Business Ethics and Battle Rap: Milwaukee’s Rise to Becoming Midwest’s Battle Rap Capital
Let’s get this shit out of the way. There is no B Rabbit, no Papa Doc, and nobody named Cheddar Bob that shoots themselves.
So, now that the “8 Mile” jokes are out of the way, we can get started.
Milwaukee Battle Rap is serious. Between the rhymes, schemes, gun bars, name flips, rebuttals, online shit talking and crowd comradery, there is a big business booming in Hip-Hop’s underground.
For those that can shake the room, and get a “LET’S GO!” edge a bit closer to the main stage. The competition is cutthroat, but for those dedicated enough to refine their raw talents, it is a launch pad to leagues across the United States. Some even make it to battle rap’s most respected stage, the Smack Ultimate Rap League (URL).
Battlers are the talent, booking agents and marketing teams. League owners are working full-time jobs, all while planning battles and ensuring quality content at events and online. The brash in-your-face competition even attracts fans to cut in on a piece of the profits.
With the competitive nature of battle rap, egos and drama can fracture potential partnerships, but Milwaukee’s tight-knit battle rap community has sparked a renaissance for entrepreneurs and artists to take it upon themselves to push the craft farther then it has ever gone before.
League Owners: The Face and Backbone of the Brand
Battle rap is really about putting on an experience. Between booking battles, finding a venue and promoting events, league owners are usually running around until the battlers are face-to-face. They are setting up production equipment, mingling with battlers and even hopping behind the counter serving food. They are investing as much of their time and money into the league as any other entrepreneur would be opening a business.
Milwaukee has numerous battle leagues including: Black Ice Cartel, Heat Rock Battle League, Say Mercy Battle League, Go Hard or Go Home, Underground Battle League, Art of War 414 and Spit Dat Heat.
Since 2011, the Black Ice Cartel has released some of the Midwest’s most highly anticipated battles. The Cartel is a family business. Sister and brother league owners, Black Ice and Jon Dough have been pushing the boundaries in battle rap since the beginning.
Black Ice is the face of the league, and Jon Dough covers the booking and creative side.
Their goal was to create a monster Midwest roster that could go toe-to-toe with the leagues in New York and LA. From cage matches and three-way battles, to special video effects and high quality camera work, Cartel has pushed local battlers for excellence, revived prominent battle careers and secured lifelong fans in the process.
“I threw one event, and the fans wouldn’t let us stop throwing them,” Black Ice said.
Jon Dough said building the league had been an uphill fight from the beginning, but by weeding out bad business partnerships, they had been able to excel.
“If you’re standing next to somebody known for doing bad business, it’s going to make you look like you do bad business, and we take that into account. So, when people look at us like we’re not friendly with other people, it’s just that we put the business first. We’re blood, so this is a family thing. Our loyalty does not come down to the dollar, it comes down to being a real and genuine person, and that’s how we’ve carried ourselves since day one,” John Dough said.
Along with setting up heavily-requested battles, Cartel takes pride in their video quality and online presence. Whether it’s Black Ice’s cold battle introductions to John Dough’s video and sound effects, the videos express how serious they are about quality.
“When we first came into battle rap, nobody really cared about the camera work, it was like recording off Game-Boy quality and shit. We came in here like, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right,’” Jon Dough said.
“When there are a million leagues, you have to do something to stand out. They can continue to copy, but in order to do that, they have to stay in your shadow to do it.”
The Underground Battle League (UBL) is a new player in the Midwest battle rap circuit. G-Gray wears both hats as a local battler and as the league owner. The UBL first caught steam for its online only battles. It began as a way for battlers working to hone their craft by recording their battle first and posting it online.
“Half the battle is preparation and memorization, so it really helps to be in front of a camera, in a room by yourself, record it and then have people critique it,” G-Gray said. “It was really how we started to build a roster of talent for our live events.”
Over the past year, G-Gray has hosted several battles in Milwaukee. He said he has learned from each battle, whether it was people showing up late, to technical issues. He said unlike some leagues in battle rap, he left his ego at the door and has worked to set up partnerships in Milwaukee and around the country.
The UBL has hosted several events outside of Milwaukee including: New York, Arkansas and Denver. G-Gray said his goal for UBL was to match local talent against lesser known battlers outside of the state.
“We’re finding some of the gems down South, and it’s just about getting them in front of the right people on the right platform,” G-Gray said. “We want other people to go against the Milwaukee scene, so we don’t get the same match ups and it gets stale.”
Battlers: The Performers and Public Marketing Team
Battle rap is 100 percent shit talking and brash bullying. Everything is on the table and nothing is off limits. Your dying grandma, don’t care. Your newborn daughter, it doesn’t matter. Battle rap is disrespectful as hell, but the internal rhyme schemes and performance aspects would have English Lit professors rolling and theater performers at a standing ovation.
A battle rapper’s main goal is to make their opponent look like a bitch, plain and simple. They strive to be top five in their city, and ultimately want their “pen respected.” Some battlers have technical schemes that land with haymakers. Others prove their worth through street tales layered with a “I’m realer than you” aesthetic. A battler must appear unscathed on stage, no matter what is being said to them. One slip up can sway the crowd, and choking can be an instant loss.
Along with memorizing, and perfecting their performance, they have to market themselves to leagues and fans. League owners don’t throw just anybody on the card, and for a battler to get paid, they have to prove that they can shake the room. Fans need to be able to connect with lyrics. They want the traditional punchlines and gun-bars, but also thought provoking lyrics and wordplay. They also want a good show. They want something fresh, interesting and original to the craft.
Black Ice Cartel: BankHead vs JC
BankHead is a highly-ranked Milwaukee battler and crowd favorite. He is animated and aggressive in the ring. His jokes and jabs are met with fatal room-shaking punchlines. His battles have amassed over 500,000 views. He has also stepped onto the Smack stage for a Proving Ground (PG) battle at URL’s “Banned Legacy II” event.
BankHead said battle rap is about having a good personality and being able to connect with fans. Battlers range from street cats to nine-to-fivers. If they can’t come with bars, performance and personality, it’s over.
While promoting battles online, BankHead would always finish his posts with his tagline, “It’s SOUR TIME!” When posts started generating triple digit likes, he knew he was onto something. Now, his marijuana smiley face themed “It’s SOUR TIME!” t-shirts are worn at events across the Midwest.
“It’s very surprising, kind of unbelievable if you ask me. I never thought I’d see people walking around wearing the shirts and supporting me,” BankHead said.
Merchandise has been a booming market for battlers in Milwaukee. Two crews have taken their local rivalry and mastered it into a marketing scheme. When it comes to selling merchandise, and promoting battles, nothing sells more than a good ol’ fashioned rivalry. Whether it’s in-person, on-stage or online, there is plenty of shit talking between Body Gang and Hoodlum Gang.
Body Gang is primarily Black Ice Cartel artists. It hosts a huge list of Midwest heavy hitters including local artists: Killa B, Da Example, Showstoppa, Logik Divine, Buck, Yung LA and Viixen the Assassin.
Killa B is one of Milwaukee’s top battle rappers. His slick street tales are littered with powerful punchlines. His flawless performances are interlaced with witty freestyles and rebuttals. He said it was the fans that inspired Body Gang to finally push out merchandise.
“Body Gang had shirts, but it was only for us, but the fans kept asking. So, we’re finally doing it,” Killa B said.
Hoodlum Gang was the brainchild of up-and-coming heavy weight Hoodlum. After having gone viral twice early on in his career for on-stage antics, he created Hoodlum Gang to cause a stir in the community. He brought on other Milwaukee artists: BMB Mike G, Jay Lopez, LL Coogi and Larry Bull.
“They literally beef with us because they know we’re good, and even better,” Larry Bull said.
A Hoodlum Gang vs Body Gang matchup is equivalent to the Packers vs Bears rivalry. The crews draw out a heavy crowd to see the sets duel, and they both capitalize on it.
“It looks like we don’t mess with each other, but it’s just talking shit,” Killa B said. “When I was coming up, the older guys messed with us, and it just so happens the new guys are all in the same crew. But, it’s good for everybody.”
“A lot of us have battled a lot of them, and it’s just been some of the best battles, favorite battles or exciting battles that have torn down the building,” Larry Bull said.
Check out recent battles here.
UBL: Killa B vs Jay Lopez
Along with merchandise and rivalries, Milwaukee battle rap has its own sponsored sports drink, and the battler behind it has deep roots in the culture.
King Kamonzi has been battling since the late 80’s, and has spit through every era of battle rap. Along with dedicating his life to the culture, he has committed to a healthy and holistic lifestyle. He had been making his own juices and smoothies for years, but it wasn’t until he didn’t make it on stage when his brand was born.
“I was supposed to perform with Ghostface Killah for Hip-Hop week, and something happened on the back end, so I didn’t get to. I was sitting at home a little disgruntled, sipping some juice when I tripped over a watermelon. That’s when I knew what I needed to focus on,” King Kamonzi said.
Red Hi-Drant LLC was created in September 2019, and he has been selling it at battles ever since.
His fresh squeezed juice comes in two flavors. Watermelon is the more universal flavor for the fans and talent. Then, there is King Kamonzi’s famous Fiya Water. It is a juice dedicated to vocalists and battle rappers. The ginger clears mucus in the throat, while the lemon removes the toxins. He said battlers were the first to catch on, and have promoted it from the beginning.
“I have to give credit to the battle rap community of Milwaukee for supporting me first and foremost because they were my first customers and they embraced me. It wasn’t the holistic health crowd or the conscious community, it was these so-called battle rappers that people always claim are broke and cheap. They embraced it by buying the juice and making sure I had promotion,” King Kamonzi said.
Check out recent battles here.
Fans: The Entertained and Entrepreneurs
Technically, the fan’s number one job is to be entertained. The thing about Milwaukee battle rap is that the fans don’t just dabble in it, they are one-hundred percent down for the culture.
Fans are supporting anyway they can. Whether it’s paying covers, or buying their favorite battler’s merch, they push the culture forward. League owners and battlers are also fans of the craft, and this atmosphere weeds out any outside-battle-rap-businesses to tamper with the culture.
It’s almost like a family reunion at battles. Everybody is partying, some of the cousins are preparing for the big game and others are bullshitting and airing out their drama. This close-knit feeling makes battles even more close-knit because nobody is trying to be someone they’re not. It’s just battle rap.
A local group that has capitalized on being themselves is the Point Gawds.
Now, a point from the Point Gawds is a big deal in Milwaukee battle rap. The trio consists of Buck, T Lu and Myia. They stand at the ready for battler’s best bars. When a battler hits their special meter, the fingers come out. The Point Gawds want the hardest, most unique rhymes.
T Lu is a battler and league owner. Buck is a battler, and Myia is a known battle rap fan in the community. When the bars start blazing, there’s no stopping them.
Buck said the “point” was really just a natural reaction to bars. In battle rap, some shake their head, others slap their fists and everybody shouts. After doing the point at several battles last year, it caught on. The trio eventually were coined the Point Gawds. Now they are battle commodities and their merchandise is worn at events across the Midwest.
“Sometimes guys will be like, I wish you would’ve made it to the battle because I was spitting heat, and it was going over their heads,” Buck said. “Sometimes we’re even requested to come to battles.”
Though the crowd enjoys their antics, some league owners have cracked down on the Point Gawds.
“It’s a natural reaction, Myia might point at something I don’t point at, so we’re not doing this to be extra, but we respect their space and back off if they ask,” Buck said.
The Point Gawds have taken their alter egos, the Snap Squad, at toned down events, but they have capitalized on a brand that was entirely their own.
Another hot commodity in Milwaukee battle rap is the Chicken Lady.
The Chicken Lady is almost a mythical figure in battle rap. Nobody really knows when she’s going to arrive, but when the smells of fried chicken begin floating throughout the air, the line begins to form.
The Chicken Lady got her start at Cartel events. Black Ice wanted to step it up for the food at their events, so she asked her cousin to come through and fry some chicken and fries. Since the first wing hit the oil, the Chicken Lady’s legacy has been deep-fried in battle rap history.
“It’s a great experience, I get to meet people from all walks of life. I enjoy cooking, even though it may get rough sometimes, but I’m glad everybody likes the chicken,” she said.
She is a fan of battle rap, and it just so happens her chicken is known throughout seven states because of it.
“You have to start somewhere, everybody’s got to get their craft up and battle rap is the best ways to do it, some of the best have started there,” she said.
Milwaukee and the New Midwest Movement
Battle rap is experiencing a renaissance. Every day it seems like something new pops up. Whether it’s Smack URL’s new mobile app, which allows fans to watch pay-per-view battles in the palm of their hands, to battle-based social media groups and podcasts, that push the conversation far after events. The culture is constantly moving forward.
The top battlers throughout the Midwest have even taken it upon themselves to break state lines and highlight the Midwest’s best battle rappers. The New Midwest Movement is hosting its first event with battlers from eight states for the Bar4Bar “Midwest Legacy” event on Sept. 27 in Euclid, Ohio.
Battle rap may not be for most, but for those that love watching two lyricists shred each other apart, the culture is in good hands. There may be drama, beef, egos, on-stage antics and crowd outbursts, but once the camera turns on, it’s only about one thing and one thing only: Bars.