Two weeks ago, Club Zen in downtown Johannesburg got packed to its rafters with hip-hop afficionados who came by the carloads to support Scrambles4Money, a South African battle rap circuit established in 2012. The auspicious Talk is Cheap event, now in its second installment, had Johannesburg’s Tumi Molekane and Atlanta’s Ness Lee as headliners. Tumi, a battle rap fan and truly remarkable emcee, brought infernal punchlines from the word go. The full house reached a loud crescendo on an average of every four bars over the three-odd minutes granted per round. He exuded confidence, even managing a quick rebound from a memory blackout during his surefire first verse.
In the youtube video uploaded earlier last week (it’s currently Battle of the Week on Reddit), Ness Lee stands his ground. In true battle rap fashion, he appears unperturbed; he stands by, seemingly absent-mindedly, as Tumi casts menacing lines in his direction. It’s a way of saying: “Try your darndest homie, I’m not moved!”
Ness Lee then attempts a couple of lukewarm one-liners to get the audience hyped up. It’s not until well into his verse that any large-scale response ensues. “One of your fans said that you were outside my league and that you would eat me for lunch,” raps Nes while hunching to have a clear look at Tumi’s stomach. “I agree!” he continues. Cue: Thunderous applause!
Battles are a precious part of hip-hop culture. Over the past years, pre-written battle raps and battle rap leagues have sprung up in different areas around the world – from Singapore, to the UK, to Canada where Scrambles4Money organizer and a superior battle emcee Gini Grindith went to participate in King Of The Dot’s World Domination in 2013. Battle rap showcases are entertaining to watch. It’s fascinating to think that for about a month, all two rappers probably do is do background research and come up with all manner of dirt to use against their proponent on the day of battle.
More than a clash of egos, this was a match of two emcees who might as well be on the same level if their rhymes are anything to go by. This wasn’t a judged battle, but opinion seems skewed towards Tumi’s side. He had the home crowd advantage and used location-specific details as bait to get audience reaction. Nes Lee held his own down, he did a bit of research (example: the “*140#” reference). Ultimately, and this is purely by the number of times the crowd went apeshit, Tumi emerged the more superior of the two. His performance in the last round is nothing short of sheer excellence!
However it was all hugs and pounds after the referee called it. Nes Lee, a battle rap champion in his own right, tweeted that it was “an absolute pleasure” to engage Tumi in battle. It’s this trait of sportsmanship which makes battle rap exciting.
South African audiences are still getting used to the concept of prepared rap battles. In time, there’ll even be lower noise levels – though it’s hard to not loose it when a punchline like: “Fuck your struggle, you know what we call black power?/ when ESKOM lights cut out!” is uttered. This three-round, thirty-minute opus may very well be the best on the continent by far.
* Opening image taken from the Scrambles4Money Facebook page.