As the man behind the Tupac hologram and last year's aborted George Zimmerman/DMX boxing match, Alki David is no stranger to controversy. Now the 46-year-old Greek billionaire has another wild idea: He wants to bring battle rap, the hip-hop competition where MCs have to outperform their opponent with razor-sharp rhymes, to the mainstream.
In 2014, the battle rap industry grew significantly. With the Eminem-backed Total Slaughter ushering battles into the world of pay-per-view cable TV, and mainstream artists such as Joe Budden (former Def Jam artist of "Pump It Up" fame) and rapper-actor Fredro Starr (member of '90s rap icons Onyx and star of Moesha) jumping into the ring to compete, there are more ways than ever to see competitive rhyming in action.
Still, battle rap has never come close to the popularity of rap music itself. Even with hip-hop icons such as Eminem, Diddy and Drake directly investing in battle leagues, competitive, head-to-head rapping exists as something of an island off the coast of the greater hip-hop nation.
David, whose billions are the result of his family owning Coca-Cola bottling factories in 28 countries, might have the resources, entrepreneurial savvy and passion to change that.
"To be a good battle rapper, you have to have a talent that is musical," he says. "It's a poetic talent. It's 21st-century poetry."
At a press conference last month to promote Ether, the first battle rap event on David's FilmOn.TV Internet television service, the headlining combatants — battle rap veteran Dizaster and chart-topping platinum rapper Cassidy — got into an increasingly heated exchange. It was made all the more surreal by the fact that Cassidy appeared at the conference via one of David's holograms.
A few days after the conference, David is relaxing on the Greek island Spetses, where he and his pregnant wife, swimsuit designer and former model Jennifer Stano, spend three months of the year. (Most of the rest of the year, they live in Beverly Hills but also have homes in London and Switzerland.) He doesn't give off the vibe of a boisterous promoter but rather a businessman who is letting his ventures speak for themselves.
"This is definitely the beginning of a UFC-style league for battle rap," David says of Ether. "It's a sport. It's an intellectual sport and real social commentary."
David has been a fan of battle rap since the early 1980s, when he first encountered it while breakdancing as a youth in London's Covent Garden. Given his long-standing interest in the culture, he has been very vocal in his criticism of other battle leagues, particularly Eminem's Total Slaughter, which he considers "neutered" by FCC regulations and thus lacking in street cred.
"Television is fraught with FCC rules and so much compliance that it makes it very difficult to allow artists to be themselves without being bleeped every second word," he explains.
David has a point, but it's also worth noting that he's fighting his own battles with mainstream television. Last year, all the major networks sued his streaming television service, FilmOn X, which digitally transmits over-the-air TV shows on to iPhones and iPads without network permission. (David claims the service is legal, thanks to a loophole in an old telecommunications law.)
Instead of going the cable TV route, David is looking to make an online "social pay-per-view platform," where fans will be able to chat among themselves on the same platform on which battles are broadcast, a premium included with the price of the pay-per-view.
He already has experience in this arena: He owns BattleCam.com, a popular "shit-talking" website/TV show, and created a battle rap channel with the Toronto-based, Drake-affiliated battle league King of the Dot.
This time around, David wants to create something more ambitious that integrates his hologram technology, social technology and online streaming. FilmOn.TV's urban content director and famed battle-rap organizer Lush One says the "hologram experience" at Ether will include a separate area where the entire event will be streamed live via hologram, along with "famous guest appearances."
David's timing might be perfect. The viewership of the once-niche entertainment has exploded, with the larger battle leagues' online views regularly exceeding 100,000 within days, a feat that would have taken more than a month merely two years ago.
Hip-hop news sites have helped fuel this increase by spreading the word about battle rap controversies. Last summer, Ether headliner Dizaster lost his cool during a battle with noted battle rap bully Math Hoffa at Los Globos and punched him in the face, sparking a small riot. This came months after Math Hoffa punched opponent Serius Jones at rival league URL's biggest event of the year, Summer Madness 3, forcing the venue to cancel the rest of the night's battles.
Then there are MCs such as Daylyt, who has become a battle star for both his raps and his absurd antics, like stripping naked midbattle or wiping his testicle sweat on an opponent.
Ether will broadcast Dec. 6 from the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The Cassidy vs. Dizaster main event looks to be the most high-profile rap battle ever staged. Philly-born Cassidy is the biggest mainstream artist to set foot in the battle rap arena, and waiting for him is arguably battle rap's most notorious star in L.A.'s Dizaster, who is still banned from competing in his league after last summer's brawl at Los Globos.
While Cassidy has recorded diss tracks about his fellow rappers, including one about Dizaster, he's never battled in front of an audience. Fans of both hip-hop and battle rap have an interest here, and Ether has a chance to make an impact on both worlds.
If there's a time when battle rap might find a mainstream audience, David is confident this is it. "Whatever it takes to pack out [the venue] and to generate attention online and sell tickets online and build a base. It's a good production budget by television standards and certainly higher than most TV shows."
Lush One talks an even bigger game, claiming the investment is "well into six figures so far. The production side of things alone are incredibly costly. ... Our pay-per-view stream is live, flawless, full of constant entertainment and will not drop, ever."
Cassidy claims he's being paid $250,000 for his appearance, which is more than some rappers have made in their entire battle careers.
Although David allows that for Ether to succeed, "The format has to be something the mainstream can understand," he says he's not looking to force the changes that battle rap would need to reach a wider audience. Instead, he believes such changes will happen organically. He uses two notorious battle slurs to illustrate.
"I think what's going to happen is the poetry of the spoken word will be elevated more and more, because eventually saying 'faggot' and 'nigga' are going to have to be replaced by something more competitive. ... There's only so far you can go."
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"If somebody gets shot" during Ether, he says, "then so be it."
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