This month, BET announced they’re launching the second season of “Ultimate Freestyle Friday.” What this means is more freestyle rap battle action will be hitting TV screens coast-to-coast, possibly launching new stars into the rap’s collective conscience. But for a show that’s been on the air for over a decade, little is known about what it’s actually like to compete on the show. We spoke to Freestyle Friday Hall-of-Famer Voss, one of the names who has successfully parlayed his battle wins into the beginnings of a successful rap career, about how he landed on “106 and Park” and emerged victorious while still escaping the dreaded “battle rapper stigma” in the aftermath.
You’re from the greater Philly area, correct?
Being Philly alone has so many different hip-hop scenes, were any of them your first exposure to hip-hop?
Not really, actually. When I was in junior high, when Nelly and Ja Rule and 50 Cent were popular, I was a lot more into old school hip-hop. I remember seeing a documentary on TV on hip-hop pioneers, and it had Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw” in it, and I instantly fell in love with that song. This guy made a four minute song just talking about how he was the best, I didn’t know you could do that! I remember buying the best of Big Daddy Kane for $4.99 used, and while I rock with most of his stuff, I just played “Raw” nonstop. I also remember seeing the Juvenile “Ha” video and really connecting with it. It was just so raw at a time when you didn’t see a whole lot of that in videos.
When did listening to hip-hop translate into you beginning to rap?
After I heard “Raw,” I thought rapping sounded like so much fun, I had to try it. It started out as a joke, but after the encouragement of friends of mine, I started to actually try it out. I got introduced to a lot of indie hip-hop, Def Jux, Rhymesayers stuff, and that was subject matter I could more directly relate to. I started directing my own experiences, figuring out song structure, I got pretty serious with it.
Did you freestyle prior to the battle scene? Do you think it helped you in that arena?
Yeah. As far as freestyling off the top, that was how I started. I say things over a beat, and if I liked it, I turned it into a written. Freestyling was a good pass time. Battling wasn’t something I was after, it was something I had to do to be taken seriously at school. Dudes were coming up to me to try to battle me at my locker, and if I didn’t defend myself, I’d look like a chump. It was a pride thing. At 8:00 or 9:00 AM I was battling people. I can’t imagine that now.
How did the opportunity for BET’s “Freestyle Friday” come about?
I’d never really thought about “Freestyle Friday” like that. I was a fan of Loaded Lux and what Jin did on there, but I never thought about pursuing that. I got an email from BET after they had seen some Grind Time battles I did, which I took for exposure, they reached out to me with a form to fill out. They gave me a date, May of 2012 and I went out there to New York.
Do you remember what the audition process was like?
I waited in line with 70-80 other cats, females as well. People from all walks of life, all types of rappers. I was in the second to last group. They bring you into a room with a bunch of judges and go “you and you battle.” They throw a beat on, and it just happens. I beat the first guy and they brought two more people up immediately and I beat them too. They had me sit out, but kept me in the room. Then they brought in a new group of people and I beat two more out of that group. They said they were going to call me, and finally called me in September, telling me to watch who won that week’s battle. I had my first battle in October.
During your five-battle winning streak that landed you in the Hall of Fame, did you find the exposure raised your profile both locally and in social media?
No doubt. When you’re on a national televised show, you’re getting tons of viewers. I was getting followers. I never went too hard on social media hunting for followers, but being on that show boosted my followers in every core of my outreach. Popularity in general expanded my fanbase. Where it hasn’t helped is getting people who just want to see me battle on some “dance monkey, dance!” They aren’t really interested in the music, which doesn’t help me at all. The plan was always to use battling to get signed where I’m at now [to Universal] and I have a team behind me, which I didn’t have before. I got a lot from it, but I wish I got more fans who are open to other things outside fat jokes and momma jokes.
How different was battling on “106 and Park” compared to the actual battle circuit?
There’s a lot of differences. On the surface, on “106 and Park,” it’s a lot more bite-sized. It’s two rounds, 30 seconds a round, over a beat. The [professional battle circuits] now have battles that are an hour long, which in my opinion is overkill. The main difference would be, when you’re on Freestyle Friday, when you freestyle, they respect it. A lot of these a capella leagues, it’s all about these intricate layers bars guys have written for two months with all this wordplay where freestyling is almost looked down upon as being passe, as if anyone could do it. Well, not everyone can do it. I’ve done the written battles, but I like freestyle battling so much more. More adrenaline. I never know what’s going to happen, it keeps me on my toes.
On “106 and Park,” you have to appeal to a younger audience, your references have to appeal to a broader audience, and you can’t curse. That makes it harder. The battle segments were always at the end of the show, so I remember showing up and waiting for an hour-and-a-half there in the crowd on the day we shot the battle and feeling like a weird old man sitting next to all these 15-year-old girls asking me when I’m going to rap.
Was it the same thing competing in the all star tournament?
That was better because we had a little V.I.P. area balcony thing where we could hang out. It was a little nicer to be away from everyone.
You’ve steadily released music following your appearances on Freestyle Friday. Was that always part of the plan?
By the March All Star Battle, I had gotten signed by then. I met my manager the December before, a month after I got my fifth win. I was officially signed at the end of January, and we laid out a plan to put music out after those appearances. We came out with a proper timeline, that was the best way to do it.
Do you find by releasing so much music, you’ve been able to avoid the battle rapper stigma?
I think, to a degree, it helped. I think I make better music than 99-100% of battle rappers. I already had a strong local Philly fanbase before I even went on 106, so it helped having a strong number of people knowing I could make songs before I ever stepped foot in front of a television camera. I think I’ll always have a bit of the battle rapper stigma for the rest of my life, which sucks to think about, but I think I’m going to get it because it was a big deal. I think a lot fo guys face it more because they actually are battle rappers most of the time and their music just sounds like they’re battling an imaginary opponent. But, yeah, other guys get it worse, that stigma exists for a reason. But now, my music’s doing well, I don’t really battle any more and people see that music is the priority.
What’s the story behind the title of your recently released The Book of Michael: Chapter 1?
I’ve been writing for an album for two years and it’s gotten to the point where I have so many song, and I’m not going to be one of those rappers with a 20 song album. So, we’re taking the songs that have potential sample clearance issues or that don’t really fit with what we’re making mood-wise, and we’re making three EPs. The first chapter came out in January. The Book of Michael concept came from getting all these songs under one umbrella. While I’m not personally religious, I am fascinated by certain Bible stories because they’re really cool. The story of the Archangel Michael who battled Lucifer, is really intriguing to me, not just because I conveniently share his name, but because that battle between Michael and Lucifer exists in every human. In some people, there’s a clear winner, and in some people that battle never stops. I’m one of the people that walks that line. I have a lot of flaws, but I’m trying to make that right. The next one’s out this summer.
Do you find yourself ever trying to cater certain songs to your battle fans, or are those worlds entirely separate?
Personally, I’ve found them completely separate. Even doing the written battles, it was a completely different mindset. For me, writing for a written battle is easy as hell. There’s no structure, I write this many bars, and that’s it. Writing a song is so much more challenging and stimulating to me. Doing a battle, I’m not as concerned with staying power. Whatever wins me the battle at the time, I’m not thinking about references being dated six months later. Writing songs is a completely different animal.