The popularity of battle rap is so high at present that it’s become an unofficial sub-genre of hip-hop. While no one has made a complete career exclusively off of battle rap yet, the battle scene has proven lucrative for certain rappers and promoters alike. The top leagues–URL, KOTD, Don’t Flop, Flip Top, QotR and the like–span nations and continents, and draw millions of views and pay four-to-five figures for the biggest draws to perform. Battling, particularly the currently popular acapella style, has proven it requires its own specific skill set. Not every good rapper is good in battles; some great battle rappers in today’s scene can’t ride a track to save their lives.
With all of that said, I maintain that the greatest battle rapper of all time is still James Todd Smith, b.k.a. LL Cool J.
Bear in mind that “greatest” doesn’t necessarily mean most skilled or talented. Jerry Rice is widely regarded as the greatest wide receiver of all time–possibly even the greatest single football player of all time. Randy Moss is more talented–faster, quicker, higher vertical–but Rice is greater because talent only accounts for so much. Execution accounts for much more. LL wasn’t even a more skilled rapper than some of the people he directly battled, much less every rapper of all time. But he’s still the greatest because he embodied the spirit and tenacity of battling that the MC’s who are damn near making a living off of battling these days have to display because it’s a major part of their livelihood. For LL it was something he could have very easily left alone, but didn’t.
Let’s go back to the initial, big disputes that once made Cool J synonymous with battling, despite the fact that he was more notable and successful in the mainstream as a dude who made songs for the ladies. Most people immediately think of the back-and-forth he had with Kool Moe Dee. And if we’re being honest, in terms of pure skill displayed, Moe Dee probably won. His alliterative eight-bar abuse of the double-L’s on “Let’s Go” is smarter and more creative than LL’s humor (“got the nerve to have them Star Trek shades on”) on “To Da Break of Dawn”, or his unchecked, haphazard anger on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” LL is perceived as the winner in part because his career lasted while Moe Dee’s didn’t. But whether he won or lost isn’t of most importance here. People tend to forget that on “To Da Break of Dawn,” LL went after Moe Dee, Ice-T and MC Hammer, dedicating one verse to each. That’s going coast to coast, pop to gangster on one track. He went at three major names all at once, and even after the conflicts had passed, he was quick to bring it up again, apropos of nothing, years later on the “I Shot Ya” remix, which was also rumored to be a shot at Tupac.
In short, by then LL had already lived up to his lyrics from “Rock the Bells”: “…battle anybody I don’t care who you tell.” But he wasn’t done.
If you’ve read this far and knew all of the things I’ve referenced above, you don’t need me to recap the LL Cool J and Canibus battle, or its origins. But to reinforce my argument here, I feel the need to at least set the stage a bit, and remind people of how big a deal Canibus was at the time. Canibus released a gold-selling, dense-lyricism-heavy debut at the height of shiny-suit, bling-bling rap’s takeover. The album’s only somewhat viable single was the response to LL. While there are a few tracks that dyed-in-the-wool Canibus fans can fall back on as a defense, even Canibus would acknowledge on his second album that the first one was a flop. Yet it sold over half a million copies on the strength of Canibus’s reputation and promise alone. He was that big of a deal at the time.
It’s important to remember that, because otherwise you could mistake LL’s unprovoked verse targeting Canibus on “4,3,2,1” as a bully move. Instead, at the time, LL looked more like Don Quixote, a delusional warrior itching for a fight, only this time he’d come across an actual beast instead of a harmless windmill. Or, for a less classical reference, it was as if Rocky IV had begun with Rocky meeting Drago at a charity event and then smacking him in the face for no apparent reason. Compare this action to a guy like Eminem–an undisputed lyrical behemoth who owed his career, in part, to battle rapping–whose most notable diss lines and tracks tend to target pop stars.1
When Canibus dropped “2nd Round Knockout,” there was uncertainty as to whether LL would even respond, much less present a challenge. Then a strange thing happened; LL released “The Ripper Strikes Back” and suddenly had the underdog effect on his side. Lyrically, some people think Canibus defeated LL. I’m not one of those people. While certain “hardcore” fans tend to want to immediately hand the win to Canibus, that disregards the fact that Canibus had more than his share of sketchy lines on “2nd Round.” LL, meanwhile, released a ferocious but blatantly bloated answer; “Ripper Strikes Back” could and should have been edited to about half its length, and even then its best lines would’ve been heavily reliant on flipping lyrics Canibus had already said. Ultimately it didn’t matter. The fact that LL responded with any strength at all was a stunner. He’d instigated a fight with someone who was expected to squash him–a perceived battling machine so reputed Eminem based a bar around Canibus’s reputation–and when Canibus retaliated, LL responded with the tenacity of someone aggrieved, as though Canibus had picked the fight with him. It was amazing. At that point, he basically couldn’t lose. The fact that he effectively predicted Canibus’s “career [would] be over next year” all but solidified it.
Nowadays, battlers call each other out all of the time, either to raise their own profile or just because they love the sport of it. Again, the distinction with LL was that he didn’t have to do it. His career was still strong at that point–strong enough that Def Jam was using his single to help break DMX to the masses. And yet there he was, risking a loss to a rising talent that could have rendered him a laughing stock. Unwilling to stop there, LL also took shots at people who were merely associated with Canibus, dragging Wyclef into the battle as well. Unnecessary? Sure. Fun? Absolutely. He was on a Sterling Archer-esque rampage. And restoring that element of “fun” might be the biggest gift LL gave to battle rap.
At the time there hadn’t been a purely “hip-hop” battle–sans genuine animosity and threats of violence–between two major label artists since 2pac and Biggie had died. Ice Cube and Cypress Hill were at each others throats, but that had rapidly escalated into a potentially volatile situation before being squashed, the ghosts of the recently deceased looming and helping motivate the truce. In the aftermath of 2pac and Biggie’s murders, Common and Ice Cube had also gone out of their way to resolve their verbal dispute. There was some thought that the era of diss tracks was over. “Keeping it real” had subsumed the music into the everyday world; clever, aggressive rhymes over a beat couldn’t rest as lyrics anymore, they were seen as wholly sincere. LL opens “The Ripper Strikes Back” by saying he’s just having fun with some hip-hop. A small gesture, possibly an ad lib, but one that helped demarcate battle rap from real world “beef” again.
Compared to other outstanding MC’s, bar for bar and track for track, you can’t give LL the “Greatest of All Time” crown. But given his tenacity for battling, his commitment to it, his willingness to challenge top tier opponents time and again even when it would’ve been a safer career move to go another route, I have no problem arguing he’s the greatest and most important battle rapper hip-hop has ever had.