From the early ’00s until the early ’10s I built a reputation for being very good at battle rapping. Mostly I’m proud of what I did, but sometimes I’m ashamed of it.
For those unfamiliar with battle rap, imagine slam poetry mixed with insult game the Dozens, only about 10 times more intense. It’s two people against each other, sometimes on a beat, sometimes a cappella, sometimes on a stage, sometimes on a sidewalk.
I’m proud of the time and attention I spent mastering the craft. The moments when I surprised myself with wit. The moments when I stood up to bullies — for the sake of principles, and for the nerds and eccentrics who had no one else to stand up for them.
I’m ashamed of the times when, either to win or because I was exhausted of ideas, I decided I needed to be homophobic, use fat jokes or launch absurd, hypothetical threats about what I might do to someone — or their “bitch.”
I didn’t know it then, but these were moments when I became the bully.
Back when I was starting out, I would battle every type of L.A. rapper: The grizzled, dread-headed veteran; the young, cocky, middle-class black kid; the smart-aleck Ktown cowboy; the suburban white kid who swore he was Eminem or Eyedea. Then there was the Latin tag-banger rapper, who was either really into Mobb Deep or just the cosmos in general.
But my favorite opponent was the gangster rapper. Not a rapper who thought it was fun to play gangster, but a gangster who thought it was fun to rap. He might have been a Crip, Blood or Southsider, a street kid telling his story — a story I thought was diametrically opposed to mine.
While we might have come from the same streets and the same socioeconomic background, I’d chosen a civilian’s life, and he’d chosen a gangster’s life. I was The Invisible Man’s narrator, while he was Monster Cody. While I was reading The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, he was living it. But I was too young and full of myself to see that then.
These battles would sometimes end in altercations. I didn’t understand when my opponent reacted seriously to my inflammatory words. I was, like, “It’s just a game, nigga. Calm down.”
When I began competing nationally, the personalities of my competitors became more homogenous. There were rooms full of guys who could find a tiny flaw in you or your delivery and turn that into a near-fatal wound. Many of these guys are still around, and I’ve seen them become different archetypes altogether. The suburban rich kid became the raging violent gangster. The grimy, slick-talking gangster became the clown. The d-boy became the dope fiend. Characters became caricatures.
I’ve been inactive in battle rap for years. But I wonder: If I continued, what caricature would I become? Would I need to come up with more obscure anime references? With new ways to fuck somebody’s bitch? How would I run in this nigga’s house? With what kind of burner? Would it happen if said nigga crossed the line? And what, exactly, is that line?
I suspect that, at this point, some of my fellow battle rappers and battle fans are thinking “Stfu pu$$y!” But I’m not here to devalue the art of battle rap. The sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered are battle rappers. We young uneducated debate masters heard the call after the Supernatural vs. Juice battle, Eyedea at the Blaze battle (R.I.P.), Murda Mook vs. Jae Millz, the reign of Jin Tha MC, Serius Jones, Iron Solomon vs. The Saurus, Hollow. These battles influenced real people. We’re not talking about 8 Mile.
In fact, most people probably assume the star of 8 Mile himself was an unbeatable battle rapper. In fact, Eminem usually would almost make it to the end before running out of his heavily recycled written raps and losing to someone who could freestyle well under pressure.
These days Eminem is involved with corporate-sponsored battles, and some of these contestants expect to launch successful music careers. But battle rapping is not how you make a career in music. Eminem knows better than anyone that it’s not about what you say to another man — it’s what you say to the world.
The rapper Serengeti once told me that battle rap is visceral in the same way as porn. I can see the parallels. Think about how far porn actors and actresses have to push themselves to stay relevant. There is no retirement plan. It’s just them and another person on camera, in front of a room full of people, degrading each other. My advice to you, battle rappers? Stay protected and think beyond.
Every day someone asks me: “When’s your next battle?” Or “Have you given up battling?”
I usually don’t reply. Or maybe I politely tell them to fuck off. One time a friend, an acclaimed producer, asked me. I said, “I just don’t like it.”
“I remember how you were, and it just doesn’t make sense,” he replied. “Something must have happened.”
Yes, something did happen. Life happened. I’ve had guns pulled out on me on dark, empty streets. I’ve been cheated on. I’ve had friends and family come out of the closet. I’ve been broke. I’ve become sensitive and tenderized like steak.
The point is, going through real-life experiences has taught me not to take words so lightly. I do not want to be offended, nor do I want to offend others for sport. If you were to actually fuck my “bitch,” there would be serious repercussions: in her life, in your life, in my life, my kids’ lives and maybe more.
If you called me an anime-loving faggot, I would laugh and think, “I do like anime!” And then, “What’s wrong with being gay?” I have friends and family who are homosexual, and they are cool people. I might punch you.
If the conversation turned to who has the most money, I would think about the plight of young American men postrecession. Our generation has been given the worst economy since the Great Depression.
I’ve begun to understand why the gangbangers had such extreme reactions to my words, having been through so much shit, having grown up so fast. Hell, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, when he was in his 70s, punched a guy who said he never walked on the moon — so why wouldn’t gangbangers get pissed at me when I questioned their authenticity?
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Who degrades a grown man and expects nothing to happen? Someone who has no empathy, or a disrespectful child. Or a battle rapper.
Over the years, I’ve grown a new respect for the meaning of manhood, and come to understand what it means to be a man in these times. And that’s why I will never bring someone down for the sake of making myself look better. After all, a battle is not one person versus another. It’s one man’s ideas and principles versus another man’s ideas and principles. Too often, though, there’s a lack of either one.
James “Nocando” McCall is a critically acclaimed rapper, co-founder of the Low End Theory and founder of indie rap label Hellfyre Club.