Rappers vs. Song Makers
Rappers vs. Song Makers
Rappers vs. Song Makers
Last week, I attended the World Underground Festival at Melrose Ballroom in Queens, New York.. It was a 3-day event for aspiring rappers to network, meet people in the industry, and test their mettle. Sixty-four rappers total had the opportunity to compete in single elimination “song battle” for a chance at ten thousand dollars, home studio equipment, and a sponsored tour. There were also performances by Dave East, Azealia Banks, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon. The competition is apparently regarded as the most rewarding hip-hop competition in the world... I didn’t even stay beyond the first round.
Here’s my issue - the competition judged artists off of songwriting capability, stage presence, and performance. The rappers got about one minute each to perform and impress the four judges as well as the crowd enough to move to the next round. I noticed a trend immediately. The majority of performers came on stage utilizing very fast flows, which came off as impressive wordplay, when in reality they weren’t saying much. The thing was, the crowd caught on almost instantly because these rappers had a lot of energy and heavy trap beats. Even if the crowd wasn’t vibing to what was going on lyrically, they caught the beats and energy, enjoying the song enough to throw their support behind the performers.
I saw a few rappers who were actually very lyrical, rapping at slower cadences so the crowd could hear their words. Their content was substantive and inspiring, but because their beats weren’t as hi- hat-and-808s-heavy, the crowd didn’t catch on as much. If the four judges weren’t able to agree on winners, then the people in the crowd decided through applause and noise. There were many decisions by the judges and crowd that I scratched my head at, but it really was telling as to where music is now.
I am 23 years old. I am certainly not an old head music fan, nor do I know all there is to know about rap. However, I watched a lot of 106 & Park growing up, and the Freestyle Friday rap battles were part of what I looked forward to the most when I tuned into the show. Those were actual rap battles, where lyricists had to use the same beat, with no prior preparation, and freestyle for a period of time. The crowd had no involvement and there was no judgment of stage presence, performance, or songwriting. The rappers simply had to rap, and judges determined who rapped better. The World Underground Festival competition did not brand itself as a rap battle, but I certainly was looking forward to one. Especially since there was a big prize and opportunity for the winner. I can get onstage, rap fast without saying much over a nice beat and probably get a crowd into it. It’s a lot harder for me to write quality lyrics with a nice enough flow for listeners to enjoy, and to me that should be rewarded.
It’s intriguing to me that the songwriting competition was for a prize, but the cyphers they had were just for fun, especially since rappers who traveled from all over the world had to pay to participate in both. The music industry has become very commercialized. It’s not about bars as much as it’s about popularity and sales. With that in mind, I see why they set the competition up that way. If your sound is good enough to move a crowd for a minute, you could potentially do so with several songs on a tour and pick up enough steam to put out a great commercial album. However, for the rappers who actually want to rap, losing a competition like this is discouraging. It feels as though your music may not move people, or like there’s something missing. It feels like a waste of time. It feels like you may be going about your music wrong. You’re not.
In the period of time I stayed at this competition, I saw talented lyricists who I’d be interested to hear more from. Then I saw artists whose sound would probably get them a few good singles, a decent debut album, and ultimately a brief career before the next guy who sounds exactly like them gains a following. No disrespect to these artists either, I am certain they put a lot of time and effort into their crafts. However, we see how the industry works with artists whose strengths aren’t their lyricism or content. They have to keep reinventing their sound in order to stay relevant. I wish the World Underground Festival didn’t subscribe to what music is today and structure the competition the way it did, but they capitalized off of what is popular. In a business sense, it makes complete sense. I just want actual, raw rappers to continue rapping, and something like this could very well discourage that moving forward.