By Alex Bartiromo
Ever since the modern form of a cappella, written battle rap has become popular, there has been one vital question that battlers and fans alike have posed time and time again: What is more important, making the crowd laugh or making them “ooh” and “aah” in respect? More simply put: jokes over bars? Back when battle rap was all freestyle, this debate seemed to matter less; any insult that got a reaction from the crowd was a positive. But as the scene has evolved and become more thought-out and complex, this question has become a serious matter in the battle rap community. Many judges have bemoaned the fact that battles seem to have become stand-up comedy events, but some key figures in the community have proclaimed that the main purpose of these events is to have fun, with Skirmish of Rhyme Asylum bluntly asserting, “jokes over bars” at a 2011 Don’t Flop event. In my opinion, this debate is irrelevant and detracts from the more important question of the quality of the content.
Now, to many I must seem to be over-analyzing this. I understand that for most rappers, battle rap events are to promote themselves a bit and have a good time. But, as someone who has watched many a battle in my time, this is what I like to do. I do also believe that looking at battles critically can improve the overall quality of them.
The reason I think that the “bars or jokes” argument is worthless is because I think that it i is being looked at from the wrong plane of thought. Rather than judging the seriousness of the content, I would rather examine the effectiveness and specificity. This effectively pivots the debate from “bars vs. jokes” to “generic vs. personal”. Now, when I say “personal”, I don’t necessarily mean it in the “true story” sense (although this definitely counts as a kind of personal bar), where one battler attempts to expose hidden or damning facts about the other battler’s life to make them look bad. When I talk about a personal bar, I mean a bar that only applies to the person it is being said to. For example, calling O’Shea fat is not personal, because there are other fat people in the battle rap scene. However, mentioning his job at Morrisons or his Everton fandom is personal because it could not be used against anyone else in the battle community (and few people in the world). YouTube user UgoStrange breaks this down wonderfully in his video on the same topic.
“Personal” bars are not always better; the best battlers are the ones who know what the situation calls for. For example, the aforementioned O’Shea is a master at using irrelevant and generic jokes to his advantage. When he wins a battle, much of the time, it is because he has essentially convinced the crowd that he is a more likeable person. In his recent Don’t Flop title match versus Sensa, he came with solid personals (an underrated aspect of his battling), but arguably the most effective parts of his verses were the jokes. This is because Sensa is an expert when it comes to personals (although I thought he was slightly off base in the angles he took here), but has always struggled to present himself as someone who could laugh at himself or be particularly funny at all (although his recent 2v2 battle proves me wrong, but at this point in time, the statement was true). Therefore, O’Shea was doing something that he could not, making him look superior in the battle. Sensa tried to rebut this concept in his third round when he said, “It’s not hard to make ‘em laugh bruv”. No, perhaps not (especially not that crowd). But done correctly, it can still be highly effective.
However, most battlers are not able to use those kinds of generic bars so effectively (which is a testament to O’Shea’s personality and charisma), and the ones that rely on them too much end up sounding trite and boring. This has become a problem with Charron over the past year, who has lifted jokes more than a few times from easy-to-find internet sites and stand-up comedy sketches, as Cruger eloquently pointed out in their battle at World Domination 2. He is just one example (and to be fair, he manages to pull it off decently), though, of a trend in battle rap that makes certain events seem like little more than Yo Momma with Wilmer Valderrama.
Which is not to say that battle rap events should be completely serious and devoid of fun either. I find it difficult to watch URL battles simply because everyone in the venue takes themselves so seriously and just try to prove that their opponents are “pussies” or “fags” without being able to laugh at themselves. This is a shame, because the battlers there are so clearly talented (the quality control is probably better than any other battle rap league in the world), and the events are so well put together. I do like a heated battle, but a verbal fight just to see who can rattle off more supposedly genuine gun bars is not appealing to me (and the whole idea of “fake personals” is another article altogether).
That is why the best battlers know when to use both serious bars and jokes while still keeping it personal. Look at TheSaurus, who has been a top-tier battler for nearly ten years now. In his most recent battle against Pat Stay, he walked this tightrope beautifully, using keeping all of his material focused on his opponent while still displaying his deft wordplay and impressive structure. In round one he rapped, “stop telling us you’re ‘sucka free’ and tell us what the fuck it means,” and then going on to display a series of stories to show that Pat Stay’s signature catchphrase may, in fact, be inaccurate. Later on in the battle, he was able to be just as effective using jokes. In round two, he said, “But wait y’all, Pat’s a boss/ Just look how fast he puts out those faggot blogs crying after every match he lost,” and then went for the jugular with, “So talk about my kid or my dad/ Or any chick from my past/ If I cared what your angles were, I’d call Bishop and ask,” citing the now infamous beef between Pat Stay and Bishop Brigante over bars that the latter purportedly gave to Marvwon before his battle with Stay. As you can see, TheSaurus was able to use both jokes and serious bars just as effectively, since they were both unique to his opponent. This recognition is a great part of how he has managed to be such an excellent battler for so long (funnily enough, it is a lack of this recognition that has kept Pat Stay from ever being truly top-tier).
Without giving my thoughts about everything in the battle scene, I think that by talking about “jokes vs. bars”, people are missing the point. They are both just as effective if the battler knows how to use them properly, and the battler uses them properly when he/she is able to single out his/her opponent with a rap that applies to nobody, or almost nobody, else. Of course, depending on how good the battler is at they, he/she can also mix in some generic bars to display their lyricism or to endear themselves to the audience, but the battlers that rely on them, with a few exceptions, end up being average at best and indistinguishable from any of the horde of jokers who happen to rhyme.