The world of battle rap hit a new milestone Saturday night as Total Slaughter, the first traditional terrestrial pay-per-view in battle rap history, was held at Hammerstein Ballroom. Promoted by Eminem’s Shady Records, the event was the biggest platform rap battling has had to date, headlined by Queens’ battle icon Hollow Da Don squaring off with Joe Budden, the closest thing to a mainstream artist to step foot in the battle rap arena, and the rematch of one of the all time great battles in Harlem greats Loaded Lux vs. Murda Mook.
Those skeptical of battle rap as an artform and business capable of such an event are likely unfamiliar in what an industry this once-niche medium has become. As post-8 Mile freestyle battling fell out of vogue in the mid-2000s, the pre-written a cappella battle format popularized by leagues like Smack/URL and King of the Dot have seen the fanbase continually grow. As the venues grew, so did the recognition with artists like Jay-Z, Diddy, and Busta Rhymes openly professing their battle fandom.
At this juncture, battling is more visible than ever. Fuse even aired a four-part battle reality show Road to Total Slaughter leading up to Saturday’s event. The show featured eight of the world’s top battle MCs living in the same house and competing in a single elimination tournament for a spot on the Total Slaughter card. The finals of which, boasting battle stalwart T Rex facing the always controversial Daylyt, also took place on Saturday.
But like seemingly everything battle-rap related these days, the fans seem split — there were some disappointments and some technical issues.
Oh, and a rapper showed up dressed as comic book character Spawn and spent his third round stripping himself down to his boxer briefs and simulating coprophagia.
Still, it was a successful event and a good night for battle rap.
The layout at Hammerstein was absolutely perfect with an octagonal stage in the middle of the floor allowing the packed house to witness the performances from everywhere in the venue. Hammerstein looked to be at least 85% full, a feat considering Total Slaughter was competing locally with the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and an Ab-Soul show that night, not to mention a live WWE event at Madison Square Garden two blocks away.
The notable names on hand were a strong mix of hip-hop greats and battle icons. Hosted by Sway and officiated by DJ Kay Slay, the battles were judged by organized battle mainstays Poison Pen and Grind Time founder Drect, as well as mixtape innovator Kid Capri. Between the battles, Slaughterhouse member Royce da 5’9″ and Hot97 personality and outspoken battle critic Ebro provided commentary. Also on-hand were longtime battle advocates Busta Rhymes and Fabolus, hip-hop royalty DJ Kool Herc and Fab 5 Freddy as well as generations of notable battle rap competitors from Craig G to Jin to Syanide.
The first real shock of the evening occurred when the event started right on time. Battle rap events are incredibly susceptible to obscene delays, especially events, like Total Slaughter, of such magnitude. The last monumental New York City battle event, last September’s Summer Madness 3, began with a three-and-a-half hour delay despite being Smack/URL’s biggest event of the year. SM3 was also riddled with technical issues in literally every battle and ended early due to an outbreak of violence. Between that and the punch thrown following the main event of King of the Dot’s BOLA5 event in Los Angeles two weeks ago, the pressure was on for Total Slaughter to go on without a hitch.
See also: The 10 Best Male Rappers of All Time
Luckily, the night saw no violence and the scheduling of the event allowed the pacing to be adhered to without any delays or downtime. Even between the battles, as the MCs made their way to the stage, the time was filled by screening video montages introducing the competitors, explaining who they were and what lead to each of the battles. Given how much of the crowd seemed like Joe Budden fans who weren’t otherwise familiar with the battle scene, the superbly edited video packages were really the best thing Total Slaughter could have done to bring new viewers up-to-speed.
After a humorous pre-taped video message from Eminem expressing his regret that he couldn’t be in attendance, the night kicked off with Big T. vs. Arsonal. Both cast-members of Road to Total Slaughter, the match was only added to the card the week of the event. While T’s had impressive showings in the past, Arsenal’s outstanding onslaught jump-started the event and set the tone for the evening. Considered by many to be the most viewed battle rapper on the planet, with some estimates attributing 22 million views to his name, Arsonal dominated Big T for three rounds, calling out other battle greats and the other Road to Total Slaughter contestants in the process. Arsonal also made the night’s best use of the unique stage itself, at one point skipping in a circle around T after a devastating punchline as the raucous Hammerstein crowd cheered on. Arsonal took the win and the night continued.
Up next were the finals of the Road to Total Slaughter tournament as Harlem favorite T. Rex took on Watts’ Daylyt. Daylyt showed up dressed as ’90s comic book character Spawn and didn’t do any sort of self-aware winking to the audience during his entire performance. His commitment was admirable, as was Rex’s. Given both are members of battle collective Dot Mob, some in attendance thought the two would tone down their typical visceral viciousness and take it easy on each other. But as great as their rhymes were, despite T. Rex getting the judge’s decision, the real story here was Daylyt spending his third round not rapping, but instead simulating a seizure.
As Daylyt jerked and contorted all over the stage, he ripped his shockingly elaborate Spawn costume to pieces until he was convulsing in just his boxer briefs. He then simulated defecating by dropping what appeared to be a candy bar, cradled it while tearfully and loudly lamenting “Mr. Hankey” and taking a bite before collapsing face down on the stage, where he remained throughout Royce and Ebro’s commentary and the entirety of Sway’s announcement of the judge’s decision. When Daylyt showed up to the pilot episode of Road to Total Slaughter in nothing but his boxer shorts, he said his goal was to be the strangest person in battle rap who got everyone talking. While Rex walked away with the winner’s share of the purse, Daylyt’s mission was accomplished.
Then came the battle over a decade in the making, Mook vs. Lux II. While Lux started out with an absolutely outstanding first round, I don’t think anyone could have predicted what Mook delivered. Starting off by stating his acquiescence to fans wanted “the old Mook” back, he removed his hat to reveal his trademark early-2000s durag and proceeded to give an absolute clinic of a battle performance, dismantling Lux’s personality, style, credibility and affiliations. While critics are coming down hard on Lux for “underperforming,” it’s hard to imagine any other competitor in any era being able to hold their own next to what Mook did on that Hammerstein stage. In about 15 years of watching the medium, Mook’s performance might have been the greatest one-night showing I’ve ever witnessed.
Finally came the main event of Hollow Da Don vs. Joe Budden. The crowd seemed pretty evenly split going into the battle, although some Hollow fans were skeptical their favorite was going to get screwed with the sudden announcement of new judges for the finals. Also bothersome was the night’s first technical snafu as Hollow had to tell Sway shortly before the opening bell that he hadn’t been properly mic’ed. While the two-or-so minute delay in attaching a lapel mic to Hollow and then swapping the lapel mic back and forth between rounds may have seemed frighteningly amateur to new fans, typically these sorts of issues take about 10 minutes to fix at most battle events and plague the entire night, as opposed to just the main event.
Hollow began with a typically blistering first round, although Joe’s comically dismissive reactions to Hollow’s lines made for some of his strongest work on the stage. Admittedly, expectations were low for Joe due to the track record of recording artists stepping foot in the battle arena (most notably Canibus pulling out a notebook and reading from it during a 2012 battle with Dizaster) so by merely not miserably failing he had a slight advantage. Opting for a handheld mic instead of a lapel for this round, Joe spoke of doing what he did best, “making another bitch famous,” and attempting to diffuse any “Pump It Up”-related disses by asking Hollow “You talk about my last hit, where’s your first one?”
Hollow maintained his consistency in the second round, opening by dissing Joe’s battle style, comparing his vocal inflections to “reading,” effectively casting a shade over everything Joe was still looking to do that night. When it came time for Joe’s second round, he began to feel the wrath of the Hammerstein crowd. The biggest problem Joe faced was following a killer rhyme that had a great reaction (such as referencing Hollow getting punched by fellow battler John John da Don) immediately with something painfully corny (pointing out how the John John incident was Hollow losing a fight to “someone named after a toilet”) making his smug posturing incite a tidal wave of boos.
The third round started to go off the rails as Hollow focused on Joe’s romantic life, largely going over the heads of listeners unfamiliar with Joe’s reality show career, leading to Joe suddenly turning his aggression at the audience. At one point, Joe told the booing crowd that if they kept booing, he was going to stop rapping. As battle fans have traditionally never taken kindly to being scolded, they only booed harder. Joe put the mic down and walked off the stage. After some words ringside, he returned to spit the rhymes as the buzzer went off. While it was certainly an anticlimactic ending, the right decision was made as Hollow was unanimously declared the winner.
While there were issues with the live-streaming and some pay-per-view carriers, it’s hard not to call Total Slaughter a step forward for battling’s success. The problems that typically plague these sorts of events were minimized, the presentation was spectacular, and the production values seen in the between-round hype-videos not only gave each battle the big fight feel, but certainly achieved a level of familiarity for new battle fans. While some longtime diehards may take issue with the “corporate feel” of the event and casual fans feel Budden-Hollow didn’t live up to expectations, between Arsenal, Mook, Hollow, Rex and, yes, even Daylyt, new fans in one night were shown every angle of what the modern a cappella battle scene was capable of achieving.