Having previously only been exposed to the stereotypes of rap, my attendance at the sixth Badmouth Battles night at Glasgow’s ABC2 meant a venture into the unknown. As a serial gig-goer of all things indie, rock and pop, this was so far out my comfort zone it should have come with a boundary charge, but I embraced the spirit of musical togetherness, settled with my £1.50 can of Carling and joined the raucous crowd.
The first head-to-head between Kid Robotik and Scott Earley – the only Scottish pairing of the evening – pleasantly obliterated my preconceived notions of what constituted a rap battle. There was no freckly boy from Pollokshields with his bum mushrooming out his jeans mentioning ghettos and hos (this was my greatest fear, the word “ho” in an aggressive context, in a Glaswegian accent… imagine).
What I witnessed instead were two young guys embracing the framework of working-class Scottish life in colloquial dialogue, transforming their patter into rhyme and reason. Delivered with style and panache it made for an engrossing spectacle. It was brutal, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny – often all three simultaneously. I was absorbed.
After this came the first of five Scottish v English battles, each consisting of alternate rounds of 90 seconds, three per rapper, allowing ample time for poetic decimations of character and suitably barbed rebuttals. In front of a rowdy audience which was partisan but fair, Edinburgh’s Mr Jinx attempted to intimidate his rival: “Welcome to Glasgow, home of the hard cunt. Where are you from? London? What do you fight with? Handguns?” I was surprised by how quickly the content interchanged from the monotonous “Yer maw”-themed verbal jousting to exceptionally smart wordplay with boxcutter-sharp political and pop culture references.
Although the Badmouth Battles are filmed for YouTube consumption, none of the MCs held microphones (I assume to preserve the authenticity of rap battle’s street origins), thereby demanding the undivided attention of the paying public and forcing those on stage to be capable showmen, with each individual imposing his own technique. Some went toe-to-toe, spitting venom in the face of their adversary; others tried to win over the crowd by addressing them rather than their rival; one rapper (Wee D) was memorable because he SHOUTED EVERY SINGLE WORD.
I became invested in the action, subconsciously supporting the opponent with the best quips and superlative delivery. Improvised lines in particular were greeted with audible appreciation, although only the most nimble and skilful even attempted freestyle rap. Atmosphere both favoured and belittled the competitors. I particularly liked this element. We’ve all been at gigs where it’s been just ‘alright’ or you’ve come away saying, ‘The band played well but the crowd could have been better’. Here, the sound of a poor performance is an earth-shattering silence.
Gasp, who runs Badmouth Battles and recently won the Best Hip Hop award at this year’s SAMAs, discharged a devastating headlining display in his duel. His Mancunian opponent Chronicle, who has close links with the hugely popular Don’t Flop UK rap battle league, had no answer to Gasp’s incredibly creative finale in which he executed every one of his put-downs around the title of a different TV show, from Shameless to Whose Line Is It Anyway? to How I Met Your Mother.
However, at times, the explicit and prevalent use of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitic references as a tool for crude denigration made me a bit uneasy. While it has to be said that not all of the dozen rappers strayed into this territory, it was a common feature of the night and perhaps partially explains why women tend to be vastly outnumbered at rap battle nights, both on stage and off it. What was most disappointing is that such clichéd material undermined the otherwise inspiring talent and imagination of these artists. Those who most thrilled the crowd found ways of beating their opponents without resorting to tired stereotype.
One of the live music guests at Badmouth Battles #6 was Loki aka Darren Garvey, a respected member of the Scottish hip hop scene. He has actively promoted the genre in local communities, participating in various schools projects. Describing himself as a “socially conscious wordsmith”, he takes his responsibility seriously and is courageously vocal about the need for rap battle to move away from manifesting itself in obscene, discriminatory terms.
After judging the Word War rap battle final at Holy Cross High School in Hamilton, he said: “This project shows a deeper understanding of the potential for battle rap as a gateway to language. If I was to go and try to battle the idea of battle rap as it is I would get booed off stage because the audience just want to see blood, they just want to hear vulgarity. That’s fine if you can be creative but battle rap needs to change and it has to start somewhere. And it’s started here. So you’ve actually given me the confidence to go back out and battle the way I want to battle.”
The man behind that school project was Peter Kelly, perhaps better known to Scottish music fans as acoustic troubadour Beerjacket. He might seem an unlikely champion of rap battle but, like myself, he is a music lover and language geek. A high-school teacher by day, he appreciates the limitless possibilities of linguistics and decided to explore its use in rap as a means of education for his second-year pupils.
“I wanted to approach traditional aspects of English – poetry and debate – from a different perspective and repackage them in a way that young people would be more likely to connect with,” says Peter. “Battle rap really appeals to me as it isn’t straightforwardly either of the things implied in the name. It’s much more about MCs raising each other’s game than just winning, and it’s a lot more than just rap.
“At its best, the competitive use of poetic techniques and construction of extended metaphor is incredibly sophisticated. I wanted to bring that into the classroom and show young people – especially those who believed they were not good at English – that this is a legitimate access point to a high level of creative literary thinking. Without doubt, my rap battle project is the most successful thing I’ve ever done as a teacher.”