Hollow Da Don
Over a decade in the game and he's still one of the leaders.
Words: Emmanuel C.M.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

After a seven-week undefeated streak on the highly popular segment of BET’s 106 & Park, “Freestyle Friday” plus an enshrinement in the program’s Hall of Fame in 2006, Hollow Da Don’s professional battle rap career started off with a bang. The New York City native, born Nigel Bennett, has gone on to make a name for himself as a premier battle rapper by taking on top talent such as Loaded Lux, Big T and Joe Budden over the past decade. Outside of the ring, the rhymeslinger, who averages one to two battles a year, has found success with his own clothing line, Loyalty Over Money (LOM).

Don Dotti, 32, shares his thoughts on surviving as a battle rapper and crossing over into mainstream.

XXL: Do you remember your first battle?

Hollow Da Don: I can’t necessarily remember my first battle but my first real battle that involved money...it was a lot of people. I went [to 106 & Park] for the audition and found out I was too young.You had to be 18 and up so I stayed and tried to battle cats. This one cat from [New] Jersey, I went a round with him and the second, or maybe third round he kind of bodied me, it got crazy. I ain’t stumble, I just got nervous and sent a line that wasn’t as hot. So that just helped me. It’s never a mistake once you learn from something.

What made you continue to battle?

Just the competitiveness and knowing one day I was going to be crowned the best.
I just been through so many wars with the pen and battles already, I just knew I could reach that level as far as being crowned as one of the best and one of the most respected.

What mentality do you have to have in order to be a battle rapper?

To be one of the best battle rappers, you’ve got to be able to be possessed and just really focus for two to three months on someone else’s demise.

So surviving as a battle rapper you have to brand yourself and venture off?

I’m blessed to have a brand, something that I was able to monetize with the clothing line. So it just went hand-in-hand because I wanted to promote Loyalty Over Money. That really just helps me get salary pay, what people get yearly working on top of the battle money plus other shit that I do on the side like with the TV shit. But that’s me, though. I can’t speak for every battle rapper. Some cats that just battle rap and only get $4,000, $3,000 a battle and they doing 11 a year. They only getting $30,000 a year and they ain’t able to live in New York City off that if you just battle rappin’.

What do you think is the difference between a battle rapper and today’s more traditional MC?

[Today’s MC] focuses on melodies, lyrics and flows while battle rappers focus more on the performance and the bars. It’s different focuses. If I focused more on music than battling, I could have been Drake. But when I started off writing, it wasn’t songs, it was bars. That pertained more to battle rap.

Did you ever want to crossover to mainstream music?

Yeah, when I was young I definitely did want to do music. I think most of us, at least 90 percent, came from wanting to do music. When you find your lane, when you find your passion you can’t just really ignore it for more money. You’re ignoring what you’re great at just to possibly make more money. I definitely try not to do that too much. I still made music the first few years.

Is there a line you won’t cross in a battle? It gets heated and in some case it feels like nothing is off limits.

Yeah, there’s a line like I won’t disrespect the dead or nothing like that. Just whack shit, you know, certain lines that cross that you wouldn’t even do in real life. If you call someone a snitch and bring up a story and said they told on someone, it better be a fact.

Is battle rapping something needed in your life?

Yeah, more like letting out the anger and frustration because when you not battling, there’s built up time when it’s, “Oh, I didn’t get my respect” or “They saying this dude’s the hottest, I know I’ll kill ’em.” If you’re a rapper you need some type of acknowledgment. So during the battle, that’s the best way to do that because you got the crowd right there. It’s a high when you’re on the stage and it’s a 1,000, 2,000 people cheering. It’s like a drug to some people. That’s why some people do like 50 battles a year.

Why do you think battle rap is important to hip-hop?

It’s important because it’s the main place for competition. It doesn’t have to be about beefs or who’s actually trying to physically do shit to each other. Even mainstream rappers can get up there and battle if it’s all in the love of the sport and they know about the brand.

Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2016 issue including Big Sean’s cover story, the Letter from the Editor, Macklemore’s thoughts on White privilege, Kodak Black’s Show & Prove interview, Doin’ Lines with Boosie BadAzz, Flatbush Zombies’ serious comic addiction, the producer behind Desiigner’s hit “Panda,” Plies’ career boost thanks to Instagram, Anderson .Paak's Show & ProveLira Galore's Eye Candy interview, What's Happenin' with Fetty Wap, go inside Quality Control Music, Lil Uzi Vert's Show & Prove, Jay Pharoah's rapper impersonations, the history of battle rap, Murda Mook's advice from Q-Tip and more.

See Exclusive Photos From Big Sean's XXL Cover Story