It’s easy to sit comfortably in a darkened movie theatre or stand anonymously in a sea of fans and watch two emcees go at each other via hip hop’s vicious wordplay known as the battle rap and think that anybody could do it. But there’s more to it than just being able to spit insults at someone, make those insults poetic, and then meld it with a DJ’s beat. It takes real talent and like most art forms, the best rappers make it look so easy.
Hip hop historians trace the birth of the freestyle battle rap to its roots somewhere around New York or on the East Coast circa the late ‘70s. Until early in the 21st century, battle rap remained in the underground solely as a proving ground for up and coming emcees trying to land a record deal with a major label. Then the mainstream blockbuster and Grammy-winning 8 Mile came along and ever since Eminem’s semi-autobiographical character B-Rabbit deftly won over the crowd at the fictionalized Shelter, in 2003, mainstream American culture and young hip hop fans have found new inspiration in an otherwise underground art form. Toss in the introduction of BET’s 106 & Park and Nick Cannon’s Wild N’ Out and you now have another marketable aspect of hip hop.
With Hip Hop Life it’s all about the battle rap. More specifically, its Detroit’s best rappers going head-to-head with Houston’s top rhyme slingers. Even without the countless lyrical references by the rappers themselves, it’s almost impossible not to compare the Hip Hop Life’s battle raps to what was depicted so perfectly by 8 Mile’s director Curtis Hanson and expertly portrayed by Eminem. But as I watched the next young crop of stars of the featured Detroit and Houston rap scene and current Dirty South rap giants Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, I fought to find the reason why what I was watching lacked the same galvanizing and inspiring power of the bio-fictionalized 8 Mile.
Was it the fact that there was a “Rocky Balboa meets hip hop” story infused within the intense life or death battle raps depicted? While watching Hip Hop Life all I felt was a depressing and disappointing void brought on by the hollow battles of bling and egocentric name calling and flat phallic punch lines.
So I thought some more about what makes an emcee better than another. Are there important elements that an emcee must have or use during a battle rap? Yes. When an emcee successfully uses metaphors, set ups, and the aforementioned punchlines in a way that both connects with the crowd and, most importantly, humorously dismantles his or her opponent, then inspiration and entertainment occur. Some emcees are born with a natural talent for a flowing cadence but most, like Eminem, spend years honing their craft while traveling up through the ranks. An entire career can be based on how well an emcee can deliver these components and how creative he or she can be with them while all eyes are on him during that moment. A freestyle battle rapper can choke or triumph within 45-90 seconds.
Alas, there’s an immense lack of creativity from most of the performers Hip Hop Life —young upstarts and current kings alike. Hip hop comedian and G-Unit member T.K. Kirkland host the show and when things get personal between some of the younger rappers, he does manage to cool off the heated moment and drop some hilarious one liners, inducing giggles from the crowd, Jaddakis, MC Lyte and Freeway among them. Also interesting is when T. K. Kirkland has the battle rappers improvise while he pulls various merchandise—DVDs, shoes, bottled water, CDs—from a large blue bin and the young rapper is forced to meld his freestyle with whatever item Kirkland pulls from the bin while London-native DJ Sassy spins the background beats.
Showcased in between these battle raps are performances by Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, and Fat Joe. Unfortunately the performances are shackled by poor sound production and lack a passion and are bereft of an engaging cadence or original flow. The chorus of Rick Ross’ Hustlin might be as catchy as bumpin’ club rap anthems come, but after the fifth time you hear the chorus “Everyday I’m hustling / everyday I’m hustling” you start to wonder if Rick Ross is ever going to tell us a bit more about what it is like to hustle or even better, if he is able to go beyond the gangsta cliché and get into Ice Berg Slim territory.
Same goes for Young Jeezy’s performance. The mean tough guy swagger works for awhile, but again, after awhile, you want more from him. How about a little bit of descriptive anguish? What does it feel like to see a friend die or struggle to live in the ghetto? There’s a millions story’s to tell and gangsta rap needs more emcees who are willing to challenge the current, mostly negative perceptions of gangsta rap.
Genuineness and resonance is what’s missing from the performances and most of this DVD. Continuing with my comparison, what made 8 Mile so memorable are the myriad moments in which you see Eminem’s B-Rabbit character get pushed down, slapped around, until he make his triumphant rise to overcome the lyrical and physical bullying that eventually sets up his furious punch line where he admits his white trash roots and metaphorically destroys the members of the Free World and their fraud of a leader, Pappa Doc.
This DVD leans hard on the art of the battle rap in its extras, including a rap battle competition in which university students from each university grab the mic and go at each other, holding back neither racial, gender, or fashion putdowns in an otherwise lacking display of a hip hop based improvisational poetic lashing. The student emcees are for the most part amateurs in crafting workable metaphors. There are a few funny moments, but the battles are full of the clichéd sexual and phallic put downs one would expect. Was this supposed to be an 8 Mile recreation of the Shelter that turned out to be an amplified and recycled collegiate collection of “your mama” jokes that got barely a chuckle from the crowd? You can’t fault the effort of any of the emcees and I have to be honest there were a few moments where I did enjoy seeing a few of the contestants crumble under pressure, which also happens to be an important element, the guilty pleasure, of watching battle raps.
Of course, not every emcee has an amazing back story, but more interviews of the top emcees would add more drama to the actual feature. The hip hop battle rap history lesson “City vs City” mini-docudrama could have been a great opportunity to dive into the lives behind the up and coming rappers, but Hip Hop Life missed the chance. Again, what made 8 Mile such a galvanizing source of inspiration for the resurgence of the rap battle was the previous knowledge of the Eminem’s character. We knew the back story and if you didn’t know who Eminem was the movie summed it up so the final scenes had you cheering for him. If you don’t have that previous knowledge and the rapper doesn’t bring that into his battle rap, then there is little chance for audience connection.
Buried in the extras are interviews with New York rapper Fat Joe as he talks about his roots, why he raps and what he overcame, and with MC Lyte about her remembrance of the battle rap origins and present cultural influence. These two interviews should be the building blocks for Hip Hop Life next time around. And where other hip hop DVDs like Smack capture more of the artists and the beat on the street, Hip Hop Life just skims the surface.
The first track on the bonus mixtape, DJ Boss’s remix with TroublesSum & U.S.C. (Urban Click) “R U Ghetto”, is a brilliantly fresh and fun tongue-in-cheek parody of life in the ghetto. I’ll remember that song and others on the mixtape for much longer than I will Rick Ross’s club anthem and I plan to use “R U Ghetto’s” creative borrowing of the Farashaka melody for the chorus of “R U Ghetto / R U Ghetto / yes we are / yes we are…” to clear my pallate. I might even pop in 8 Mile, while I’m at it.