Fighting words

In Grind Time battle rap, the rappers go head to head without a beat

Jeremy Hardcastle says, “It’s almost like being an actor.”

Jeremy Hardcastle says, “It’s almost like being an actor.”

Photo by AMY BECK

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There’s this scene in Beowulf that often goes unremembered—however, it’s an important one to consider, not simply as it functions in the structure or narrative of the poem, but in how often it resurfaces in the actions of mankind.

Shortly after Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark, the Danes have prepared a feast for the Geats in their great mead-hall Heorot, when the pugnacious Unferth begins to taunt Beowulf. The two men take center stage, and for about 400 lines of the poem, they trade insults and spin their version of a swimming contest between Beowulf and Breca. Unferth is, of course, trying to belittle Beowulf, while Beowulf means to promote his own heroism and strength.

This is not the first instance of battle rapping in recorded history; far from it. Battle rapping might only be about 40 years old as a cultural phenomenon, but what this scene from a medieval Anglo-Saxon poem demonstrates is that the ingredients that comprise battle rapping—the braggadocio, the pomp and the fanfare—have existed and served a sociological function for thousands of years, perhaps longer.

It seems hardwired in human beings. From a footballer threatening to tear the head off the member of the opposing team, to bro-ish meatheads insulting each other to, in their minds, win the affection of an available lady at a club, as human beings we often have to put someone else down in order to elevate ourselves. In fact, it’s simply a function of nature. It’s about survival. Invariably, the time will come when you have to brandish your fangs and try to out-bark your opponent.

Ax to Grind

And, let’s be honest, as dog-eat-dog as the real world may be, the hip-hop world might be even more cutthroat. In hip-hop you have to have ego. It’s competitive, and everyone is struggling to be the best MC. Battle rapping may have started on the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s, but it survives in all aspects of hip-hop. It’s part of hip-hop’s DNA. Traces of it can be seen in beefs among MCs, labels and even between geographic regions of the U.S.

At its core, however, battle rapping is how many MCs build a reputation for themselves. If you are unsigned, and have no album to promote, you can set yourself apart from others by demonstrating your skills in perhaps the starkest way; by placing yourself next to your competition and asking the audience to decide.

Many MCs these days are finding that the best avenue to do this is what is known as Grind Time. Grind Time differs from traditional batting in that it is done a cappella and that it is intended to be distributed online in a video format. It’s no coincidence that the popularity of Grind Time has increased in tandem with the popularity of YouTube.

There is also a more theatrical aspect to it that makes it one part rapping, one part wrestling match and one part standup comedy bit. Local MC and seasoned Grind Time battler Hardcastle (Jeremy Hardcastle), sees it this way: “It’s almost like being an actor. It’s about how much you can make the crowd believe what you are saying. Even if it’s false, it’s about how much acting you can put into it so that the crowd’s going to believe that it’s real.”

Over the past decade, many leagues have sprung up across the U.S., and often you find them posting videos online that resemble a boxing match more than a traditional battle rap. They have turned battles into events that are hyped up and promoted, putting one MC against the other. Locally, the 775Battles league created by Dan Hubbard is where MCs hone their skills and film videos for online promotion.

For up-and-coming MCs, like Carson City MC Looney Divine (Emma Contreras), Grind Time is how they can establish themselves as experienced and seasoned lyricists. “Battle rapping is the best promotion,” she says. “It’s just another entrance into a different opportunity. Every battle is going to be more networking. It’s going to be more respect and more experience.”

Battling has served Looney well. She can get crowds of hundreds at a show, but if you check out her battles on YouTube you see that she has reached an audience of thousands with battles.

“Females get more exposure,” says Looney. “For some reason they get hyped up more.”

Because of the rising popularity of the medium, MCs are also finding many opportunities to travel to different cities to compete in other leagues, which give local MCs the chance to showcase their talents not only online but to fresh audiences in different markets. For Hardcastle this was a fulfillment of a dream. “The best thing that I’ve ever done is traveling to battle. A dream of mine has always been to get on a plane, and go to a battle.”

Face to face

Like any new medium, Grind Time has received a lot of criticism from more traditional battle rappers who find that because they are not rapping over a beat to a DJ, they are not really showcasing their lyricism. This has left many skeptical of the quality of the MCs.

Hardcastle, who has experience in traditional battle rapping, disagrees. “With the a cappella battles, everybody is listening and looking right at you,” he says. “With a DJ, you got people that might be listening to the beat, or your lyrics. Sometimes you can stumble over a beat; the beat might drown that out. In an acappella battle you know everyone is staring right at you. If you mess up, or pause, immediately the crowd will react like you just lost it.”

“Freestyling with a DJ, that’s weakness, because if you’re not feeling the instrumental, you might not be upbeat with it, and you might not know what to spit,” says Looney.

Regardless of whether you jibe with Grind Time, the undeniable fact remains that the popularity of the format is increasing. Says Hardcastle: “If you look at the traditional old-school battle competition that we did do, and then you take the crowd that we draw when we do our Grind Time battles, it’s almost double the people you get to come out. There is some more hype going into the preparation of artist vs. artist that they bring their family and friends, and their team will come out and support them.”

Because Grind Time battles are arranged months ahead of time, there is a lot of promotion and preparation that goes into it. Many have attributed this to Grind Time’s popularity. But, at the end of the day people just want to see a fight. We reward people for their resolve in the face of adversity. We love bravery. We love confidence. We love winners.

Let’s face it, as unmemorable as Beowulf’s boasts may have been, had he lost his battle against Grendel, they would have been forgotten. And, when Looney describes her past battles and her aspirations to be the best female lyricist on the West Coast, her confidence is almost tangible.

“Battle rapping is out-smarting your opponent, underestimating what they are throwing at you, and, because there is not physical contact, you gotta get in their head,” she says.

And just how does Looney get in her opponent’s head? “I get in their face.”

You can’t help but believe that she will mangle her opponent. This fire raging in Looney’s eyes is the same energy that attracts thousands of fans every Sunday to watch a microcosm of war in a stadium. And, it’s obvious that this is what attracts thousands of people to click on her videos. We are Americans, after all, and we love a good bloodbath.