Battle Rap: When Words Collide

How a dispute between two East Bay rappers helped start a global, underground movement.

In 1994, the Oakland rapper Casual, a member of the Hieroglyphics Crew, had beef with Saafir from Hobo Junction, another East Bay hip-hop collective. Saafir had done a feature for Casual’s album, but when the time came for Casual to feature on Saafir’s, he couldn’t find the time. This started a back-and-forth of trash-talking that escalated into a few physical encounters. Eventually, the MCs decided to settle their dispute via rap battle.

Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction were the biggest underground groups in Oakland at the time, so the showdown caused a considerable buzz throughout The Town. They arranged for it to be broadcast on The Wake Up Show, hosted by Sway and King Tech on KMEL 106.1 in San Francisco as well as a station in L.A. It wasn’t the first battle in the history of hip-hop, but it was certainly the high point for the medium until then.

A dozen or so people packed into the KMEL studios and folks from all over the Bay Area tuned in. The battle lasted more than 45 minutes — which, as anyone who has ever tried to freestyle should know, is like going into quadruple overtime. Casual and Saafir remained composed throughout, bragging about their lyrical capabilities and taking shots at one another. It settled their beef, and it was great publicity to boot. The battle hit the underground with the gravity of a heavyweight championship fight, and it was The Wake Up Show’s highest-rated broadcast prior to its syndication. To this day, there are disputes over who won.

Fast forward to 2008 and much had changed. 8 Mile was released, and suddenly battling and “mom’s spaghetti” were a part of the mainstream vernacular. A short-lived battle rap show called Fight Club premiered on MTV. People across the country were bootlegging DVDs of Smack/Ultimate Rap League events. Scribble Jam and the World Rap Championships had been running for a decade, cultivating a new generation of MCs hungry for recognition and willing to take someone’s head off on the mic. Back in Oakland, a deep talent pool of seasoned freestyle battlers had discovered a new medium and platform for battling.

Nicholas Carletti, known onstage and on tracks as Lush One, had been living and making music in Oakland for a decade-plus and was deeply involved with the Bay Area battle movement. The scene had started to diminish at the time, with only one regular battle event occurring on the West Coast at Oakland’s own Tourettes Without Regrets, and Carletti and friends were hungry for what was to come next. That spring, he flew to Florida for an event hosted by a battle league called Grind Time. Instead of improvised, in-the-moment raps delivered over a beat, battlers at Grind Time faced off through rounds of pre-written bars they would spit a capella, uploading each individual battle onto the relatively new YouTube. Carletti realized this had the potential to be big, so he came back to the Bay Area with intentions of organizing his own event.

“It really just blew up from there,” Carletti says. “We were in the right place at the right time with this new technology, and the talent pool in the Bay for battling was just so deep.”

Launching under the banner of “Grind Time West,” local rappers and organizers began throwing “Battle of the Bay” events. Daniel Martinez, a rapper from San Jose known as Dirtbag Dan, took part in the first battle of this kind ever to be filmed on the West Coast. Having been a part of the older scene, he reflected on this new era of pre-written raps and online uploads.

“I mean, we realized pretty much right away that writing out your rounds made everything more entertaining,” Martinez says. “It’s cool to be able to come off the top, but you can only take that so far. This was us expanding to a larger audience.”

By the end of 2008, videos began racking up huge numbers online. Uploads from Grind Time West’s “Battle of the Bay II,” held and filmed in Oakland’s Mosswood Park, cracked hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Users shared it on WorldStar Hip Hop, where innumerable fans watched them.

To date, the highest-rated battle from that event is Tantrum vs. Dumbfoundead, which clocks in at over 2 million views. Its lyrics are provocative, both rappers are Asian-American and did not hesitate to bring up their respective race, and it was one of the first battles to showcase the potential of a prewritten format.

“This guy ain’t an Uncle Tom / He’s an Uncle Wong,” Dumbfoundead raps as the crowd roars, “I’ma smash you with my drunken palm / Until you cry to Smashing Pumpkins songs.” Offensive subject matter woven into multisyllabic rhyme schemes and cohesive angles became a compelling cornerstone. Over the years, this technically astounding coarseness cultivated a rabid fanbase around, while keeping the medium from breaking fully into the mainstream. For a while, the Grind Time channel had some of the highest total views on YouTube.

“If you ask me, people have wanted to see fools snap on each other since the dawn of civilization,” Martinez says.

Along with online recognition, the events themselves began gaining traction in the area. By 2011, it wasn’t uncommon to see heavy-hitters like E40 or The Jacka at a Battle of the Bay. “These events became part of the underground scene,” says Alex Jenney, an Oakland native who raps and battles under the name Pass. “The Town showed out for them.”

Battle Rap, as a medium, has since become a global phenomenon. Leagues in Russia and the Philippines upload battles that pit platinum-selling artists against one another. Famous rappers (Method Man) and athletes (James Harden) are known fans. In 2015, Drake organized and co-hosted an event in his hometown of Toronto. Eminem recently produced Bodied, a film directed by Joseph Kahn and written by former battler Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen. However the raw, uncut, uploaded battles still remain an underground movement as its purest and crudest form can be an acquired taste.

In spite of all this, the Bay Area has been strangely empty of big events in recent years. Martinez has been throwing events in San Jose called “Battle of the Zae” — a direct nod to the Grind Time West “Battle of the Bay” events — but large-scale spectacles have dwindled since 2015-16. This hasn’t sat well with Travis Fleetwood, known to every battle fan as Organik, founder of King of the Dot, the Canadian league that worked with Drake and arguably one of the biggest battle platforms in the world right now.

So, on Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19, King of the Dot hosts “Town Bidness” at the Uptown in Oakland. Harkening back to the spirit of 2008, when everything was new and crowds were unstoppably hyped, some of the biggest names in battle rap will come for each other’s heads in front of a standing-room-only crowd. “Oakland is like one of battle rap’s holy lands,” Fleetwood says. “I’m so excited to bring something back there.”

Carletti, who has been consistently ingrained in the scene since 2008, will be onsite as a host and co-organizer. Battle rap culture is global in scale yet insular in its fanbase, and a circle seems to be closing.

A-Plus, a longtime member of the Hieroglyphics crew who was around during the Casual and Saafir beef, offered a connection as to the significance of this event in the Bay.

“It would be crazy to say Oakland invented battling,” he says, “but we championed it, that’s for sure. We made freestyling and being ready to cook anyone who stepped up part of our identity. It was a huge part of how we stood out, nationally.”

King of the Dot Entertainment Presents Town Bidness, Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19, 1-8 p.m., at the Uptown, 1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $30/sold out,

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