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Introducing Don't Flop: The Squared Circle Of UK Hip Hop And Grime (Battle Rap Feature)

Monday, 11 February 2013 Written by Jonny Rimmer
Introducing Don't Flop: The Squared Circle Of UK Hip Hop And Grime (Battle Rap Feature)

Jonathan Rimmer investigates how battle rap has become a movement in this country and how Don't Flop has changed the mainstream viewers' mindset.

In autumn 2011, Don't Flop rap battle league co-founder Rowan “Eurgh” Faife intuitively set up a match between two opponents with very little in common. In one corner you had middled aged Mark Grist in a suit: a former school teacher, “poet laureate of Peterborough” and poetry slam champion at the Edinburgh Fringe; and in the other, Mancunian teenager Bradley “Blizzard” Green, a grime MC wearing an oversized white tee and a snap-back cap. For a battle of wordplay, could there be a more appropriately poetic dichotomy? The video went viral on YouTube, gaining an impressive three million views over the past year, becoming the most viewed official battle video of all time and gaining thousands of new followers in the process. To top off what the media seemed to interpret as “poetic justice”, Grist was victorious – an example of the old lion showing the young cub a thing or two, or even an illustration that the infantile “wordplay” that these hooded youths engage is easy to replicate and easy to beat.

This narrative, perpetuated by disreputable tabloids, was utter bollocks of course, as evidenced by the sheer talent present on Don't Flop. The increasing popularity of the channel is not only notable for its shift in audience demographics, but also the entire format. How did such a marginalised, and somewhat vilified mode of entertainment, gain attention from media as diverse as the Daily Mail and Sky One's RudeTube? Were Britain's Joe Bloggs only hungry to see a cheeky youth dismantled by a wiser generation, or was there also genuine fascination at this exciting underground pursuit?

I'd advocate the latter just as strongly; after all, battling is no longer for a niche audience. If we look back at the origins of the art form, many would, quite naturally, immediately cite racial evolution as one key development in rap battles. A now global movement, battling began as a key element of hip hop in the Black ghettoes of America. Defeating an opponent in a verbal spar enforced a sense of pride for the individual's home town, region, gang or street. The landscape has naturally changed drastically over the years, but the sense of image and focus on “gun bars” in the USA has always been noticeably less prevalent in the British scene. The previous powerhouse in UK battling was the American company Jump Off, which had its own offshoot in Britain, and freestyle grime battles have also been a key feature of British urban music for a number of years. Don't Flop is a different beast altogether though, a more accessible and palatable type of battle league that has noticeably left its competitors in the shade.

Eurgh (Faife) himself acknowledges in an interview that today's British scene is more comedy-based. The mainstream does not want to see gang hatred or threats – they want to see jokes. Some might see this as a reflection of the British character, but for better or worse, battling has changed. The freestyle element of battling is generally absent in Don't Flop's written format, albeit a rapper can choose to freestyle in order to flip an opponent's line (or if they've simply forgotten their lines). Lyrics are prepared before the battle by each rapper following research and practice. The preparation is meticulous, but it is the performance and delivery of said lyrics that truly captivates the viewer. Mark Grist's “Mrs Green” scheme against Blizzard feels more like a sketch than a set of personal insults, but his delivery of this rigorous pre-meditated wordplay is partly what has made the video such a huge hit.

It is true that the eternal conflict of “Bars v Jokes” (i.e. technicality v pure comedy) may befuddle some viewers. Battling is a game of different styles, and some are easier to grasp than others: there is the fiercely multisyllabic style that the likes of Unanymous employ, battering opponents into submission with an onslaught of technicality (and some combative posturing); newer viewers, meanwhile, will be more inclined towards the more playful, punchline-orientated rappers such as Lunar C. What's good? What's bad? There are judges, and the competitive nature of the form means that controversies occur. But what makes a good battler? Just like rapping for a piece of music, flow, delivery, wordplay and structure are all fundamental. However there are more unique aspects: double entendre is popular, and clearer and more concise style is preferred – if you rhyme too fast and out-of-control you lose the crowd's attention. However, some, such as Yorkshire rapper Psychosis Holocaust, manage to impress crowds by being so breathless. What else? Climax, anti-climax, the ability to flip an opponent's line - you could go on.

In my recent review of M9's Magna Carta I touched on my belief that UK Hip Hop is beginning to compete on a global level. Though the music is still mostly bubbling in the underground, Don't Flop Entertainment is an example of British rappers reaching a level one could describe as world class. The likes of Shotty Horroh, Unanymous, Deffinition, Chris Leese, Soul and Don't Flop co-founders Eurgh and Cruger have all not only competed in North America, but beaten some of the most renowned battle MCs in the world. And these artists all have one key attribute in common – they're all utterly distinct from one another.

Don't Flop Entertainment. The title doesn't seem to be unconscious – after all, there is definitely a whiff of WWE to the various extravagant personalities that make up this battle league. So for newcomers, let's look at some of the big characters that make up this league:

A tubby Scouser whose win to loss ratio has been somewhat affected by his propensity to drink during battles. A former DF champion, he's armed with more jokes than your average stand-up comedian (“I'm so gangster, I once had a shit on a shark”). This battle with American Dirtbag Dan should sum up why.

Tony D
The current Don't Flop champion, and former associate of Lowkey's Poisonous Poets, Tony D is a hard hitting lyricist with well-structured bars and a sharp mind full of intuitive schemes. His battle with O'Shea is already a classic.

An awkward, skinny white boy who raps about being lazy and staying in bed on his tracks. Hardly Busta Rhymes. Regardless, Cruger might lay claim to being the most naturally talented battler in the league, purely for comedic timing and imagination.

A Russell Brand-esque character who manages to be butch, camp and hilarious all at once. Sure his set-ups are infamously basic, but his freestyle ability leaves crowds in stitches.

Lunar C
Lunar had a brief stint as the channel's golden boy, earning fame and notoriety for his “mum-joke” punchlines, and the inevitable teenage following that now worship him. If you can't appreciate his wit though, you're a more mature man than I.

Shotty Horroh
Of this selection, Shotty’s approach is probably most akin to the aggressive style that is common in American leagues. Shotty is a red-blooded Mancunian with an assertive posture and punchlines that are spat right in his opponent's face. See also Sensa and Chris Leese for such a style.

Naturally, this equilibrium has prompted complaints from some older battle heads that the aggressive nature of rap battling that I refer to has been lost in a sea of gimmicks and identities. Sure, you'll see the occasional faux-gangster assuring an audience that he'll decapitate the opponent's Gran, but the tone is generally much lighter when you realise that the two will be sharing a drink post-battle; or when you see a battler applaud or laugh at his opponent's lines. Hip Hop culture remains undeniably autonomous but there's still a real sense in this post-Eminem landscape that anybody can hop on the rap-wagon, presuming you know the lingo, your pen game is tight and you abide by the rules.

Rap music has never been so accessible to the general public, but Don't Flop have not dumbed down this particular accessory. The various different modes of battle emerging exemplify the progressive nature of today's scene. Take compliments battles for example, which entail being really, really nice about your opponent; grab-bag battles, where you pick out an item out of a bag and scheme about it through improvisation; there are also tag-team matches - perhaps we really should expect a rap royal rumble at some point.

YouTube has provided a much needed platform to showcase these developments, and battling is easier than ever to follow. The Don't Flop team upload virtually every battle filmed at an event, and the viewer doesn't even have to leave the comfort of his/her bed. Hip hop purists may perhaps scoff that something so sacred is now as instantly accessible as online pornography but the rules have changed. The spirit of hip hop is still present on the channel – cyphers and spontaneous battles in the street are a regular occurrence – but what was once a distinctly urban idea is now embraced by rappers from Norwich, Fife and Plymouth. And if they're having a laugh with it, why can't we?

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