1.1 ‘To Disturb the Peace’: Hip Hop as a culture
Hip Hop serves as an active culture with heavy linguistic emphasis. Borne out of poverty and disenfranchisement in urban New York, the ethos of Hip Hop aims to ‘disturb the peace’ and serve as a ‘contemporary response to conditions of joblessness, poverty and disempowerment’ (Smitherman, 1997). There are many facets to Hip Hop, including specialised forms of dancing and graffiti, but the element under scrutiny here is rapping (Kugelberg, 2007, p. 17) and the communicative practices that surround it. Rapping is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as ‘spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics’ (2009) which does not encapsulate the use of rapping not only as a brand of entertainment but also as a linguistic practice that has very real social consequences.
This practice introduced a unique sociolect known as Hip Hop Nation Language (hereafter HHNL) and its use became directly linked to prestige amongst the peer group (Wolfram, 2003). HHNL is etymologically linked to the African pidgin languages from the seventeenth century, formed in slavery, and this suggests that HHNL has been adapted for similar conditions of marginalisation and neglect as a language of unity. The link between language and practice here is palpable: ‘The racialised rhetoric of rap music and the hip hop nation is embodied in the wider communicative practices of the Hip Hop nation’ (Smitherman, 1997, p. 19).
1.2 The Act of Verbal Battling: Defining Respect
This use of HHNL emerges strongly within the practice of rapping, and there are several sub-practices, all of which serve different social purposes. This includes standalone verses, pre-written to communicate the aspects and ethos of ghetto life and the act of ‘freestyling’, an improvised form which began as a way of engaging the crowd during performances (Smitherman, 1997) but evolved through the convening of ‘ciphers’. Rappers would take turns, moving around the circle, each freestyling about their own prowess and the surrounding events and points of reference. The ‘ciphers’ served as a social proving ground for rappers, and the display of prowess brought them very real respect from their peers.
By using the term ‘respect’, this study refers to a specific type of respect. It is a respect that emanates from the gang culture which itself sprang from the political vacuum formed by the deaths of racial activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and inspired many of Hip Hop’s idiosyncrasies (Remes, 1991). Rappers refer to ‘the streets’ often in their music, and this, according to Smitherman, suggests ‘any place ‘cept home, church or school.’ (1997) The anti-authoritarian stance of Hip Hop culture draws young people closer to their peers than any institutions, and negotiations of respect occur in the context of a rapper’s own peers: gaining approval from those of whom the rapper approves, and silencing enemies and detractors. In American gang culture, this respect has real consequences in allegiances and events.
This ethos formed the roots of the rap battle. Rap battling is a competitive speech genre, in which the rapper aims to dominate and humiliate his opponent so as to decrease their status and increase their own (Fitzpatrick, 2007, p. 64). African- American culture and ebonics places a heavy emphasis on orality (Remes, 1991), and this shows in its practices. The Signifyin’ Monkey is a practice of African- American verbal play that has had an influence on battling. This consists of an improvised, vulgar poem that would unfold, moving from speaker to speaker and taking in further obscenities and insults (Remes, 1991, p. 132) and Playin’ The Dozens was similar, beginning with the basic structure of an insult directed at another speaker’s mother, which, with every repetition at the hands of a different speaker, would become more elaborate with the addition of word classes, similes and hyperbole (Remes, 1991, p. 138). Rap battling itself can be defined as the combination of braggadocio (self-glorification) with insults against another rapper and rappers are judged based on how they humiliate their opponent and who has ‘better verses’ (Edwards, 2009, p. 25). This reflected more positively on the region, gang or coast they claimed to represent, as crew members view ethnicity and neighborhood as potential sources of pride (Newman, 2001).
It is suggested that this act of verbal play is linked directly to the mechanics of the society in which it takes place. Social practices lay the foundations for both language and identity (Pennycook, 2010, p. 125), and it is in this light that battle rapping is considered. Within the confines of the rap battle, the exchange of respect is completed extra-linguistically, over and above what is actively being stated. Certain tools and mechanisms are being used in a battle, to engineer this exchange. This happens both structurally within the battle context and on a social level in the audience and discourses of battling. These features bear considering on an intrinsic level, disregarding the setting and geographical context of the battle.
1.3 Blood in the Water: Eurgh and UK Battling
These factors considered, the discussion is directed towards the UK. British Hip Hop began shortly after its American counterpart (the first recorded British rapper was Knowledge, in 1980 [Hesmondhalgh, 2001]) and battle rappers from either side of the Atlantic regularly engage with one another, providing a cultural connection. Only the mechanics of US battling have been previously considered, and studying the discourses and the functions of respect within the UK subculture could identify possible catalysts for the emergence of a British subculture and thereby, given the Hip Hop’s role as a voice of disenfranchisement (Smitherman, 1997), enable wider connections to be made to social issues and class divides in British society.
In order to examine British battle rap, the framework of Fitzpatrick is adopted (2007) Fitzpatrick analyses the rhetoric and discourses used by US rapper Eyedea. The importance of regional representation proposed by Newman (2001) influenced the selection which UK rapper justified selection for study. MC Eurgh, as the host of Don’t Flop, the UK battle league that is frequently represented against Canadian, Swedish and American rappers, is the current embodiment of British representation, having battled extensively throughout British and International leagues for four years (Appendix 1). By examining the way in which the linguistic aspects of HHNL have been assimilated into a British culturalcontext, and how this counterbalances the development and utility of discourses within a British hip hop community, it will be possible to demonstrate how these serve the negotiations of respect therein. From this, the connection can be made between these negotations, hip hop as a cultural and linguistic practice and the British environment in which it is practiced.