Major forces behind the rap battle resurgence.
Words: Emmanuel C.M.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

If anyone knows about modern day battle rap, it’s New York City natives Troy “Smack” Mitchell, Jean “Cheeko” French and Eric Beasley, the founders of Smack DVD and Ultimate Rap League. Together they run the world’s largest and most influential platform for MC battle culture.

But things didn’t start out that way for the guys. In 2002, Smack, a Queens native, launched Smack DVD, a company in which the self-taught videographer would distribute regularly released discs featuring multiple clips of the inside world of rappers’ lives. The artists loved it because it showcased unfiltered versions of themselves that fans would rarely get to see anywhere else. The Internet was still in its early stages so Smack DVD’s basically acted like an early compilation of cool and crazy rapper YouTube moments. The discs sold for $10 a piece to hungry hip-hop heads that wanted more than the magazines and television could offer.

The third installment featured Diddy hosting a battle between Jae Millz and Sire Castro outside his Daddy House Recording Studios. The fourth included the famed Jae Millz vs. Murda Mook battle in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. state office building on Harlem’s 125th Street. These two clips would help set the standard for today’s battle rap format and rebirth the sub-genre of hip-hop.

Smack’s company started to pop off when he met Beasley and Cheeko while shooting content in the spring of 2004. As the popularity of Smack DVDs grew, the three worked hard to keep up with the demand and competition. In 2008, they launched SmackTube, a website that featured exclusive Smack DVD content. But within a year, it became obvious that it was impossible to keep up with YouTube video clip wise. Rappers were getting their own videographers to follow them around to post up their own clips and so were other websites and blogs. But Smack DVD had found a niche filming rap battles. What if they took it to another level? “What we realized is that we had trouble controlling the content or the information because there so many people with blogs who were asking the artists the same type of questions and getting the information out at a rapid pace,” says Beasley, who’s from Harlem. “The only thing that we knew we could control was the battles.”

The trio made the bold decision to take their company in a new direction. They were going to build a battle rap league and put on their own events. The idea wasn’t totally original. Other leagues such as Toronto’s King of the Dot, Freestyle Friday and Grind Time Now had been popping up and were posting battles on YouTube and holding events but none had the same established following and connections in hip-hop like Smack DVD.

So, the company got to work. They brought on graphic designer Leon “Twizz” Fields and talent scout Chino “Norbes” Velez. They deaded SmackTube and ended production of the DVD series, then launched the Ultimate Rap League.

Their first event, which was hosted by radio personalities Star & Bucwild, was in October of 2009 and headlined by T-Rex versus Math Hoffa. The event was free, fully funded by URL and held at SIR Studios in Manhattan. The battle between Rex and Hoffa went undecided and each rapper was paid $5,000. By their third event, URL was charging $20 a ticket. The event sold out quickly and they were able to cover their expenses. That was a big deal. “There’s guys that have come in and tried to do it, and went for the money grab and lost lots of mon- ey,” said Cheeko, from Queens. “There was even us, there were times where we didn’t make money. We broke even or we lost. But we continued on through [for] the culture.”

Three years later, the URL founders finally felt like their vision came to fruition. Their 2012 Summer Madness 2/Return of the Legends battle event completely sold out NYC’s Webster Hall and was attended by Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Lloyd Banks and lots of hip-hop press.

Fast-forward to today and URL is arguably the most popular battle league around. And with their league’s help and the assistance of many others established battle rap leagues, plus the Internet, the battle rap scene has found a resurgence. “There’s dudes making a living, it’s an industry,” said Smack. “There are dudes who [are] make a living off of battle rap.”

URL has also given a platform to a plethora of rap talent including Hollow Da Don, Murder Mook, Calicoe, Loaded Lux, Conceited and many more. “They know it’s a game from being in URL, you get other opportunities,” Smack says of the league’s rappers. “We branded them and they are able to create another opportunity so they could advance with everything else that they got going on.”

But despite the already established online presence and a growing live audience, the battle rap scene still stands as a world on it’s own. URL says that the lion’s share of its profit comes directly from ticket sales. The events are thrown by the different leagues, as there is no real sponsorship or advertisement involved yet. But the URL team believes that will soon change. In fact, they’ve stepped it up a notch and are now working on SmackFlix, a streaming service site that features all Smack DVD and URL footage plus exclusive content. “I see [battle rap] being big,” says Smack. “I see it going into stadiums. We’re already selling out big shows without any major sponsors, just on our own, independently. Now, these sponsors are coming to the table and they want to be a part of what’s happening. That’s only going to propel what we’re doing to the next level.”

The future looks pretty bright for all involved.

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, Hollow Da Don's rise in battle rap, Calicoe's addition to the rap battle scene and more.

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