With battle rap reaching the competitive heights of organized sports, consistent judging is essential. When there’s money at stake and reputations on the line, a judge’s decision has to go beyond a gut feeling. But when faced with a split-second decision, a judge can often only choose on instinct and try to justify it after.
In KOTD, judges get two cards with a name written on each. They watch the battle and as soon as it’s done, they hand the winner’s card to the host. There’s no time for reflection. The battle ends, you decide.
Fans want an explanation for each vote and when they see the judgment as a robbery, they want blood. The thing is, every close battle looks like a robbery to half the fans.
U.K. battle league Don’t Flop has been experimenting with seven-judge panels and after-the-fact video judging, but still haven’t avoided accusations of bias. The URL never officially judges battles, which means the debate lives on for weeks in forums and through the battlers’ retweets.
The main problem is that judging is a subjective choice. Some judges prefer style over substance, while others reward the reverse. One judge might praise a specific scheme or line, while another will think it’s played out. It gets even more complicated when you have two different battle styles clashing. How can you decide if one guy’s jokes were funnier than the other guy’s bars were vicious?
In my limited experience as a judge (Notez/Yung Casper, Luciano Crakk/Kinaze and Chris Tipsy/StepEasy at Toronto’s GZGP), the choice was sometimes obvious and sometimes not. I guarantee that all three battles will be called 3-0 wins for both rappers by dozens of people online. Aren’t opinions great?
So for expert insight and advice, I reached out to three people who have judged some of the highest-profile battles in recent history:
From Don’t Flop – Steve “Stig of the Dump” Dixon
Winner of KOTD’s “So You Think You Can Judge” contest – Tasha “Baby T” Allen
From KOTD – Jacob “Knamelis” Karsemeyer
Steve “Stig of the Dump” Dixon is a British rapper and regular judge in Don’t Flop. He makes good music and has worked with RA the Rugged Man. He answered some questions by email:
Should all battles be judged?
No. I mean it’s quite obviously a transparent puss move to not have them judged, and as unpopular as it may seem to say on a battle blog, but still no. Battles are not so incredibly important that every one needs to be judged for fear of it somehow adversely affecting someone’s career or even day. Plus no battle fan has ever watched a promo battle and thought “I have no idea who would have taken that.” Fans judge every battle they watch, hence there being so much grievance over decisions they rightly or wrongly disagree with.
What makes a good judge?
A good rapper, at least for me anyways. Don’t get me sideways, as a layman you can judge a battle based on entertainment value, but I think it would be remiss to have fans as actual judges. In the same way, it would be poor form to have a punter judging a b-boy battle, or a UFC fight, or even a cooking competition. Unless you know the intricacies of the medium in question, you can’t judge properly. Unless you know the craft you will always look for power moves in breakdancing, or brutal punches/hits in UFC. If you can deconstruct something properly you can see what’s working behind it. Most people love a McNugget but when they see the pink mushy whale’s cock sausage of shit it’s made from, you know it’s DUTTY. Sometimes it’s the finesse of how you combine lines/moves or flavours and textures that is more impressive/innovative/creative than the final product/punchline. I think in the majority of cases the battle judges are less educated about the art form than the competitors they’re judging, which makes no sense at all. In a lot of cases they pander to the audience with their decision or analysis for fear of being disliked. How many times have you heard a judge say “that was a really close/dope battle” and you’ve thought “No it wasn’t. It was complete fucking dog egg.” To be a good judge you have to know the art properly and be honest.
How do you judge a battle? Do you have a system?
I don’t have a system, I just trust my instincts and ability to judge it as a whole. I look for delivery, wordplay, projection, cadence, flow, crowd control, how played out the rhyme schemes are etc. etc. – all the components of being a rapper. I think if a rapper can drop a verse that sounds as if it just happened to rhyme, like the schemes are almost secondary, that is far more impressive to me. If the punches/wordplay/etc. are all of a high standard, someone who has mastered their craft just sounds natural when rhyming. It’s not about stringing as many multi-syllabics or internal rhyme schemes together as possible – it’s about sounding natural and seamless, while still being brutal/impacting. Bender and Illmac are good examples of that school of battler.
All other things being equal, what wins: content or delivery?
I think delivery, not because it’s more important, but because you can make average bars sound dope with character/delivery but no level of writing can save a poor performance. I think content is something I focus on as a judge but performance is something you can’t ignore.
What should fans know about judging?
That as much as it may bruise the ego, if the judges are deemed worthy, they know more about the art form than you. As a fan your roll is equally (if not more) important, but your opinion isn’t valid unless you fully understand the inner workings. Perhaps valid isn’t the correct word but your opinion isn’t influential, and rightly so. Most punters just want to be entertained, but you have to respect that there’s a deeper level than mere facile entertainment. We all love a mum or dick joke but unless it’s written properly, it’s a cheap tactic. I don’t believe I’m bars-over-jokes, or jokes-over-bars – I also don’t care about played-out slogans or in-jokes. I personally judge a battle on writing ability and performance, and if a judge can explain his reasoning, whether you agree with him or not, he has grounding for his decision. Lastly, it really doesn’t matter, people have rent to pay and real lives to live. If a bad decision is made, unless it’s deliberate or because of the judges being wrongly appointed, move on.
When KOTD put out the call for their “So You Think You Can Judge” contest, one entrant stood out from the rest. Tasha “Baby T” Allen is a rapper and battle rap enthusiast from Atlanta, Georgia and starts showing up in all corners of the battle world once you start looking for her.
Here’s her take on judging:
I personally judge a battle based on who has the whole package. Lyrics, performance, and how well put together they are. What people don’t realize is that battles come off differently on YouTube than in person. If you’re in the ring, you can feel the battlers’ presence and really see how the crowd reacts to certain bars and schemes. You can feel the energy in the building and you may view a battle differently from seeing it in the ring and watching it on YouTube.
Being the winner of the King Of The Dot’s “So You Think You Can Judge” competition, I was able to judge at World Domination 3 and was also asked to judge at Blackout 3. Out of the seven battles I’ve judged, the two “controversial” ones were Dirtbag Dan/Deffinition and Uno Lavoz/Madness. Both were split decisions and I received a lot of flack, but I stand by my decisions and don’t have any regrets. I’ve been watching battles for years and in the past year, I’ve been to Vendetta, World Domination 3, Flatline 2 and Blackout 3. Every time I’ve judged a battle, I’ve ALWAYS been in the majority. So if people hate me for my decisions, keep on hating but keep in mind, there were always two, three, or four people who came to the same conclusion. It is what it is.
With that being said, I think battles shouldn’t be judged (except for tournaments) because people are quick to accuse judges of robbing someone purposely or favoritism. It gets more interesting if you let the fans debate on who they thought won. Also, a battler is more likely to promote a battle that hasn’t been judged than one they lost.
What fans should know is to not take things too seriously. An opinion is exactly that. No one can tell you if your opinion is right or wrong because it’s what YOU feel. You’d be surprised at the amount of battlers who don’t care if they won or lost. If you plan on judging a battle, don’t be surprised to get hate tweets, mail, facebook messages, carrier pigeons, whatever. As Knamelis once told me, it comes with the territory. So be prepared.
TOBB: Should all battles be judged?
Knamelis: It’s inevitable that people are going to judge battles, whether or not it’s done through traditional avenues.
It really depends what the performers are looking to get out of the battle. When you’re using battling strictly as a promotional tool and it’s just to showcase your skills, judging isn’t necessary. It tends to polarize the audience. Videos get more dislikes when they’re judged. When you don’t like the decision you’re a lot more vocal than when you agree with it. Especially a community that is already, by nature, vocal and confrontational.
Obviously if there’s a championship or a tournament then you’re going to need judging.
What’s different about judging battle rap compared to other competitions?
Battle rap is interesting because there are very few other competitions that happen the same way. That is to say, where the end result is meant for an online audience. You have artists who have to perform to a live audience, as well as to an Internet audience. So already there’s a division of attention and focus from the artist’s perspective in terms of who you’re trying to cater your performance to.
And when you add judges, that’s a third, completely separate audience. To some extent the Internet audience acts as judges themselves. So you have to perform for the live judges, the live audience and also the people viewing it online who will inevitably judge it. I understand not wanting battles to be judged. It’s easier when a loss isn’t called a loss and it can be debated in the annals of YouTube for the rest of time.
What do you think makes a good judge?
It’s good to be articulate, charismatic and entertaining when giving your judgment but you also have to explain your perspective as precisely and objectively as possible. You can’t factor in previous experiences with the rappers, whether personal of just from having seen them battle online.
You need to be able to ignore the audience because sometimes they’ll be swayed by something that’s not completely relevant. You have to build a vocabulary for rap so you can pick up the nuances and the subtle references.
Battle rap is a very incestuous community. Being able to catch an inside joke is part of what appeals to people. As a judge you should know what’s going on in terms of the plot lines that are playing themselves out within the community.
How exactly does the Knamelis Judging System™ work?
Originally it was a tongue-in-cheek, slightly sarcastic spin on some of the judges who take themselves too seriously. And like so many good jokes it turned into reality. The original idea was to make judging as clear and objective as possible.
I’ve been watching battles for a long time and I always have a sense of who won or lost. I don’t do a punchline count or judge the best line. It’s really about momentum. Who’s capturing the energy better and making a more compelling argument that the other guy is a piece of shit?
It’s tough to justify your choice based on momentum though because that’s the one thing that doesn’t translate to the video.
Right, exactly. I’ve judged some battles for Don’t Flop and had to do it on footage and it’s very different.
So the Knamelis judging system has three commandments:
Score each round. Ten points to the winner and between six and nine points to the loser. That way, someone can edge two rounds very slightly and then get slaughtered in one round and lose the battle. I’ve seen a lot like that and that’s why the two-rounds-to-one thing doesn’t work because not all rounds are won by the same amount.
The second step is that when I judge I try to remember a few really good lines in my head. I still make those judgments based on energy, but I like to be able to quote lines to justify it. I write down the standout lines so that I don’t have to remember them. There’s lots of times where I feel like it’s a tie and I’ll go to the lyrics and see which rapper has the best line in each round.
The third thing is to only have one drink per hour. Obviously if you’re getting shitfaced you’re not going to be able to judge properly. Have some drinks, have fun, get into the energy of the event. But keep it civil. All good things in moderation.
How do you judge a battle like J-Pro vs Sun Tzu? When I saw it live I thought it was a clear victory for J-Pro, but now that I’ve watched it a few times I’m catching a lot more content from Sun Tzu that I didn’t appreciate the first time. Maybe that comes from a lacklustre delivery, or maybe it’s that rappers are penalized for bringing sophisticated content.
To me, if you put a constraint on artistic expression it leads to better results. One of the rules of the battle rap format we have today is that you’re performing to be judged by someone who’s seeing it once. That’s just a constraint that as a writer you need to consider. Sure, it works if you get the best judges in the world, and I tend to think I’m a very advanced listener and can catch subtle references/double entendres – but there’s lots of stuff I don’t see until the second or third time myself, which is awesome. Write that kind of content into your rounds if you want to, but that’s not going to win a battle. If battles were based on four viewings, it would be very different.
I’ve seen guys who had better material lose because their opponents won the crowd over. It’s not that they got robbed or that “the judges were biased” – it’s because they performed shitty when the audience wasn’t on their side. These are all things that are environmental to the medium of battle rap. As a writer you need to consider these things and work with them.
It’s a lot more interesting to make something that’s compelling on first glance and also on tenth glance. There’s been very few artists who’ve been able to do it over the years – candy to the idiots and a book to the educated. Being able to operate on all those levels is a fine balance.
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