Some people watch sports; I watch rap battles.
There’s a lot to be said about the history of battle rap, including the fact that the Oscar-winning movie 8 Mile pretty much plucked it out of obscurity and plastered it on silver screens the world over. It used to only be accessible to people who were willing to travel to see it at events like Scribble Jam or had fancy cable TV packages as were necessary to view HBO’s Blaze Battles. The S.M.A.C.K. DVD series gained notoriety for its presentation of battles between legends like Serius Jones, Murda Mook, Iron Solomon, and Math Hoffa. In 2006, the UK-based company Jump-Off.tv hosted a worldwide freestyle battle tournament called the World Rap Championships, otherwise known as the WRCs. This tag-team tourney was famous for truly launching West Coast rappers Illmaculate and TheSaurus into battle rap stardom, even more so when they returned for WRC07 only to win again. In the aftermath of Jump-Off’s decline, two powerhouse leagues, GrindTimeNow and King of the Dot, rose to prominence.
For the record: I skipped over Fight Klub, 106 & Park’s Freestyle Friday segments, Cassidy vs. Freeway, stuff I forgot, and a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t actually know too much about (The Elements League, for example). I’m also going to skip over URL (for the most part) and other contemporary leagues because the point of this post is to explain why, based on my somewhat limited information, I think KOTD was bound to surpass GTN.
Although as a movement, the incredible momentum of GTN is undebatable, its founders have admitted on multiple occasions that the way they built the league was unbecoming of an entity that was to ever succeed as an actual business. Drect and WRC veteran Madd Illz are often credited as being the main co-founders of GTN, although California’s infamous ad-libber Lush One made significant contributions during the initial expansion into the West Coast region. In his farewell blog post regarding Grind Time, Drect is quoted as saying:
GT was not started as a business, it was started as a hobby. There should have been contracts and paperwork taken care of from the jump, but we just went off of the trust/buddy system, which can only hold up for so long.
Some of the major problems with Grind Time that I can recall from the past few years were as follows:
- Math Hoffa vs. T-Rex and the rise of URL
- Jin vs. Illmaculate and Jin vs. Dizaster
- Kap Kallous’s resignation
- Avocado’s departure and GTN’s declining footage quality
- Over-expansion and lack of quality control
Math, from what I understand, first started getting attention for battling Iron Solomon as well as another rapper named Dose, whose face Math became well-known for punching on camera in front of a huge crowd (he has since expressed some remorse on Twitter for how things turned out).
T-Rex has mostly been known as an associate of Murda Mook, although I’ve heard rumors that until Mook’s viral S.M.A.C.K. battles were released it was actually the other way around, with Mook playing the sidekick to Rex. I assume, as is the case with many anticipated battles, rude and/or arrogant things were said and the tension between Math and T-Rex grew over time. Eventually, GTN offered to host an official battle between the two. They agreed, and fans rejoiced when former East Coast General Manager PH held up the signed contract for all of YouTube to see. According to Drect, one or both parties involved were not paid the correct amount, and the battle fell through. He attributes the creation of URL to this fiasco. URL went on to host the battle and the rest is history.
Jin is perhaps best known for being beaten by Serius Jones. It’s sad, but I’m just calling it like I see it. He also had a successful run on 106 & Park and at some point before having battled Serius, he obtained a record deal with the now defunct Ruff Ryders Entertainment, making him the first Chinese solo artist in the hip hop genre to be signed to a major record label in the United States. Ron Burgundy would say that Jin is kind of a big deal, even though his tendency to freestyle rather than write his lines in advance, as many battle rappers do, is somewhat archaic and has put him at a disadvantage on more than one occasion. Dizaster, then still somewhat of an up-and-comer, challenged Jin to a battle via a video blog on YouTube, and Jin, surprising many battle rap fans, accepted, but on one condition: he would also be given the chance to battle veteran Illmaculate on the same day. Illmaculate gave the green light and things seemed to be moving along smoothly until all of a sudden, it appeared that Jin had backed out of both battles. Drect says that “someone released the flyer too soon and Jin’s manager became angry at [GTN’s] unprofessionalism.” Drect went on to say that he sympathizes greatly with Jin because many of GTN’s battlers, online viewers, and event attendees slandered Jin for months when in reality it would seem that “[Jin] was just trying to help [Grind Time] out.” All in all, this and other similar instances (such as when New York battlers Cortez and DNA ended up not making the trip out to California to battle Detroit vets Quest MCODY and Marv Won at GTN West’s “Massacre of the Bay” event) served to tarnish GTN’s image as a respectable and well-organized battle rap league.
Kap Kallous, the former General Manager of Grind Time South, put in an ungodly amount of work when it came to organizing GrizzleMania 2, the sequel to the well-received GrizzleMania event. Kap reportedly paid for everything out of pocket and did so with the expectation of receiving an appropriate portion of the sponsorship money. Despite the memorable list of heavy-hitters, including highly anticipated comeback appearances by Mac Lethal and Iron Solomon, Drect says that almost no large brands agreed to sponsor GrizzleMania 2. It would be a lie to say that the event itself went off without a hitch, as Iron Solomon was apparently supposed to battle Reed Dollaz, who, according to Drect, “stopped picking up the phone.” E Ness stepped up to the plate and luckily, E Ness vs. Iron Solomon turned out to be one of the best-received battles in the history of GTN. Still, even after putting on a show that resulted in some of the most intense battles GTN has seen fit to release, Kap Kallous had yet to receive any reimbursements, and sought out a percentage of Grind Time’s elusive Google AdSense checks. Drect was down to pay him, but some of the others involved in the discussion disagreed. Kap and Madd Illz became bigger rivals than ever, and eventually, that enmity led Kap to leave his post as the Florida GM. I don’t think it helped that GrizzleMania 2 wasn’t the first time that Kap had accidentally been done dirty on GTN soil. He battled Syd Vicious, the GTNATL General Manager, at an event in Atlanta but the audio for the battle was lost or perhaps was never even correctly recorded. As a result, the battle was never released, and the only reason I knew it even happened was because I saw the silent footage playing on a TV behind Kap as he spoke about the incident on YouTube.
Kyle Gray, or Avocado, as he is likely better known by viewers of rap battles, is a videographer and graphic designer who currently works for the (mostly) Canadian battle league King of the Dot. For a while, though, he worked with Grind Time, mostly if not entirely with GTN West. With Phillip Drummond, he released “Fresh Coast: The Documentary,” which chronicled some of the history of West Coast battle rap scene, dubbed the “Fresh Coast.” Avocado left GTN after he did not receive full payment on various occasions. I’ve always been a fan of how Avocado has handled shooting battle videos, and I’ve seen the Fresh Coast documentary more than once. It’s safe to say that I was sad to see him go. I was further disappointed when I saw what happened to GTN’s footage quality in the post-Avocado era. BOLA (Battle of Los Angeles) 4 featured, in my opinion at least, some of the worst looking footage released under the Grind Time name. This was likely not entirely the fault of the new videographer, as GTN West had found a new venue very much unlike the ones that had hosted most of their previous events, such as Battle of the Bay volumes 1 through 5. This new venue was more like the ones the New York division tends to use, but unlike the more recent GTN East Coast battles, was shot from the perspective of the crowd. It’s possible that the West Coast battles were always shot from that perspective, but the shape of the BOLA 4 venue only allowed the crowd to stand on one side of the stage on which the battles took place. Still, despite the high definition video boom that occurred when YouTube provided its users with the ability to upload HD quality videos didn’t save Grind Time’s battles from bad (red and deep orange) lighting, uncomfortable camera angles, and other related issues.
One of GrindTimeNow’s greatest mistakes was creating far too many divisions. Currently, the list of divisions includes the following, and possibly others that I don’t know about:
- New York (NYC)
- New York (Upstate)
- West Coast (California)
- South (Florida)
- South (Atlanta)
- DMV (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia)
I think that if one doesn’t count Jump-Off (there were several international divisions including the UK, the US, and Australia in the WRCs), the addition of Grind Time Australia made GTN the first battle rap league to exist in multiple countries, and on that same note, the first to have divisions on multiple continents. Don’t worry. I’m not about to blame GTN Australia for the fall of GTN. I’m half Australian. I probably couldn’t do it even if I thought it made sense.
The over-expansion of GTN did, however, put a huge dent in the quality control, and because Drect insisted on editing many of the battles himself, the release rate of the battle videos declined as well. This isn’t necessarily Drect’s fault as a video editor so much as it is his and the other CEOs’ faults as businesspeople. Having more divisions was inevitably going to lead to having more battles, and having more battles was definitely going to lead to more video editing. Slower video editing equals more time in between when the battles take place and when they actually get uploaded. More important than the release rates, as I mentioned, is the quality control. When you increase the size of the haystack, finding the needles becomes proportionally more difficult. Grind Time was and has been no exception.
This is where I’ll make the transition into talking a little about King of the Dot.
I ordered a “toque,” or a beanie/knit cap for those of you who are as unfamiliar with this term as I once was, from KOTD recently, and when it finally arrived this past week, I was surprised to find that it came with an Volume 5 of KOTD’s magazine. Organik, Canadian underground rapper, battle rapper, and the founder of King of the Dot Entertainment, wrote an article for this issue detailing how far KOTD has come and what some of his goals are for the future of the company. The following is an excerpt:
League-wide, the first revision to the KOTD structure we implemented this past year and will continue to improve is our tier system. As you may know, Prove Yourself became our sole try-out circuit, with Ground Zero being redefined as its own intermediate nationwide league for those who made it through try-outs to earn their stripes in front of a larger audience, while only top-tier competition will be showcased in what will be labeled as simply KOTD events. This system came from the acknowledgement of the fact that most KOTD subscribers and fans are largely concerned with our best and most seasoned battlers. To do them and their favorite competitors justice, we shifted all high level battles under the KOTD banner exclusively, preserving our league’s high standard of quality.
While they’re not the first ones or the only ones in the battle circuit to implement a try-out league, as the NYC (The Draft) and West Coast (The Bar Exam) divisions both have similar kinds of proving grounds (so to speak), I’m pretty sure that KOTD is the first to have come up with two different levels of trying out. This structure will soon render the concept of “main event battles” obsolete, as KOTD will now be able to host events that include only the kinds of battles that would have once been considered to be worthy of main event status.
As long as I’ve already mentioned the fact that I purchased a hat from KOTD, I want to speak briefly on Grind Time’s minimal merchandising. The original Grind Time logo, which fans have repeatedly said was better than its current one, was featured on some shirts that were sold a couple of years ago. I don’t remember exactly who sold them, but I remember Lush One being in a vlog holding one of them, so maybe he was in charge of that. I was looking forward to being able to buy one of these shirts, but they were in short supply, and GTN didn’t appear to sell the shirts in a size small enough for my skinny self. Later on, after GTN changed their logo as a result of a trademarking issue with their original graphic designer, I saw a promotional widget for GTN’s newer merchandise. As a proprietor of a Zazzle shop, I immediately recognized the format, and scowled just as quickly.
This isn’t a shot at Zazzle; I’m grateful to have access to such a site, and with the right settings, it’s easy to turn out decent quality merchandise for free, even though some items by nature end up on the pricey side. On the other hand, I mainly use that site because I’m too hesitant to sufficiently invest in my own career. The realization that GTN and I were on the same merchandising platform (and, if I may say, the added realization that many of my products looked better than theirs) disappointed me, because I thought that GTN should have done better than what I’d done for my own feeble career.
KOTD, however, met and probably exceeded my expectations when I opened their envelope. I’d gotten not only the hat I’d asked for, but also the magazine I mentioned (which, barring some obvious typos, was a much better quality publication than I’d expected of a battle rap league) as well as an official KOTD ashtray, which I currently use to house spare change.
I honestly used to hate KOTD because the introductory segments of their videos took forever, and as a self-hating white rapper, seeing so many multi-syllable-oriented white people in one video used to give me headaches. Ever since Dumbfoundead and TheSaurus debuted on their cameras, however, I’ve had an eye on King of the Dot’s progress and I’ve grown to respect their movement more and more. After a while, I started tweeting that KOTD might be on the verge of being better than GTN, and around the time the World Domination and 2v2 Grand Prix videos started being released, I’d pretty much decided that my prediction was an accurate one.
Here is a short list of things I may or may not have mentioned that I currently appreciate about KOTD, but won’t delve too far into:
- Their consistency in choice of venues and their ability to not get kicked out of said venues
- The heretofore increasing and now borderline cinematic footage quality
- The caliber and increasing diversity with regard to battling styles, ethnicities, and nationalities
- Their careful expansion into America by way of the new Fresh Coast division, headed by Lush One
- Their ability to draw in a higher tier of celebrity at their events (Drake, Classified, Raekwon, Reef the Lost Cauze, etc.)
- My new hat
The title of this post is not meant to be seen as an insult to Grind Time. In fact, it was created mostly as a result of me trying to be clever while still trying to capture the essence of something I hadn’t completely written yet. Now that this post is about to come to a close, I can see that although I stuck to the intended subject, I didn’t directly approach the statement I made in the title, which was that GTN “paved the way” for King of the Dot. I think the explanation is pretty simple: KOTD learned from GTN’s successes and mistakes, just as all battle leagues created after GTN have done and will continue to do. I still feel, however, that KOTD has a different connection to Grind Time than do some other contemporary battle leagues, such as URL, because so many battlers from GTN have acknowledged the viability of the frontier that is King of the Dot, whereas only some battlers who got their start on GTN’s YouTube page will ever be able to fit the URL “mold,” as it were. KOTD seems to accept all comers, so long as they are talented, whereas some other leagues are more stringent in ways that are not necessarily practical nor oriented toward pleasing their fans or the fans of other leagues.
I’ll end this with one last quote from Drect:
As many times as people bash GT, NO ONE CAN ERASE HOW MANY TIMES WE MADE HISTORY. THREE PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T KNOW SHIT ABOUT BUSINESS CREATED THE WORLDS LARGEST RAP BATTLE LEAGUE AND HELPED CHANGE HIPHOP.
This is true. On behalf of battle rap fans, I want to thank Grind Time a thousand times over for each battle they’ve given us that helped us laugh, get us through otherwise bad days, and even inspire us to do more with our lives. You reminded us that regular people can do great things, and are even capable of making a huge difference in an industry as over-saturated with nonsense, mediocrity, and red tape as hip hop is. Seriously, guys, thanks, and good luck to you, Drect, with the Elite Battling Association. If you’ve learned half as much from this experience as I think you have, I’m sure EBA will be a phenomenal league.
That having been said, once the “Most Hated” tournament ends, GTN should probably exit the premises gracefully and make room for KOTD. That Makaveli event is going to be something serious.
Thanks for reading.
Thanks again, everybody.)
It looks like GTN isn’t going down without a fight. Good luck.)
(ADDENDUM III: I feel like an idiot for not remembering to come back to this post and change the event name. “Makaveli” was changed to “Vendetta” for reasons that are unknown to me, although I’m sure there’s a lot of red tape involved when one attempts to legally use Tupac’s name(s) or image for commercial purposes. In any case, if you want to google these battles, search “kotd vendetta” and not “kotd makaveli” for the best results.)