Illustration: Rikki Marr
“Hold it down!” The room falls silent as the last few mumbles die out, a sea of snapback hats pack themselves like sardines around a pair of wordsmiths who are ready to rip into each other with brutally crafted lyrics. Their eyes meet with deathly stares. They’re packing the heat of artistic flare. An arm is raised into the air and... “Your mum is such a slag”… They’re off.
After celebrating their fifth year of wordplay, rhyme schemes and put-downs, Don’t Flop are hitting up Nottingham for the second time this coming April. When they paid a visit to The Bodega three years ago it was a humble affair with less than 100 in attendance, but now they’re bigger than ever – selling out 1,000 capacity venues, nearing 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and consistently churning out jokes to make bellies ache.
Battle rap has always been controversial to an outsider; picking at subjects like race, religion, sexuality and sometimes even dead parents means it’s not for the fainthearted but for the most part it’s meant to be taken in jest. One minute fire is being spat a centimeter away from a bloke’s face and the next, they’re buying each other pints.
According to Eurgh, Don’t Flop’s co-founder, the ingredients for the best bars are “comedy, relevance, creativity and technical rhyme-schemes.” Each rapper’s persona is dissected and caricatured by their opponent’s attempts to wring them dry of all credibility, this coupled with the over-the-top braggadocio style of rap makes for some real strokes of genius at times.
“I’m not predictable at all. I’ll pull out a samurai sword... And kick you in the balls.” - Lunar C
“The width of that [tooth] gap is so odd, I am certain, that after every meal you floss with a curtain.” - Jai90
“When I say he’s boring, I’m not simply messing. I call him insomniac, ‘cause he’s not into-resting.” – Marlo
It all started back in 2008 when Eurgh and Cruger took it upon themselves to reignite the dangling scene left by JumpOff, an early UK street battle channel on YouTube. “We got Cruger’s video camera, a crowd in a hotel car park in Brighton, and the rest is history,” says Eurgh. “A two man team became four, which then became seven. Home video cameras became Canon 5Ds. Cruger editing low-quality footage until the early hours in his bedroom became a three-man editing team churning out high definition multi-angle videos in the YouTube creator space.”
The league has now built up a portfolio of the best battlers in the country as well as an impressive collection of videos, some of which turned viral. Mancunian emcee Blizzard famously battled English teacher Mark Grist in a hilarious duel of jokes and, more recently, satirically dubbed Mos Prob lay down his arms to propose to Rapunzel during a doubles match. It’s this kind of innovation along with eagle eye match-ups that have boosted Don’t Flop’s audience to a global reach online.
The lines are blurry between stand-up comedy and battle rap these days. With the growing focus on getting the crowd to laugh using clever jokes and showmanship rather than cutting through hearts with an expert ability to ride a beat, the gap between rapping and battling is widening. The mostly pre-written material, the introduction of props and the a cappella rounds all mean raised eyebrows among old school hip hop purists who see something far removed from the traditional art form, where a rapper’s ability to freestyle over a beat sets the standard.
The emerging changes have given birth to a new mode with tight, crystal clear wordplay and its popularity speaks volumes about what the fan-base wants to hear, but there’s still much debate about whether modern battlers have created their own sub-culture or whether the art form is evolving.
UK hip hop legend and master battler Chester P recently said in an interview with Don’t Flop: “When I watch battles with these rappers rapping to air, I can’t help thinking this is how Jimi Hendrix would feel watching some guy playing air guitar. Imagine it!”
On the flip side, Eurgh reckons it’s all part of development. “The reason we eliminate beats is because of vocal clarity. Battle rap is about knockout bars that get raucous crowd reactions. If you’re concentrating more on cramming together words to fit to a certain beat, your punchlines can get lost in the haze. Regardless, rappers who can battle a cappella while showing a clear grasp of flow and bar structure are the ones who go furthest.”
Crossing over from battling to recording tunes - and vice versa - has always been an artistic leap; the now beat-less battles mean some lyrically fluent folk struggle even more when it comes to combining their rhymes with a rhythm, yet Nottingham based emcees effortlessly transition. With contenders who’re monsters in the league and in the studio, it’ll be great to see Nottingham nail it down and show the world that we’re top tier all round.
One of Nottingham’s hardest grime emcees, Marvin’s shown his face in the Don’t Flop demo battles early on last year, mashing up Nathone with his gruesome rhyme schemes. “This pussyhole smokes bongs of sage while listening to Songs of Praise. Any shit you’ve got to say I advise you not to spray, I’ve got man in the building that’ll kick you out like they were one of Wonka’s mates.” He’s known more famously for warring in the grime clash league Words Are Weapons and destroying rhythms on channels like SBTV and JDZmedia. His expert flow gives him an edge to screw the faces and gun up the fingers of the softest of shites.
Continuing to blow up on the local music scene, you might’ve seen Bru-C jamming in The Afterdark Movement or heard about his upcoming solo EP KameHameHa. His sharp freestyles and crass disses have earned him much respect in the battling community, recently tearing apart Sniper-E this summer. “I’ll knock him out of his daydreams with more Notts hits than Jake Bugg, I don’t give a fuck about his size ‘cos I know just why his shape’s good, he’s got so hench ‘cos he’s on this weight ting while he’s waiting for his failed career to shape up.” Bru’s blend of hard work and natural talent is setting him up for a promising future as an artist and as a soul destroyer.
Read our interview with Don’t Flop’s Newcomer of the Year 2012 online from Tuesday 25 March, or catch it in full, glorious print in our latest issue.
Don't Flop website