Art of War: The Professional’s Guide to Battle Rapping

Like Roxanne Shanté and the Real Roxanne, Nas and Jay Z, Drake and Meek Mill—and countless trigger/Twitter-fingered others before her, Remy Ma joined the ranks of rappers who name names on wax this past weekend with the diss track “ShETHER.” Gunning for Nicki Minaj, Remy took aim at everything from Onika’s ass shots to her brother’s alleged sex crimes, leaving Nicki running to Beyoncé for shelter. After seven minutes of detailing prices, places, times, dates and eyewitnesses, the Barbz weren’t the only ones sputtering—Remy sounded a little breathless. Most rappers aren’t used to that kind of exertion.

However, battle rappers are. They’e in insanely good mental and verbal shape. They’re like the Usain Bolts of rap. So who better to judge the best diss track to come out in years?

We called two veterans of the battle rap scene—Nocando, a West Coast legend and 2007 Scribble Jam winner, and Bonnie Godiva, the Yonkers born and bred microphone goddess with 35 battles’ worth of bars to her name—to give us pro tips on strategy, avoiding the most common fails, and how to recover when you get too close to taking that L. Then they graded Remy Ma’s “ShETHER.”

As Biggie once put it, fuck that beef shit. Here’s how to be a lean and mean battler instead.

So, You Want to Be a Battle Rapper?

Nocando: You have to be a really competitive person. I think that what makes a battle rapper. Who’s cracking the best joke? That one-up-manship is everything. It’s an attitude problem. In battle rap it works well, in life it fucks you up. Someone comes up to you and say, “Nice hat.” You’re like, “What the fuck you mean, nice hat!?”

Bonnie: I’m bars over everything, but it’s not just about bars anymore. They wanna see delivery, performance, they wanna know you mean what you say, confidence. All that is on top of bars.

Nocando: My favorite people are just fuckin’ funny. It’s all fun to them. It’s really hard to beat someone who’s having fun and is really good and playful.

Bonnie: In New York, they care more about aggression. If you’re not like that and you don’t have enough original content to capture them? They have ADD. They’re way different from the west coast who like to hear bars and scheme. They just wanna hear yelling.


The Strategy

Nocando: Modern times, it’s more preparation, at least for me. Somebody tells you two months before that you’re gonna battle Megatron from the Transformers. I sit back and conceptualize what this person is. I brand him. You got three different rounds and it’s three different approaches. You gotta sit down and write.

Bonnie: I write better under pressure. I’ve written three or four weeks early and given myself the time to perform it perfectly but I feel like it wasn’t my best material. When I’m jamming in the last three days before the battle, I feel like it’s my best stuff. If you’re able to memorize fast like I am, then you can play around with the time. But if you know you need that extra time, you wanna have your battle written and done with at least two weeks to practice performing.

Nocando: Winning Scribble for me took freestyling a lot. You practice at a house party—I make a punchline about a girl with a big booty, you talk about the homies hat. I had to do a lot of that so I was flexible enough to be able to do that onstage. Modern rap is rhythmically behind a little bit. Every consonant falls right behind the snare. Battle rap is ahead of it. It’s attacking.


The Warm-Up

Nocando: I smoke a cigarette, drink a beer. To calm the nerves. I’m not nervous, I’m excited. It’s “I a wish a nigga would” time. It’s not “I hope a nigga don’t.”

Bonnie: I can’t smoke or drink. I don’t do anything like that before a battle.

Nocando: I’m not a real cool dude. I’m not hanging out with the guys. The guys from the written era? They just chillin’. Since I’m from the freestyle era, I can’t really distract myself. I think it’s good to have your mind absolutely blank. You don’t want to waste any energy overthinking shit that hasn’t happened yet. Then your brain is holding onto things it doesn’t need to say.

Bonnie: I mediate the day before. I don’t watch too many battles or go to any events. I want mine fresh in my head. I hate hearing a bar that I have, too. I stay to myself until after I battle, then it’s one big party.


The Win

Bonnie: There are people who will get street on you, but I’m more of a roasting battler.  I’m gonna lean back and embarrass you in front of everybody. Who has something I can pick on? When I battle bigger people, I’m a little mean on the weight topic.

Nocando: You can’t be a bitch and get hurt, but I have sensitivity and a chip on my shoulder. Some one says some shit and I react and control that reaction and turn it into a punchline, it becomes relevant and a part of the theater. It’s reversal of a move.

Bonnie: I know you’re gonna try to take my head off with whatever tactic you have, so I’m relentless. I’m gonna kill you back. I apologize before, but that’s what my pen wrote. I have to say it.

Nocando: Because I’m from that nerdy Scribble Jam kinda thing, I’m already expecting someone to say, “You wear skinny jeans, you talk like a white guy, you watch anime, you have kids.” It’s really psychotic. But anybody that’s good doesn’t say generic shit about [Project] Blowed or kids or jeans. Anything that the average Joe can think of, that nigga took an L off top.

Bonnie: But if you’re saying something I’ve never heard before? That’s fire. If you’re well-rounded and you look like you know what you’re doing up there, there’s no way to lose a battle unless the other person came top notch. Then it comes down to who’s hungrier.

Nocando: You don’t listen. I personally don’t listen and still won.

Bonnie: I really don’t listen too much. I listen to a few things that I hear the crowd react to, cause I’ll try to rebuttal it or come back with a freestyle, ‘cause that takes away their steam. But other than that, I’m tuned into what I’m about to say.

Nocando: How you win battles, period: This is gonna sound corny but beyond technique, the athletic and cerebral parts of writing, the projecting? How you win is winning hearts.


The Fatal Error

Bonnie: I don’t care if my opponent asks if I like candy, is the sky blue. I’m not answerin’ nothing. I’m in there with a stone face. No hand shaking, we not doing none of that. I put my hand out to shake your hand, you gonna move it and I’m gonna look stupid. When you look enmotional, you lose. You can’t tell when I’m mad, sad. Just laughing.

Nocando: The only way to crash and burn is to freeze. There’s people who freeze up and they can’t do it, they take an L. You forget your material and start talking to the crowd, “Ah, give me a chance!,” you bitch out a little bit. “I wasn’t ready!” That’s the fuckin’ worst. But the biggest fail is when you admit defeat before. “I’m not even a battle rapper, I don’t even do this!” Man, you signed up for this!

Taking an L

Nocando: There are a hundred ways for it to go wrong.

Bonnie: Choking. That’s a loss of a round to me. There’s no reason to choke. I’ve battled 35 times and I’ve choked twice for a couple seconds. Throw in a freestyle, hell, throw in a mixtape verse. Just don’t stand there quietly.

Nocando: A fatal error is taking a mistake seriously. Never worry about a mistake you made. You fuck up right now? You still gotta do something four bars later. Why you thinking about 1 minute 20 seconds when you gotta deal with 1 min 40 seconds?

Bonnie: If you choke for a minute or half a minute, you lost that round to me. Most rounds are only three minutes. Even if you have better stuff—your opponent rapped the whole time and no slips, you didn’t complete your job of finishing that round.

Nocando: Somebody’s gotta lose. It’s not looked at like, ahhh fuck, you lost! It’s the end! Nah, this is the world you’re in. It’s like saying Jordan lost. Admit the L – every great rapper has a song where they say some shit that is stupid as fuck.


The Recovery

Nocando: There’s a chance you’re gonna say, “I beat his head like a Congo.” That’s  country not a drum. But whatever. Move on to the next bar and act like it didn’t happen.

Bonnie: You can recover from a choke. It depends how quickly. I’ve seen people stumble. That’s very different. A stumble, you get your words mixed up and go back in. A choke, you stop and pause, then start again. I don’t take a tongue twist into account.

Nocando: You look at Eminem? All these videos taken down, but in his final round when the nigga ran out of written raps? It was just him cursing and calling niggas faggots for five minutes. You gotta keep playing, I guess.


So How Did Remy Ma Do?

Bonnie: I liked what she was talking about, and I’m about to sound hypocritical: She had a lot of punches, but I can’t deal with Remy’s flow. If you sound the same on everything it annoys me. I liked what she was saying, and if Nicki don’t come back she definitely died. But when you coming against someone like Nicki who has the flow and the bars, you have to match her in both areas. And if Nicki comes back I’m not sure Remy has any more information to drop—‘cause she dropped seven minutes of stuff on her! She might have nothing else to say. It was fire and she was sayin’ truth, but I can’t get with her flow. It’s in 1995.

Nocando: I’m from the West Coast. It’s literally the wild west. I’ll kill everybody! But somebody will kill me. I’ve always cracked up at that whole “king of New York” shit. What?

You know how Pacquiao was like, “Come on, Mayweather, fight me! Fight me fight me!” Mayweather was like, “I don’t wanna fight you clown.” Once you say, “I want that fade,” you already give that person power. You put the attention on them. Even if you say something bad about them, you still talking about them. You given them a lot of thought.

As a battle rapper I’ve seen Remy on some street shit, and being able to do it do it do it! I think she’s amazing. But the thing about battle rappers is—I had to stop battle-rapping for three or four years and start smoking weed and taking trips to Mexico to get over that shit. It’s almost trying to make art an athletic thing. I think how many hurtful things, how many punches you deliver, nothing matters as much as records. While they are worried about beefing and battles, they are distracting themselves from records. Female artists like Kamaiyah are writing songs about her friend dying of cancer and more real life shit and it’s touching people.

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