artists. And whenever any other entity other than that has tried to buy their way in it has failed. "Corporate people … they fail when they try," he says. "You can't buy battle rap."
Today battle rapping finds most of its audience online with battle leagues such as URL (Ultimate Rap League) and King of the Dot leading the way in popularity in North America.
This community also extends globally, with the United Kingdom's Don't Flop league generating hundreds of thousands of views consistently, Russia's battle rap scene generating millions of views online, and the Philippines generating even more.
Vancouver lags behind in this sense, but with consistent output and grooming of talent there is plenty of room to grow. "I don't know if there's a ceiling on this thing," Simpson says.
"Imagine you are there for the first 10 years of jazz in America. It's mind-blowingly similar," Copasetic says. "The most important thing people overlook when it comes to battle rap is how young the movement is. Very few people understand that this is the beginning: maybe 30 years in for battle rap, only 10 for YouTube battles and leagues. That's why I am desperately trying to innovate, hoping someone can learn from my failures or become inspired to try something unusual and
give us another unique perspective and approach to the art."
The art of the battle
At the end of the battle the two MCs who just spent the past 30 minutes spitting the meanest things they could think of at each other—with polished cadence, rhyme, and flow—end by smiling, shaking hands, and waving to the crowd.
La Sparka smiles and picks up his microphone, asking the crowd how they felt about the battle they just watched.
The crowd cheers back in a cacophonous roar.
He goes on to announce the winner, but the two battlers are happy they just got their material out and don't even seem to care about the outcome.
The cheers from the crowd are enough.