Hear One Of The Earliest Rap Battles Ever Recorded From 1981 (Audio)
The Rap Battle has become a pop culture institution. The sport of two (or more MCs) competing has excited Hip-Hop culture since the art of rapping stepped to the front. Some of the most successful and acclaimed MCs began their careers through battling, and distinguished their legacies with combative moments even through fame and fortune. In other cases, similar to street-ball and the NBA, there are stars (and leagues) of Battle Rap that have never made traditional records or performances. In the earliest days of Hip-Hop, Rap battles were not fought on keyboards or even on wax. Instead, MCs waged war with words on stage, face to face.
July 3, 1981 would be a pivotal moment in history for Battle Rap. Like DJs, breakers, and graffiti writers, MCs had been battling since the 1970s. However, in the wake of hit singles like Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” Rap music was reaching a boiling point. The things once done for bragging rights in the streets, parks, rec centers, and New York City clubs had now become major events. At Harlem World, a reported $1,000 battle brought the Cold Crush Brothers (a/k/a The Cold Crush 4) to a head with the Fantastic 5.
Like later, more mainstream-recognized battles (KRS-One vs. Grandmaster Melle Mel, LL Cool J vs. Kool Moe Dee, Nelly vs. KRS, Canibus vs. LL, Boogieman vs. Masta Ace) this historic showdown had age and the new wave at play. The Fantastic 5, with credited inventor of the scratch, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore at the center, included DJs such as Mean Gene and DJ Cordio, as well as MC Smiley, Kevie Kev, Busy Bee, Dot-A-Rock, Master Rob, and Whipper Whip. The crew, some members of which were also known as The L-Brothers, had an older image. These were crucial figures of 1970s Hip-Hop, with an established sound. Cold Crush—at the time featuring DJ Charlie Chase, DJ Tony Tone, Grandmaster Caz, Almighty K.G., J.D.L., and Easy A.D. were the new kids on the block. Caz had written the first Rap hit for Sugar Hill Gang (it was his name spelled in Big Bank Hank’s rhyme). Moreover, the group of Bronx, New Yorkers had a bad boy image in their stage theatrics. Furthermore, Dot and Whip had left Cold Crush for positions in Fantastic. This was for pride, glory, and supremacy—in addition to the money.
Taking the stage in the hot summer of ’81, the Cold Crush wore mafia suits with toy machine guns—a symbolic rebuttal to the comic book themed opponents. Competing for the stack, Cold Crush rocked the stage the first 28 minutes. True to what made them so lethal as a group, the act harmonized, showcased rehearsed routines, and demonstrated advanced lyricism, melody, and freestyled crowd interaction. Rapping over a special alteration of Cerrone’s “Rocket In The Pocket,” (later re-popularized by MF DOOM) the C.C. went on the offensive.
Around the 11-minute mark, when shouting out their Rap crew peers, Cold Crush turns it on the opponents, “I’m sure you’ve heard of the Fantastic—we don’t say that no more / I know you’re familiar with Lovebug Starksi Chief Rocka Busy Bee / These are the ’80s, it’s all about C.C., Cold Crush!” appears to be what is rapped. Listen closely to the recording, as the crowd goes nuts with the ice-breaking moment. At the 15:00 mark, K.G. says he thinks he can take on two Fantastic 5 members himself. The rhyming never ceases—and in between the jabs, the group plays to the crowd—not unlike many of today’s battles.
The music is consistent too, with DJs supplying breaks for their MCs. Billy Squier’s “Big Beat” and Billy Joel’s “Stiletto” appear—massive samples for late ’80s Hip-Hop records. On the MC side, Heads can hear the influence the Cold Crush had on De La Soul, Freestyle Fellowship, and Jurassic 5, among many others.
The Fantastic Romantic 5 MCs (as they were also known) hit the stage by the 31:00 mark. With more of a Disco-influenced sound and style, these MCs had routines and harmonies of their own. The group showed their seasoned stage presence in the first minutes of the performance. At 35:05, they accuse Cold Crush of “frontin’,” and warned that whatever transpires next was provoked by the opponents. “Cold Crush, they got to go” and “We’re #1, y’all / You’ve just begun, y’all” were later chides from the veterans. The set also included DJ Theodore throwing some turntable skills to battle Charlie Chase, making this battle multi-elemental. Theo’s beat selection was rugged, with hard drums of numerous records that would later appear in Rap joints.
Judges (who were tasked to use crowd applause to determine in the final two minutes) would reportedly decide Fantastic 5 the victors in this ’81 battle. However, as with battles today, the streets had their own opinions—that kept legendary debates strong. Moreover, the recording and ensuing tape trading yielded lots of analysis and opinions from fans thousands of miles from Harlem World.
As with battle MCs today, the showdown would ultimately lead to Cold Crush Brothers signing a single record deal with Epic Records. The group would break into the record game in ’82, care of popular single “Weekend.” Many members of both groups appeared in the 1983 feature film Wild Style, as well as 2000s documentary Scratch.
The breakout star of the Fantastic 5, Busy Bee, would hold another one of Rap’s most famous battles. In December of ’81, at the same venue, Busy would lose to Kool Moe Dee of Treacherous Three fame. Moe Dee would become a breakout Rap star throughout the 1980s, battling LL Cool J for much of his career.