Battle rap has come a long way since the freestyle era. Battlers used to rhyme in short bursts over a beat, spontaneously crafting insults about their opponent. Now, the scene has shifted to a pre-written format, where MCs spend weeks crafting intricate lyrics and spit them for an online audience that will analyze their every word. But with every step of the scene’s evolution, one name has remained constant: The Saurus. Ahead of Blackout 4, we had the homie KBomb speak with the Monterey, California-based rapper about the changes he’s witnessed in his 10 years of battling and his thoughts on where the scene is headed next.
When you first started battling, was it still mostly freestyling that people were doing? Or were people writing for battles?
I would say when I first got into the scene, the majority of the content was definitely freestyle. And I know that this is going to upset people when I say this, but the line down the middle at the point where I came up in the scene, of who was freestyling and who was writing for freestyle battles, was pretty much a coastal division. You had the West Coast dudes who had way too much pride to write for freestyle battles because they knew they would get called out for it, and then you had the East Coast definition of a “freestyle,” from KRS-One or whatever, about how a freestyle is any piece whether written or off the top of the head that no one’s heard before. Which, to me, is kind of a ridiculous definition of what a freestyle is.
When you first started out, did you have any idea that battling would turn into what it is now?
Yes and no. I knew there was potential for battling to reach a global scale or even like a mainstream scale if you will, but it definitely had to be presented right. 8 Mile brought real mainstream attention to it and that was a pretty big defining moment in having confidence that battling was something that could be done on a larger scale. I definitely think that, starting pretty early on, I had an idea that it could grow. I didn’t, however, think freestyling could be the format that it could live forever through.
When the transition from freestyling to written battling was happening, how did you and other battlers perceive that shift?
I was more optimistic about it than a lot of people were. A lot of people were skeptical about it: the idea of people writing three full rounds for battles, but I was looking at it from a more broad perspective. It totally levels the playing field tenfold, and you’re also inviting in such a larger talent pool of people who rap. There are so few people who can freestyle well, and I’ve always understood that, and that’s why most of the major [freestyle] events had the same people in their Final 8 or Final 4. I knew that that wouldn’t last forever, so when the written format was introduced, I was big on it, just because I knew that it was something that would be good for the longevity of the scene, and it would encourage people who are incredible writers and rappers and who have all the presence of mind to be a great battler, it’s just they don’t have the freestyle switch that so few people have to begin with. This way, the written format is offering endless possibilities for matchups, for literally being able to present it on an even, global scale.
Do you think there was resentment from the people who were so good at freestyling, when this written era came about, that they thought it was being watered down by all these other people joining?
I think that might’ve been a possibility, there were a lot of purists in the freestyle battle scene, who for X amount of years, had it in their head that this is the way that a battle is done – the raw, organic feel of it being live and in the moment, and responding to each and every line that the other person has, you know, through having shorter rounds and whatnot, so you’re able to do it. But I don’t think those people were looking at it on a broad enough scale, really.
So looking at the written era of battling as a whole, how do you think it has evolved over time?
The evolution now is really interesting; everybody’s content is at such a high level right now. When the written era was first introduced, there was definitely still kind of an immature, sort of giggly type of [aspect] to it. People reacted to a lot weaker stuff in the beginning. I mean having to freestyle great lines is so hard, and then having to write them sounds like it’s going to be a lot easier, but a cappella is tough too: you’re basically being a stand-up comedian and you have to make the audience react. And I think the crowd was a little more eager to react early because of what they were used to before, and since then, like the way it’s evolved, people get away with a lot less filler. I mean, they’re still getting away with terrible antics now, but I think there’s a higher demand for great content.
Looking at the last couple years of the written scene, there have been a lot of trends that have come and gone, such as using personals, associative word play, schemes, etc. How do you think these different trends have affected battling as a whole?
The trends have their pros and cons. The con is definitely that people beat them to death, and that you get a lot of people who are deliberately going outside of what they’re comfortable with to try to do what they think is cool at the time, and essentially, that’s not cool in itself. The reason any given battler is liked for whatever reason, is because he is himself, and that’s why their fans engage with them. But when some people try to do things that are outside the norm for them, and it comes off in an uncomfortable way, I think that’s definitely the con to it. But the pros are that the audience likes it and eats it up. It definitely brings a new element of thinking into the process. I definitely don’t think it’s a negative thing for these types of trends to be taking place. I just think maybe they get a little overdone.
What would you say the current trends in battling are?
It feels to me like everybody is searching for a gimmick. We’re definitely experiencing the highest point of this wrestling vibe that has come along with battling. It’s gotten a lot more theatrical and it seems like people are more worried about what their opponent is going to do during the battle than what they’re going to say. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
If you had to speculate, what would you say the future trends of battling are going to be?
It’s tough to tell. I hope it doesn’t become this giant, theatrical showcase where everybody is trying to out-Daylyt each other. That’s absurd to me. I mean Day is his own character, and that’s part of his persona, and I’m ok with that. Even he goes a little far at times, and he knows it. But you have too many people that are seeing what he’s doing and seeing the attention that it’s getting, and trying to create that attention for themselves. I hope that it doesn’t go in that direction.
The scene seems pretty tense right now. It seems like people are a little more on edge than they’ve been in years past. I really hope that there isn’t a trend for the coming year, and that people just focus on solid content. Honestly, I wish I could answer what I think it was going to be but I was genuinely wondering the same thing the other day.
What are your thoughts on the future of battling? Do you see it lasting, and if so, how will it continue to evolve?
I do see it lasting. I think the tension needs to be cut down a little bit, and people need to take themselves a little less seriously, because we don’t need fights and shit like that being attached to the scene. But as long as that subsides, I don’t see any reason for the momentum to slow itself. It’s only going to keep building because now that it’s getting mainstream attention – you’re getting celebrities and athletes who are actively following the scene. That’ll help encourage new fans, but will also encourage new battlers to get involved. And right now, there’s such a good group of so many elite MCs for these kids to look up to and be influenced by, and that’s such a huge advantage.
It’s only a matter of time before something comes along on a similar plateau to the Smack/BET Freestyle Friday stuff. I feel like something similar to that is on the brink, but at a more consistent level, not just some one-time tournament. I could see a syndicated show taking place as long as it’s on an uncensored network so they don’t have to compromise the material. Something like that feels like the next step to me, I mean, it’s getting attention from all the right places, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to bring it to that next platform.
Do you have any predictions for 2014?
The way King of the Dot is starting off 2014 is incredible. And, the thing that I like about [Blackout 4] is like it’s literally the best line up I’ve ever heard of. Organik is a very driven guy, and he takes a lot of pride in his company and in his work, and him starting the year like this should honestly be a scary thing to opposing leagues, because that means he is fully intending to top this card this year. That’s just how the guy operates – he’s always thinking bigger and he works his ass off. I respect the hell out of that.
I think you might see, in 2014, a lot of the so-called up-and-coming dudes definitely hit the top tier. There’s so much mid-tier talent, and these dudes are so good and could beat any big name on the right day. It’s just about getting them the right opportunity, so I really think you’re going to see a lot of dudes make the jump from being considered a mid-level dude to being considered elite.
Any last thoughts or comments?
No Gamble, No Future, my new EP, will be coming out the first quarter of 2014, hopefully it’ll be finished before Blackout, if not, it’ll be out very shortly after that.