The Bayou City’s underground battle rap scene is virtually non-existent when compared with battle circuits in New York, Los Angeles, even Europe. Nevertheless, a handful of promoters in Houston continue to push one of hip-hop culture’s oldest art forms.
Battle rap has become its own phenomenon thanks to Internet fanboys dissecting and discussing competitions uploaded to YouTube, and on places like Reddit and other digital forums. Videos and hashtag rap battles on Twitter have kept the culture alive far beyond its emergence in the late 1970s, while pay-per-view streams of battles feed a hungry base of rap battle addicts.
But in a city like Houston, which has yet to make a national mark on the battle rap scene or produce a world champ battle rapper, the interest in battle rap continues to bubble—if not for the culture of rap, then for the possible pay-out. Local rappers put up their own money for a battle, usually a few hundred dollars in order to both secure the actual competition takes place and, later, if all goes well, for bragging rights. Raise the stakes high enough and an organizer might even bring in a competitor from Dallas or Austin, or from the East Coast.
The most important aspect of a battle, however, is the crowd. Sometimes a panel judges will decide on a battle's winner, but on the hyper-local level it’s the crowd that crowns the king. The rapper with the best performance—the most visceral verbal blows, the most pointed disses and punch lines, the wittiest barbs—usually wins.
To the uninitiated, a battle can look like two guys yelling at each other at the tops of their lungs. But listen closely and you’re bound to catch a left hook of a line, enough to make the crowd squeal. It might even look a little bit dangerous. Real fists—not just verbal left hooks—have been known to fly at these things, but that level of response is frowned upon and points to poor sportsmanship.
“Usually aggression is always in battle rap,” says battle promoter Brandon Henderson, who goes by DJ Black Diddy. “It’s always going to be emotions flaring, and people trying to press buttons, and if you’re in a gang they’re going to press on that. Of course tempers flare.” Henderson, who is 31 and hails from Alief, considers battle rap something for a younger audience. In H-town, he says, you won’t find many people beyond their mid-20s testing the field.
These rap contests are nothing new to Houston, but Henderson decided to organize his own event just two years ago. He said he was surprised by the crowd’s energy and decided battling was something he needed to add to this fledgling party promotion company. Thus The Come Up was born.
The Come Up battle rap nights, which kick off this Wednesday, are more of the DIY variety with an open mic after the main battle rappers get their pay out, generally a prize pot around $500. And with this being Houston, the event is, of course, taking place inside a strip club. “They are different crowds,” Henderson said. The battle rap will take place hours, he said, before the strip crowd gets there.
On a small scale, The Come Up rap battles are just a savvy way to bring in a modest crowd and further build the base of battle rap fans in Houston. Larger events put on by organizers such as Houston Bar Code, Southern Battle Rap and Houston Underground Rap Battles take a little longer to put together and often have a larger roster of talent. And even though modest crowds still eat up the action these battles offer, they’re nothing compared to the battle rap showcase Red Bull brought to town several years ago, which featured Bun B as a judge.
But that’s okay. Although it's been 10 years since the World Rap Championship was held here, battle rap will likely always have a place in Houston—and even if it’s plateaued, it doesn’t matter; there’ll always be people ready to watch, listen and battle.