During pre-drinks, I am often to be found alone in my room, hunched over a squawking laptop and slurping Lambrini in the dark. It is with only the slightest spasm of embarrassment that I admit I commonly eschew social interaction in order to watch grown men trade insults through the medium of extended metaphor, multisyllabic rhyme and elaborate mum jokes.
Don’t Flop, the UK’s leading rap battle league, recently celebrated its fifth birthday with a 2-day extravaganza for a crowd of over a thousand in Leeds. I might forget my mum’s birthday every year, but there was no way I was going to miss this. A £45 entrance fee and a gruelling 6-hour journey on Megabus surrounded by a bevy of cackling Scousers was a small price to pay for me to fulfil my lifelong dream of watching people I’ve never met threaten to shoot one another with guns they probably don’t own.
The event was as well-organised as you would expect for a company run exclusively by heavy weed smokers in their early twenties. I spent most of the four-hour delay on the first day feeling faintly uneasy about how my Youtube hobby was translating to reality. Given the almost exclusively male turnout, the strong smell of skunk and the obsessive statistical analysis in the smoking area, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot separating this event from an IRL meet-up for World of Warcraft aficionados.
Then the battles started and all my existential worries vanished in a puff of acapella aggression. Most of the Don’t Flop roster work day jobs as shelf-stackers, bus drivers and small-time drug dealers, but to me each rapper looked like Jay-Z, Mike Tyson and Lawrence Olivier rolled into one snapback-wearing demigod. It is occasionally tricky to get through customs when your job description is “threatening to shoot people in the head in return for a cash payment”, but when those international performers who did make it across the border took to the stage I was delirious with excitement (though admittedly also a little high on the thick Lynx fumes billowing from every armpit in the crowd).
When Mos Prob proposed to his girlfriend live on stage, or Psychosis Holochaust came within a hairsbreadth of punching Unanymous, the room held its breath and released it as one. I was already familiar with these rappers’ lexical dexterity (and with their truly awful names) from Youtube. But far more than is the case even with live music, something is lost in the transition from stage to screen. Battle rap teeters between performance art and reality, and this tension is largely dissipated when filtered through tinny laptop speakers.
Like a giddy toddler sent to bed early after drinking too much birthday pop, I lay in bed that night unable to sleep, fantasising about saying unpleasant things to a terrifying man from Brooklyn about his grandmother. Perhaps the closest I will ever really get to a rap battle is a civilised debate about current affairs over tea and cake, but seeing Don’t Flop live turned my already obsessive hobby into a raging addiction.