What Rap Battles Teach You About New Markets
“Who you battlin?”
I walked up to my interrogator, a tall guy with two shoulder length braids and a backwards hat, and told him I was here for him.
I stood next him and looked up at him.
People around him went Ooooohhhh!!
Not all crazy like some 8 Mile moment. But something.
It was supposed to be obvious, but I wasn’t there to battle anyone. I'd ridden my bike there, shown up early, and was wearing pants-cut-into-shorts and a cheesy $5 t-shirt from a grocery store in Maine. I was clearly not hip hop
I don’t remember what Anymal said after my little charade of pretend toughness, but it got a better reaction than my dumb little move.
By the time the whole battle thing actually got started, I had paired up with the Jewish kid who turned out to be a rap battle encyclopedia. He knew everything. Who had battled who. Who was a rapper and who was just in the crew. I didn’t verify any of it, but what's it matter.
He was a dork, but I ended up getting hooked too.
And since I was early in a totally disappointing grad school program, I took it way further than I needed to.
I read all the background materials on stuff like ritual insults. I studied all the sociolinguistic stuff on rap battles. I watched like 50 battle videos. Then I transcribed all the ones with a white emcee and a black emcee, which was probably a dozen of them.
And there was this huge glaring flaw in the academic stuff.
It didn't match the real world at all.
Every article, every book said that blackness was the most valued characteristic in rap, in hip-hop, and in battles. You had to be afraid of it, to avoid it, to accept that blackness trumped.
Somebody wrote that in a paper years ago and everybody repeated it and based everything they did on it.
But the white guys never read that stuff. They were making fun of black emcees for being too black, then too white, called them race traitors, said they supported slavery, made fun of them for not having any black friends.
Kind of brutal stuff.
Everything they weren’t supposed to say, according to the rules that had been written down, they did. (except the n-word. Nobody crossed that line).
They walked into a new market every time they battled. Uncertain rules. Uncertain boundaries. Uncertain audience reception and willingness to go along with challenges to the status quo.
Markets are governed by lots of spoken rules, and a few really meaningful unspoken rules.
To succeed you were always supposed to play nice with the rules. You were supposed to aim for common ground - lots of the old way of doing things and just a couple tiny splashes of new.
Some MBA said that.
That won't win white guys rap battles.
If the academics were right, and this expected and regimented behavior was supposed to be followed, the white emcees should've been booted from the battles. The crowds should have booed and harassed them. They should've lost every battle. Their willingness not to cross the line over and over would have been socially safe, but professionally weak.
And that's the difference!
Being able to tell that what your crowd loves isn't blackness but bravado.
I'd love to say that the rules changed, but it's more likely they were just written down wrong in the first place. People saw them once on paper and followed suit, making the wrong assumptions, carrying on with skewed visions, and the wrong addictions to past thinking.
People literally spent careers becoming experts in the wrong problem.
I know it sounds like they're stupid for falling for it, but we're all in the same boat.
Any time we create a product or launch a company or start a nonprofit to solve a problem, we think we're after the right thing. We think we know what the real issue is.
But social landscapes and markets are always shifting.
And maybe the worst thing you can do is shortcut yourself by assuming the last guy was right.