This summer, New York's Hammerstein Ballroom might provide the biggest platform for battle rap in hip-hop's 40-year history.
In January, Eminem, his manager Paul Rosenberg and the four members of pyrotechnic Shady Records crew Slaughterhouse announced the formation of Total Slaughter, a competitive rap battle league intended to give the artform national presence. On July 12th, the inaugural event, in conjunction with hip-hop website WatchLOUD, will take place at Hammerstein, starring some of the sport's most formidable talents, including Slaughterhouse rapper Joe Budden himself returning to the ring.
"What we look at this opportunity as, is a way to do for battle rapping what UFC did for MMA," Rosenberg tells Rolling Stone. "That's really the model we're basing it on. It's this great thing that a lot of people love, but it's very splintered, and it's very niche, and it's not really brought into the right production levels that it can or should be."
"I'm a passionate battle fan, so this is something I've always thought about doing," adds Eminem, whose Shady Films is co-producing the event. "I came up battling at the same time I was making records and learning my way around the studio. It's a little bit different in terms of the kinds of tools you need, but the competitiveness is the same. The times I didn't win gave me just as much light in the past as when I did. It's all about your performance."
"Battling" predates rap music itself, in street-corner rhyming games of "the dozens" in the early 20th century. When hip-hop culture formed in New York City in the Seventies, battles — like 1981's iconic match between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee — would circulate via cassette tapes. Attempts to celebrate battling as an official sport has seen many iterations of the years, including New Jersey's early-Nineties Rap Olympics, Cincinnati's late-Nineties nerd throwdown Scribble Jam and the popular Smack DVDs of the Aughts. But it's flourished in the last decade as a YouTube phenomenon.
One of the two battles leading this summer's card will be the long-anticipated rematch between Harlem dismasters Murda Mook and Loaded Lux, whose 2003 battle for Smack/UBL is regarded as a classic — a match still shrouded in debate.
"Once the Internet started making it surge, Mook and Lux is probably the highest viewed battle from that time," says Slaughterhouse's Royce Da 5'9". "And to this day it's still up in the air. Back then, there were no judges. They went five or six rounds and there was no general consensus as to who won that battle. And those guys went on from there and basically wiped everybody out. Mayweather and Pacquiao. That's essentially what they are to battle rap."
The other battle leading the July event will be the return to competition of Slaughterhouse's Joe Budden, who will be taking on NYC bruiser Hollow Da Don. "He plans on coming out of battle retirement and kind of showing the established guys can still do it," says Royce. "I don't know why people think that we can't. But we can. I got all the confidence in the world in Joe. Hollow is a great battle rapper... but he's in over his head a little bit. Joe is an upper echelon guy. I'm a real fan, so I know Hollow has more of a problem on his hands than he thinks he does."
The undercard for the event will be decided by the four-part reality series Road to Total Slaughter airing on WatchLOUD.com. The show will star the four members of Slaughterhouse — Budden, Royce, Crooked I and Joell Ortiz — and you can meet the first eight contestants here.
"This is the exact same way the UFC was to MMA," says Royce of Total Slaughter. They thought these guys were bar-brawlers and cab-drivers, they didn't realize how much technical skill went into it until somebody put that on a platform. This is the exact same vision that we all see in these guys. These guys are gladiators.
So is there any chance of Eminem getting back in the ring?
"I don't think at this point it would make any sense. They know eeeeverything about him. Everything," says Rosenberg." So, he's kind of an easy target. Plus, lets be honest, you gotta be in shape for this. This isn't something that you just go do on a whim. You gotta be in shape, your brain's gotta be ready for it, you gotta be in that mode. And Marshall hasn't done stuff like that for a really long time.
"But let me tell you something," he adds. "When he was doing it, he was a fuckin' killer."
Total Slaughter tickets go on limited pre-sale on May 2nd, and will be onsale to the public on May 16th.