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The Fierce, Flourishing World of Battle Rap

Battle rap is an art form and a sport, as well as an industry that has been slowly growing over the last decade. While there are proving grounds all over the country, New York is its epicenter.

On the eastern edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant — a Brooklyn neighborhood synonymous with hip-hop excellence — a tiny wellness center is tucked between a Pentecostal church and a real estate office. Inside its sterile, 800 or so square feet, there’s a wall of mirrors, stock photos of people performing various exercises and fluorescent lighting that makes the plastic plants in the corner look even more fake. On certain nights, one could be excused for thinking this is a waiting room and not what it actually is: a battleground.

Here, in this unassuming room, the Trap NY — one of several battle rap leagues based in New York City — hosts most of its events. If your only exposure to these face-offs is the climactic scene of “8 Mile,” this venue might seem underwhelming at first; it’s certainly less colorful than the steampunk underground arena where Eminem triumphed over Anthony Mackie.

But those tapped into today’s vibrant and multilayered battle rap ecosystem know that this modest gym is far more than a setting where wannabe rappers roast each other. Founded by Tyrell Reid, known as No Mercy, the Trap NY is a well-known institution where future stars of this culture are born.

“This is one of those places where you can make a statement with the right type of performance,” said Hero, 29, a rapper from Dallas. “It’s a place where you’ve got to prove you’re one of them guys that matter in battle rap.”

Battle rap is an art form and a sport, as well as an industry that has been slowly growing over the last decade. Leagues like the Ultimate Rap League (URL), King of the Dot and Rare Breed Entertainment have amassed large and devoted followings by presenting national events with some of the best battlers in the world. These organizations now pay top dollar to M.C.s who can keep their fans engaged — and prove themselves against the competition.

Today, hundreds of aspiring rappers are after the money and respect that come with being a top-tier battle rapper. For many, that journey starts in spots like the Trap NY. Hero is one of a host of rappers who fly halfway across the country just to rap at the wellness center. Almost none of them get paid. They come to the Trap because they know one good performance there can mean a chance to become a part of battle rap’s next generation of elites.

These battles often have a simple structure: three rounds in which two M.C.s try to out-rap each other with a cappella verses crafted specifically for their opponent. In the end, there’s usually no official victor. Half the fun for many viewers — both in person and online — is debating who won.

Competitions like these are one of the most foundational and time-honored traditions in hip-hop, a culture celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. While battle rap operates outside the machine of the hip-hop industry, organizations like the Ultimate Rap League are dedicated to bringing it to a wider audience. Founded in 2009, URL has accrued hundreds of millions of streams and sold out venues of 1,000-plus seats with its thrillingly produced events. Between ticket sales, ad revenue, pay-per-view broadcasts and app subscriptions, outfits like URL have taken the street art of battle rap and turned it into a legitimate business.

“This was a sport that didn’t really have the recognition nor the respect from hip-hop culture to the point where these M.C.s could get paid,” said Troy Mitchell, known as Smack, one of the founders and owners of URL. “Once we brought it from the streets and took it to venues, we started to create a business out of it, a business where we could actually pay M.C.s to do something that they love to do.”

The immense lyrical talent on URL’s roster has been key to its success. Unlike recording artists, battlers don’t have to worry about musical trends or chart data; hiring producers or booking studio time; TikTok virality or playlist placement. This frees them up to focus on intricate wordplay and detailed storytelling.

However, it also means that if their pen isn’t mighty enough to impress the excitable, often ruthless audience, there’s not much else they can do to win them over. With a crowded field of highly skilled M.C.s, this sport has achieved a standard of lyricism that many feel is missing from mainstream hip-hop today. As DNA, a well-known 31-year-old battler from Queens put it, “I can name on one hand how many people I think are as lyrically inclined as a battle rapper.”

This perhaps explains why big names in hip-hop are increasingly taking note. Drake has hosted and sponsored several URL events, and said at one of them that these rappers are “people that I’m obviously extremely inspired by, that motivate me when I’m writing.” URL’s “Homecoming” event, which sold out Irving Plaza in Manhattan this past November, attracted New York royalty including Busta Rhymes, Fabolous and Ghostface Killah as spectators. Remy Ma even started a battle rap league of her own, Chrome 23, with the goal of providing more opportunities for women in battle rap. The organization sold out New York’s Sony Hall in February with an event that included the finals of a $25,000 all-female tournament, a milestone in this male-dominated sport.

“There’s such a huge pay gap when it comes to men and women in battle rap,” Remy Ma — who got her start in these kinds of competitions — said in an interview, “and I feel like somebody who knows battle rap really needed to step in and give them a chance to even out the playing field.” (The $25,000 prize went to C3, a Queens native.)

AS THE AUDIENCE and respect for battle rap has grown, so has the money. Today, URL pays its biggest stars up to six figures, and many rappers now feel their talent is better compensated and more appreciated in battle rap than it would be in the recording industry.

According to DNA, a lot of the people in the recording business “have all the popularity in the world but then the deals that they have are terrible. Top battle rappers, we make more than a lot of recording artists get and we have the creative freedom of independent contractors.”

But in order to earn a spot in a league like URL, rappers must first cut their teeth in smaller, more humble arenas. And while battle rap has proving grounds all over the country, New York is its epicenter. Aspiring talent flocks to the city, hoping to get noticed via local leagues like the Trap NY, iBattle or WeGoHardTV. Their battles take place in rented-out gyms, galleries and clubhouses where audiences as small as a dozen crowd around unpaid talent in cramped semicircles.

What they lack in size or flash, though, they make up for in import. The people who run them are well-respected and highly connected in the world of battle rap, and bigger organizations like URL often look to them to scout their next stars. Today, many of battle rap’s biggest talents — like the hardened yet deeply human Eazy‌ the Block Captain or the Indian American rapper Real Sikh, known for his dizzying flow and wordplay — were groomed and discovered in places like the Trap NY.

“A lot of people sleep on the battles that happen here,” said Chris Dubbs, a 20-year-old rapper from New Jersey and one of ‌the Trap’s rising stars, “but naw, man, this is where you’re seeing the stars of tomorrow.”

Since founding the Trap NY in 2013, No Mercy, 35, hasn’t turned much of a profit. In fact, he usually loses money on his events. But for him, the point isn’t to create a successful business, it’s to nurture promising new M.C.s and give them tools to succeed. While rappers on the Trap may not find immediate fame or fortune, they will gain a mentor who can take their battle rap career to the next level if they’re willing to work hard and listen to feedback.

“We don’t want to sell people on the idea that if you do one battle over here, you’re going to be this huge star overnight,” No Mercy said. “No, expect that, for at least a year, you’re going to be grinding with us in order to elevate. Look at where you are now and see where you are within the next year; see if there hasn’t been a change.”

However, Alex Braga — known as Lexx Luthor, a Staten Island-based battle rapper and owner of iBattle — argues that institutions like his are far more than just a steppingstone. As URL gains more of a national profile, he believes small franchises are crucial for maintaining a sense of community and highlighting talent that may not be as traditionally marketable. (While the majority of URL’s stars are straight Black men, iBattle regularly hosts rappers of all races, religions, sexual orientations and genders. A recent battle featured a white Christian rapper facing off against a bisexual Jew.)

Lexx became a league owner about six years ago. His career as a battler was just beginning to take off when iBattle, a league he grew up performing in, started to decline. It was then that he realized how important places like these were to him.

“It just felt like the longer I stayed a battle rapper, the less and less there was of a community,” Lexx said. “So when iBattle went defunct and the original league owner couldn’t run it anymore because of health issues, I knew I couldn’t let it die.”

IT MAY BE confusing to hear battle rap called a community when events often involve rappers spraying insults, death threats and literal spit in their opponents’ faces. During one of the Trap’s events, Chris Dubbs rapped to Xcel, “Your death all over social media once I blast mags/Soon as I click that bro, It’s tic-tac-toe: y’all gonna see X on a hashtag.”

But look beneath the violent tenor of these battles and you’ll notice signs of deep camaraderie. Rappers will often nod in approval or even give a pat on the back when their competition lands a particularly good punchline; if someone starts forgetting what they wrote, their opponent might mutter words of encouragement; and when it’s all over, the rappers will, almost without fail, exchange congratulatory daps and embraces.

“It’s like boxing,” explained Cheeko, one of the owners of URL. “Boxers, they appreciate each other’s skill sets, they root for each other. You rarely see M.C.s that have a disdain for each other. It’s almost like a brotherhood.”

This mutual respect plays a big role in battle rap’s appeal. To many M.C.s, this culture offers a necessary but all-too-rare opportunity to express themselves in a way that is productive and safe.

“Battle rap is the only place where you can have two people get their frustration out, say what they don’t like about each other and then at the end of it shake hands,” said Xcel, 37, who got his start on the Trap and has since performed on battle rap’s biggest platforms. “It’s the only place in the world where a Crip can battle a Blood and nobody dies.”

There are many unifying forces in the battle rap community, but perhaps the strongest is a deep belief in the art form itself. As hip-hop continues to be a dominating force in popular culture, some in this world say battle rap could make a leap into the mainstream.

“Within the next 10 years, I guarantee you battle rappers are going to be household names the same way industry artists are household names,” said Dubbs, who is vying to become one of URL’s next big stars. “People are finally starting to take notice and it’s a beautiful thing. Get into it now so you can appreciate it while it’s still in its beginning stages.”

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