In his August 2012 URL/Smack battle with veteran Loaded Lux, the upstart Calicoe rationalizes his tacit refusal to engage in a competition of poetic guile by contrasting the “real rap” of “gun bars” against the supposed effeminacy and whimsy of “metaphors.” Calicoe further implies that his authenticity and superiority is cemented by his incarcerated father’s known association with the Black Mafia Family criminal organization. The confrontation between the youthful challenger and the elder statesman is a battle rap archetype. Calicoe’s atavistic nihilism, however, is a new and different form of rhetoric that militates against any aesthetic judgement as it desperately mines glorified outlaw cliches.
In the mid-’80s the new jacks theorized their ambitions as progressive artistic missions.1 KRS-One’s annoyance that MC Shan’s airwave dominance was engineered by reigning deejay Mr. Magic ignited the Boogie Down Productions/Juice crew inter-boro rivalry, encapsulated in the scathing “The Bridge Is Over.”2 On “Ego Trippin'”3 Ultramagnetic MCs, taking their cue from KRS-One’s lyrical dismissal of laurel-sitting “kings,” mocked RUN DMC’s catchy cadences as lowest common denominator pandering.4 Even rivalries that appeared to center on personality clashes were understood to be contests of skilled performance.
Roxanne Shante insinuated herself into the answer record battle royale spawned by UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” and didn’t shy away from slandering their rapping abilities.5 LL Cool J warred with Kool Moe Dee for years6 and neither combatant deviated from portraying himself as the superior technician and artist. Calicoe’s anti-intellectualism would have been illegible in those days; Kool Moe Dee dethroned Busy Bee by convincingly challenging the idea that showmanship trumped verbal prowess.7 By the late ‘80s it was presumed that face to face rap battles, whether occurring on the street or at industry events, assisted in the larger communal project of setting the bar for bars ever higher.8
Lord Finesse’s legendary 1989 confrontation with Percee P was a collision of two distinct styles,9 but nobody seriously suggests that either rapper’s virtuosity was a liability. Until recently, the idea that a rapper could win a battle or beef by merely claiming street cred or toughness was considered farcical. Hip-hop’s global expansion through the ‘90s and ‘00s cyclically stoked interest in reviving hip-hop’s “rawest” competitive trends. Through YouTube we can now review epic battles of all kinds, from Jay-Z’s pre-record deal duel with DMX in a Bronx pool hall, to Juice and Supernatural’s hotly contested freestyled joust, to Saafir’s inspired on-air mockery of Souls of Mischief, to Cassidy’s precise takedown of Freeway.
We can also pore over the footage from the modern acapella battle circuits that include Smack/URL. Dripping as they are with physical threats, these contests are usually debated on the perceived merits of the performances. Calicoe’s reification of literalism, while seemingly orphaned, is probably pieced together from past notions of authenticity that are gradually creeping into the increasingly mainstream battle culture: the claims of sympathetic critics in the ‘90s that the hyper-realistic, unapologetically violent music denigrated as “gangsta” by anti-rap pundits was actually “reality rap” reportage; the rise of artists who billed themselves as true-to-life drug dealers laundering their profits or going “legit” by way of selling music; and the pathological conflation of rap industry success with organized criminality.10
Loaded Lux’s defense of rap as an enlightening art form steeped in tradition can be traced to a series of records in the mid-90s that challenged unreflectively violent claims to authenticity: Jeru The Damaja’s “Come Clean” instructs rappers to “Leave your nines at home and bring your skills to the battle”; O.C.’s “Time’s Up” chastises “non-conceptual, non-exceptional” hacks whose subject matter was either “crime-related or sexual” but little else; Blahzay Blahzay’s “Danger” fumes over theatrical thuggery in the form of “Timbs and blunts on Broadway”; and KRS-One’s “Rappaz R.N. Dainja,” which obscures the reality that rap rivalries are marketing tools, states plainly that “any MC can battle for glory / but to kick a dope rhyme to wake up your people’s another story.”
Armed with this set of assumptions, which are just as much a part of hip hop culture’s commonsense folk wisdom as the idea that violent lyrics represent an undeniable truth, Loaded Lux regales the crowd with a well-rehearsed litany of theatrical tricks, complete with a costume, props, and a supporting cast. He assumes the role of a fiery preacher, and correctly sensing that the combination of Calicoe’s nihilism and basic rhymes could not survive righteously indignant scrutiny, he goes to work. Loaded Lux checks Calicoe’s ascendance and its attendant expectation that fans simply suspend judgement and submit to an ahistorical collapsing of all aesthetic distinctions.11
To disparage Calicoe effectively, Loaded Lux must link Calicoe’s shortcomings to cycles of intrinsic familial dysfunction, implicitly presuming criminality and incarceration to be inevitable outcomes, even under more egalitarian social arrangements. This is a gesture that swings too close to racial fatalism and undermines Loaded Lux’s initial critique of outlaw behavior as the byproduct of inequities that are exacerbated by capitalism. Drawing from tradition, Loaded Lux takes issue with Calicoe’s promotion of racist notions of black laziness and anti-intellectualism. However, the only solution he offers is salvation through the uncritical adoption of the Protestant work ethic, to give Calicoe “that work.”
A video of Loaded Lux performing the infamous missing “second verse”12 of the battle confirms that his ideology is market-friendly. Loaded Lux’s denunciations of Calicoe revolve around ideas of formal respectability, marketability; the attempt to save a “youngin” from “his demise” is an attempt to groom him into a more respectable professional.13 If we are to believe that Calicoe’s “gun bar” fixation is poignant in light of inner-city youth violence, than we cannot divorce Loaded Lux’s paternal, moralizing mission from bipartisan blame-the-victim screed,14 the kind of unenlightened culture war agitprop that rappers used to view as pure bullshit.
- I am not suggesting that these artists did not also view their attempts to unseat those before them as competitive business moves. On the contrary, we can read these beefs as being informed by a desire to compete in a very limited market; if such a desire truly conflicts with a notion of communal uplift, these artists did not seem to mind the contradiction. [↩]
- In retrospect, “The Bridge Is Over” is a somewhat juvenile and intentionally misleading attack on MC Shan. Shan wasn’t just some hack rapper, even if his popularity was due in part to his associations. However, KRS-One’s displeasure with Shan’s undisputed reign is derived in part from a spirit of verbal competition, hence his use of a Jamaican patois-inspired “toasting” style on much of “The Bridge Is Over.” [↩]
- One reason “Ego Trippin'” sounds so powerful and forward thinking is that it showcases pioneering production styles made possible by Ced Gee’s collaboration with the late Paul C, in addition to introducing the world to Kool Keith’s unorthodox, innovative rhyme style. [↩]
- Interestingly, Calicoe’s attempt to paint Loaded Lux as an out of touch egghead includes a claim that Loaded Lux’s “wordplay” sounds like “nursery rhymes,” implying that they are too fanciful to be “real,” while Kool Keith’s attack on Run-DMC’s actual incorporation of nursery rhymes was a dismissal of poetic simplicity. [↩]
- “Roxanne’s Revenge,” recorded in Marley Marl’s parents’ living room in Queensbridge Houses, rivalled even “The Bridge Is Over” in terms of its adversarial guerilla tactics. [↩]
- Kool Moe Dee’s breakdown of the initials “LL” in “Let’s Go” is probably the highlight of this feud. [↩]
- Check out the audio of this pivotal 1981 battle. [↩]
- I challenge anyone to watch excerpts of Freshco’s performance at the 1990 New Music Seminar MC Battle and attempt to claim that the battle culture was not centered around a competitive drive towards complexity and perfection. Again, this doesn’t mean that a penchant for battling wasn’t seen as a marketable commodity; Freshco and Miz, after all, were rewarded with a record deal as a group for winning their respective MC and DJ championships. [↩]
- The extant footage of the battle beautifully captures the attempts of both rappers to wow the street audience with cutting edge rhyme schemes and flows. [↩]
- Perhaps best personified today by Rick Ross, who has run afoul of the same BMF organization to which Calicoe claims affiliation. [↩]
- Calicoe isn’t entirely crazy, though, he’s on to something in development. Smack?URL’s battles are typically unjudged (though unofficial polls are taken and posted on the website) the idea being that the viewer can debate the matches ad infinitum. The viewer and his experience is privileged, even pedestalized. [↩]
- Admittedly, this verse is quite entertaining and I imagine Calicoe would have to have climbed in the casket if Loaded Lux had managed to get it out on stage. [↩]
- Not surprisingly, Loaded Lux’s invocation of the Civil Rights pantheon in the battle reflects the banal idea that the pursuit of equality in the juridical and political realms was made possible not by mass movements and practical politics, but by extraordinary, “great” men and women of History being themselves. [↩]
- Barack Obama’s explicit attacks on poor Black families as the purveyors of social decay and Mitt Romney’s claims that single-mother households are a causative factor for gun violence come immediately to mind as examples from the past year. Indeed, Loaded Lux pulls every possible rabbit out of his hat: he does the Tupac “Keep Your Head Up” routine and rhapsodizes about Calicoe’s saintly single mother but insists that her parenting is forever burdened by the absence of a working father figure. [↩]