SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The history of competitive insults goes back generations. In the United States, we trace it back to the dozens, a sort of verbal duel developed in the African-American community. Today, it's having a renaissance in the form of battle rap. Thanks to social media, local rap battle leagues have popped up all over the world in the last few years. New England Public Radio's Henry Epp takes us to a tournament in Holyoke, Mass.
HENRY EPP, BYLINE: In a large brick-walled room at the Waterfront Tavern, two rappers stand face-to-face in the middle of an excited crowd, mostly men in their 20s and 30s. The rappers don't have mics, and there's no DJ in sight. Petey Mitch, whose real name is Steven Daley, goes up against Blackademiks, real name Ibrahim Abdul-Rahman.
Petey Mitch lives in a fairly rural town, so Blackademiks goes after that with a literary reference.
IBRAHIM ABDUL-RAHMAN: (Rapping) Now you saying you from the streets? That's just a story he's telling. You talk to pigs. "Animal Farm." Your whole life is Orwellian. You got a problem with what I'm...
EPP: Blackademiks is a self-proclaimed nerd, so Petey Mitch comes back with a harsh attack.
STEVEN DALEY: I'm a bully, [expletive]. I kill dorks for sport. Matter of fact, where's my [expletive] book report?
EPP: During the second round of a tournament in the 413 Battle League, named for the area code in western Massachusetts, one of them will advance to the league semifinals in January.
Jason Weeks, one of the organizers, says the rappers are each given three two-minute long rounds to deliver their rhymes. The only other rule...
JASON WEEKS: Don't slap nobody (laughter). You know, the only thing we don't want is beef. We don't want any fights. You know, we leave it on the floor. You come here. You get your rhymes off and then you walk away and we go have a drink afterwards.
EPP: This league's events usually attract about 150 people. Tonight, there are visitors from as far away as Utah and Texas. They've heard about it online. Social media and YouTube videos are a huge part of rap battle culture these days. Joell Ortiz, an emcee from the New York rap group Slaughterhouse, says this kind of organization is relatively new.
JOELL ORTIZ: Back in the days, it was just like, yo, this guy wants to battle you. Like, all right, cool, tell him meet me here. Put the beat on. Now it's just way more intricate. Like, people are studying their opponent, preparing punch lines and metaphors and cadences.
EPP: Ortiz says he thinks local leagues started appearing around 2009 or '10. VerseTracker, one of the largest battle rap social networks, registers about 550 leagues around the world and over 16,000 rappers. And the importance of videos has altered the form. Ortiz says battles used to be mostly freestyle and before the Internet, it was easy to recycle rhymes. Now that's not as acceptable.
ORTIZ: Because the worst thing you want to see, like, when you're reading comments coming from your fans is like, yo, that was dope, but I heard that here, or yeah, yeah, you ripped that, but that's off of this song.
EPP: The rhymed insults can get pretty vicious. Back at the Waterfront Tavern, Julie Holden can attest. She's Petey Mitch's wife, and she's attended all of his battles since he started last year.
JULIE HOLDEN: When people think of battle rap and hear that my husband battle raps, they're like, wow, that's ridiculous. But it's really, like, this huge family that just makes fun of each other all the time. Nobody gets offended. and afterwards, everybody just sits around and drinks and laughs about it, and I love that.
DALEY: Your "Animal Farm" bar and that Orwellian...
ABDUL-RAHMAN: It's reachy (ph). When I was like Orwellian and it hit, I was like, thank you, God, people read books.
EPP: After the battle, Blackademiks and Petey Mitch are in the dirt parking lot next to the tavern. They're remarkably friendly and complimentary. The two emcees say battle rap is about much more than one-upmanship.
DALEY: It's a performance.
DALEY: That's all it is. It's a performance.
ABDUL-RAHMAN: It's performance art. That's what I tell people. It's performance art at the end of the day. I mean, like, I...
DALEY: We put stand-up comedy, rapping, you know, freestyling, a cappella, like, all that into one.
ABDUL-RAHMAN: It's so much. It's so much. It's so, so, so much.
DALEY: ...Into one.
ABDUL-RAHMAN: And it's all about having the good mix and knowing when to do what.
DALEY: Exactly. Yep, yep.
EPP: As for who won? Petey Mitch and Blackademiks are undecided.
DALEY: I felt your third round was your strongest. Like, I feel like you got it 2 to 1. I feel like...
ABDUL-RAHMAN: Fair enough, fair enough.
DALEY: ...Your third round was your strongest. But I heard, like, from five different people that I got the third round, which is crazy.
ABDUL-RAHMAN: Battle rap.
DALEY: Yeah, dude.
ABDUL-RAHMAN: Battle rap.
DALEY: It's just crazy to me.
EPP: A few weeks later, after the judges have reviewed the video of the battle, their decision comes out. Blackademiks won. He heads to the next round of the 413 Battle League tournament. The grand prize? $413.13.
For NPR News, I'm Henry Epp.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.