Buenos Cyphers: Freestyle Battles In Buenos Aires A Sign Of Latin American Hip-Hop’s Changing Landscape11 January, 2019
Cypher (in hip-hop culture): an informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakdancers in a circle, in order to jam musically together.
Back in December, 12 thousand fans gathered around the stage in Buenos Aires’ Equestrian Club. The night’s main attraction wasn’t a mainstream pop star, neither was it a legendary rock band. Nope. They showed up to witness a massive cypher: the finals of a freestyle rap battle, the competitors being mainly unsigned artists from all over Latin America and Spain, most of them teenagers without even one commercially-available single, but all of them international viral stars in the booming circuit of competitive, improvised rap en español.
Welcome to Latin American hip-hop in the XXI century.
The Industry Vacuum Theory
When hip-hop developed in the Bronx in the mid ‘70s competitive rhyming was as much a part of the subculture as breakdancing over cardboard boxes, tagging subway cars and scratching vinyl records. What happened after that is well documented: Sugarhill Gang released their first single and rap became a commercially successful music genre that would soon take over the radios and clubs, eventually MTV and, finally, global pop culture. Commodified by the record industry, rap music became more profitable than all other forms of expression of hip-hop. Eventually commercial rap music turned its back on hip-hop culture and became a thing on its own, detached from its humble origins. And, with the exception of the occasional dis record that confronts rap super stars in marketing-heavy feuds, battle rhymes in rap were replaced by sex, bling and luxury brands. Competitive freestyle rhyming still exists in the United States, don’t get me wrong, but it’s mostly an underground discipline, followed exclusively by hardcore hip-hop heads. The average rap listener, who’s up to date with the latest Migos or Cardi B hit, is completely unaware of who’s currently dominating their local freestyle battle circuit.
Well, the complete opposite is currently happening in Latin America. During the last decade, freestyle rap en español became such a massive phenomenon that it surpassed in popularity recorded rap and all other expressions of hip-hop culture. Thus, crowds flock in the thousands to witness cyphers like the above mentioned, with kids insulting one another in rhymed form over syncopated beats, but they seldom attend rap music concerts by artist who record rap songs and release them in the music market.
How exactly did this happen? For starters, you had a vacuum left by the record industry that, with only a handful of exceptions, never really figured out how to sell rap in Spanish to the masses. Major labels and commercial radio stations in Latin America, historically favored pop and tropical music (and more recently reggaetón) but they disregarded rap music. After record sales vanished around the turn of the millennium due to easy access to pirated MP3, rappers in Latin America, most of them releasing their music independently, were left with few ways to monetize their art. And that’s when three unexpected factors came into play and changed the course of history for rap en español: a movie, an energy drink and a website.
The 8 Miles Effect
I was heavily invested in Argentine hip-hop during the second half of the ‘90s when I published my city’s first zine dedicate to cover this emerging scene. I now have a hard time reconciling the scene I was immersed in back in those days with the current one. There was almost no freestyle then. Rappers were trying to make it in the conventional music industry, following the same path of underground rockers: record demos, play gigs, build a following, try to get signed, etc. The few people that actually attempted to freestyle did it more like a novelty act, a sideshow to the real rap performances. Sometimes impromptu freestyle cyphers of five to ten people would pop up outside concert venues, by the line of fans waiting to get in, but the main show was on stage and it involved virtually no improvisation.
Freestyle rap didn’t fully take off until 2002, when Eminem’s 8 Mile hit the big screens. The movie showed an unglamorous and fiercely competitive underground scene of freestyle battles that was, in a way, a lot more relatable for Latinos than all previous hip-hop movies ever made. It showed a way rappers could shine, earn props and respect without the need for record contracts, without gold chains or million-dollar videos, without R&B catchy hooks or booty-shaking beats, without marketing or street teams. What’s more, in the freestyle cypher your race and identity, your personal story of struggle and your social class (all factors of adamant importance in conventional rap) take the back seat. What counts are your bars, your flow, your charisma, your verbal dexterity and, of course, your punch lines. In other words, freestyle rap can be the ultimate equalizer in the sense that it’s all about objective, measurable, skills.
“8 Miles is the milestone,” confirms Juan Ortelli. Former director of Argentina’s Rolling Stone magazine, Ortelli discovered freestyle rap as an oddity, in the streets of Buenos Aires, in 2001, and became obsessed with documenting it. In 2004 he wrote the first article about it for the magazine he would soon direct and, since then, he’s become the prominent authority in everything freestyle-related, travelling up and down the continent and giving mainstream coverage to the phenomenon, which continues to grow in massive proportions (he has a book on the subject coming out soon).
“The first freestyle competition in Argentina was organized in Córdoba in 2002,” says Mustafá Yoda, who took the title of national champion that year, and again in 2003. “For the second one, it was really crowded, it gathered around 500 people!”
Mustafá Yoda was established as a recognized solo artist, one of the most successful in Argentina’s underground during the ‘00s. Most of the other competitors who battled him were also from the conventional rap scene. Freestyle rap was still something secondary in the résume of most MCs. The idea of a rapper who’s exclusively or primarily focused on freestyling was still unheard of.
8 Mile planted the seed, it showed what could be possible, but the scene didn’t really sprout until 2005, when the energy drink showed up and injected it with—ahem—taurine… and thousands of dollars.
Some marketing genius at Red Bull saw the untapped potential for freestyle battles and decided to organize the first transnational one, Red Bull Batalla De Los Gallos, summoning the best MCs from all the Spanish-speaking half of the world. Things would never be the same.
Brief history of Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos
“In 2005 Red Bull arrived and called me to help them with rules for their battle format,” recalls Mustafá Yoda, who was also a judge that year in the competition, both in his homeland and in Spain. “I think Red Bull clearly gave a popularity impulse to something that was already growing in the underground. They somehow capitalized on the work that many activists had been laying down, because they had a much bigger platform. Meaning money.”
“Obviously the resources of Red Bull helped freestyle to grow and gave massive exposure to a phenomenon that otherwise would’ve remained underground,” explains Seo2, one of the most respected MCs in Chilean hip-hop (in the late ‘90s he was part of the cult rap group Makiza, along with Ana Tijoux). Since 2006, Seo2 has hosted more Red Bull Batalla De Los Gallos than anyone else.
“Red Bull established the international circuit,” adds Ortelli, who also participated as a judge and commentator on multiple occasions. “It became such a massive phenomenon, that it helped connect and unify the diverse scenes of many countries, something that [had] never happened before.”
Battle stage for Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos 2018 finals
The third and, maybe, most influential factor in turning freestyle rap into the giant it is today, was YouTube. The video streaming website, that launched in 2006, soon became the main platform for all aspiring freestyle rappers to show off their skills and become viral sensations.
YouTube also made freestyle rap accessible to thousands of teenagers across the continent who, without necessarily being involved with—or even interested in—hip-hop culture, picked up the skill in their own bedrooms. The fact that nowadays, freestyle battles summon crowds in the thousands and that most of those thousands are teenagers, is the direct result of YouTube’s impact and the way it changed how music is consumed by the new generations.
Back in my day, if you wanted to learn how to freestyle you had to find somebody who could teach you and train you and for that somebody to pay you any attention, first you had to pay dues by rolling with the right crowd and earning yourself some respect in the scene. Mustafá Yoda was, in fact, one of those pioneers who taught the craft of freestyle rapping to many younger MCs in the early ‘00s. Nowadays, 13-year-old kids have all they need to learn the basics on their cell phone, then they can go to the cyphers in their neighborhood park any given weekend, upload the video of their battle to YouTube and, overnight, become the new sensation of the scene and the next contender to the national title.
“I think that the main reason this became such a teenage phenomenon is the social networks and YouTube,” concurs Frescolate, the very first international champion of the Red Bull Batalla De Los Gallos, in 2005. “Kids nowadays have access to everything on their phones. We had nothing. We were coming from a completely different place.”
One of the early adopters of YouTube as a promotional tool, Frescolate is also guilty of taking freestyle to the mainstream masses in Argentina, appearing as a guest in uncountable prime-time TV shows. If both my mom and my seven-year-old nephew today know what freestyle rap is, it’s in big part thanks to Frescolate. He represents, in a way, a bridge between the ‘90s scene, when freestyle was a secret art known only by an underground elite, to the current generation of teenage freestylers that see in it a trampoline to massive international stardom.
Frescolate talking about his Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos win (in Spanish)
Doin’ It In The Park
“We used to see freestyle rap as the early stages in the career of an MC,” explains Chile’s Seo2 who attended the 2018 finals held in Buenos Aires as an observer, “it was something you used to do for entertainment, amongst friends, but the final objective was to write songs.”
“Nowadays I think that rappers have more than one road to follow in their career,” continues Seo2. “There are some who use freestyle to build their early fan-base and from there move on to a professional career as recording artists. And there are others who see freestyle rap as an end in itself. Now you can make a decent career with just freestyling and travelling the world going from battle to battle. This was unthinkable in our day.”
Freestyle rap, to many in the current generation, has become akin to an extreme sport, like skateboarding, or mixed martial arts. There are many leagues and championships, locally and internationally. In Argentina, just a couple of years ago, the cyphers organized by El Quinto Escalón in Parque Rivadavia gathered up to five thousand kids, without any corporate sponsors or even a sound system, just teenagers rapping in the park. The videos from those battles, captured by cellphones and uploaded to YouTube count their hits in the millions, literally, and many times surpass in popularity professionally-produced music videos by mainstream pop stars.
‘El Quinto Escalón’ battle in Parque Rivadavia
Battle rap is a high stakes sport that can be brutal, requires strong mental skills, a rich vocabulary and discipline, but these don’t necessarily translate to a successful formula for a career in music.
“Transition from freestyle rap to recording albums isn’t easy and many fail in capturing the energy or charisma they had in the battles on an album,” exposes Seo2, adding, “Leading a professional career as a recording artists requires patience and other kind of social skills to navigate the world of label, manager, promoters, etc. Because of the young age of the freestylers it’s hard for most to make that transition.”
However, for those few who figured it out, it’s been a highly remunerating move. Look no further than current trap sensation Duki, a former teenage freestyle rapper who dominated the Quinto Escalón battles at the park and a YouTube superstar who in 2018 became the very first Argentine urban artist to pack, by himself (and without any label support) the Luna Park stadium, Buenos Aires equivalent to Madison Square Gardens. No hip-hop artist from the earlier generation ever got close to that.
“I think there are many reasons why freestyle battles took the crowd away from conventional rap,” exposes Vázquez, one of the very few veteran MCs from the ‘90s generation of Argentine hip-hop that is actually signed to a major label. “It has to do with demographics, the audience of freestyle battles is predominantly teen, these are kids who hang out in parks, they don’t go out at night to concerts. In the last five years there were plenty of great albums released independently. They do have an audience, maybe not as big [as] we’d like for the more mature rap. I think that the massive repercussion that freestyle battles has, doesn’t have to do with any flaws in the recorded rap scene. It wasn’t for lack of good products that the crowd went somewhere else.”
What’s next? Where is all this going? You wonder… Freestyle rap in Latin America is at peak popularity and chances are, it’s not going to slow down anytime soon. It’s yet to be seen how many other rappers, like Duki, manage to turn their fame in the battle circuit into a fruitful recording career. It’s also probable that the major labels will finally start paying attention to what the kids are really doing in the streets and figure out ways to profit from it. So far, the energy drink seems to be the biggest winner.
But the experts and veterans of the scene seem to agree that the next stage in the evolution of the scene is in the newer circuit of ‘written’ battles. These are confrontations between battle rap heavyweights that are agreed and planned months in advance, the way boxing matches are. Rappers get to study their opponents and spend time writing down their verses and studying them. There’s almost no room for heat-of-the-moment improvisation on stage, but in trade you get well-crafted rhymes, with more complex structures, deeper content and more professional-style performances. It’s basically the best of both worlds: the aggression and competitiveness of off-the-dome freestyle battles combined with the experience and knowledge of seasoned rappers in a conventional rap show.
There are many leagues pushing this particular style of competition in Latin America. None are yet at the level of Red Bull Batalla De Los Gallos, but they’re growing fast. The biggest one takes place in Mexico and it’s called Línea 16.
“Written battles are for the older crowd. Freestyle battles are a lot of fun, but they’re for the younger generation,” claims Chili Parker, one of the biggest international stars in this circuit. Chili Parker comes from the old school of Buenos Aires ‘90s hip-hop and was well known for his razor-sharp bars when he recorded and released music with the cult rap group Koxmoz, but he never tried freestyling. Not publicly, at least. He’s at his best with a pen and paper and a clear opponent (like when in 2003 he penned the classic “Al Toke” dissing Sindicato Argentino Del Hip-Hop), so he didn’t think it twice when the opportunity to participate in these bouts came around. “I saw some of those battles and I was like, I can do that!”
A controversial figure, Chili Parker’s rapping persona is like South Park’s Cartman on verbal steroids. He’s smart and openly politically incorrect and, last December, while everybody in Buenos Aires was heading to the Red Bull finals, he flew to Mexico City to battle Spain’s Arkano (2015 international champion of the Red Bull circuit) who initially agreed to the confrontation but, days before the event, cancelled. Chili Parker ended up going on stage by himself to deliver the harsh punch lines he had written against the Spaniard, in front of a crowd of multiple thousands of cheering fans. In between verses he kept repeating: “this is why he didn’t come!”
Chili Parker at Línea 16 event in Mexico
“In my experience, and I’ve seen this many times, people go to the battles and discover an environment of collective excitement that they never in their life thought they could find in rap music,” affirms Chili Parker. “Even if you know nothing about hip-hop, you can be there and feel that excitement and get into it. That, I think, appeals a lot to the Latin American idiosyncrasy: we like confrontation. In Mexico they love wrestling and well, this has the same sort of appeal. I see older men, between 40 and 60 years old, at the battles and I think, to them, it’s the same as going to a wrestling match, they just like to see how men fight one another.”
“I love the circuit of written battles. I hope it picks up and becomes more popular,” says veteran freestyler Frescolate, who became disenchanted with the current state of the freestyle scene because, according to him, many competitors are writing their rhymes anyway and showing up with rehearsed verses instead of spitting from the dome. “It seems to be OK to show up with pre-written rhymes because competitors know, more or less, who they’ll be going against, so they can prepare in advance for what he might say. That set the standard now, so MCs who wouldn’t normally prepare their rhymes feel forced to do so, just to be in the same level.”
According to Juan Ortelli, freestyle battles (which are usually performed over an instrumental beat) will eventually fade out and evolve into a different format, like written battles, without music. “These battles of improvised rhyming over a beat, where what’s measured is the wit and verbal dexterity are clearly fun and exciting. It’s similar to surfing. They have to ride the moving wave. That format of battling faded out in the US at around the same time it became massive here. I believe that the future here is going to be the written battles, a cappella, inevitably, because that’s where more content can be displayed, there are less direct insults and yelling. That makes them more attractive to a grown-up audience, it requires another level of analysis from the crowd and more knowledge and preparation from the rappers.” And he concludes, “In Spanish, the written battles scene is barely starting. Mexicans are ahead of the game in this. I think that’s going to be the future, the beat is gonna fade away.”
Final battle of last year’s Red Bull Batalla de los Gallos
For more on rap and hip hop culture in Argentina, see Juan Data’s in-depth article on the evolution of Buenos Aires’ rap scene, Argentine Hip Hop, available in Sounds and Colours Argentina.
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