Sometimes rap battles in Omaha get so intense, it seems as if the rappers may stop talking and start throwing punches. But the founders of the Central Battle Association swear it's all for show.
Battle rap is a blend of poetry, hip-hop and theater. Competitors spend a month or more thinking up the best insults possible to hurl at their opponents. On the day of the battle, they must recite these raps but also respond off-the-cuff to their opponents' rhymes. It's a kind of insult poetry, performed a capella in front of a crowd.
Rappers from across the city meet up and recite raps to one another at The Hideout, tucked back in a plaza at 320 S. 72nd St.
To battle rap, you have to have “bars,” good lines or zingers. But you also have to put on a show. Rappers get in each other's faces and scream their rhymes.
“It's almost like a soap opera for some people,” said league co-founder Danny Che.
Rappers occasionally bring up props. During a battle between shooK on3 and D'Cypher, shooK sports a makeshift red beard to mock his opponent's facial hair. Other rappers incorporate props right on cue.
“Going against me is a hazard,” rapper Relyks spits. “I split plasma. I can rap faster than you and I have asthma.” Then, he pulls out his inhaler and takes a puff.
Che said you want to act out what you're saying. You have to keep people watching and keep them entertained. Otherwise, the crowd will start talking and it's all over.
Battle rapping is a way to isolate talent, said Michael Pointer, who performs as Saint Mic.
“You have no producers, you have no fans, you have no vocal coaches,” Pointer said. “This is really up to you to convince a crowd that you are more talented than the other person.”
The battle rap art form has been around almost as long as hip-hop. Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg and LL Cool J all spent some time in the battle ring. Eminem was picked up as a rapper because of his skill for battling.
But before Che and co-founder Fonzo started the Central Battle Association — the only battle rap league in Omaha — there was no local venue for it.
The two have always loved rap battles. Che has rapped for a while, and Fonzo, whose given name is Tom Alfonso, recently started rhyming, too. They decided to start their own league in 2012.
Their first battle in August 2012 featured eight rappers; since then the league has swelled to include nearly 20. Some of the league's most popular battles have more than 1,000 views on its YouTube channel. Some league rappers have gone on to compete in bigger rap battle leagues: Pointer headed to the Ultimate Rap League, which claims to be the world's most respected emcee battle arena. Other rappers have traveled across the country to compete.
A month before a battle, rappers get to pick who in the league they want to compete with — the league calls it matchmaking. Che said they do this because when the emcees choose, often the battles will be more heated and more personal. Emcees in the league pre-write. They're more likely to write toward that person, making the battle all the more intense.
The emcees decide how long they want to go. Battles are three rounds; emcees can decide whether they want each round to be three minutes or a minute and a half.
They get time to write and practice before the event. People in the league love to trash talk, Fonzo said, so they'll call each other out before events. They've even filmed emotional promos to hype up the controversy.
Central Battle Association rappers will soon be prepping for the upcoming Showdown Series, which will feature some of the best emcees from the past year in a bracket-style competition. The Showdown will be held sometime in the next coupld months. They will continue with bimonthly battles after that.
On stage, these rappers rip each other apart. But at the end of the day, they're all just a big group of friends. Everybody treats one another like family, Fonzo said.
To get into the league, you must compete in a preliminary battle or have footage of yourself performing. Members will judge your performance and determine whether you're worthy of joining the crew.
Monique Gunter started rapping when she was a young teenager with her cousins, brothers and sisters. The 26-year-old performs as Que; she entered the league after competing in a preliminary in September. To prepare, she studied other rap leagues to see how other battlers put their performances together, and then she imitated what she liked and made it her own.
She said rappers who stick to one topic have no versatility. “If you can take it from golfing all the way to the abyss in the sea, then people can see that this person's mind is well expanded.”
She hopes eventually to make a living off of music.
Eddie Rogers, a 26-year-old who raps as Eddie Monster, has been rapping since he was 11. He did freestyle battles before he found out about the league through friends. Before he goes up on stage to battle, he researches his opponents; he learns where they went to high school and other pertinent information so he can write more personal rhymes.
The process of preparing for battles can be intense: shooK on3, whose given name is Jesse Latham, said he wrote 18 pages to prepare for his first battle; he rewrote his entire first round the day of the battle. Latham is a nominee for best hip-hop/rap artist as well as best new artist in this year's Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.
Battle leagues have helped some rappers break into the hip-hop scene, Che said. Attendees will see a rapper they like and end up exploring his or her music.
“It's hard to get noticed in independent hip-hop these days because there's so many people trying to do it,” Che said. “When you battle, you just get past all that right away.”
The focus in rap and hip-hop is now so much more on the image of the rapper than the actual music, Pointer said.
But the league takes rap back to basics, to where it all started: two people, head-to-head, in a battle of wits and rhymes.