Battle rappers are making a scene in Des Moines

Vylints vs. Hungry at Des Moines’ Vaudeville Mews, closed since the pandemic, in 2018. — Baby Powell

“Sometimes, it’s real beef or real grudges that need to be settled on stage,” $ANTHI said of the rap battles he’s been part of over the past two decades. “Sometimes rappers get called out, egos clash, shade is thrown. Some people are picky about who they battle. Some don’t care, and will attempt murder on whoever steps up.”

Emcees such as $ANTHI, Buck, The Future, KrzyBby, UndaDawg, and other Iowa-affiliated artists may not be household names, but they are well-respected in this hermetically sealed underground realm. Des Moines’ Get You Some Battle League and other like-minded organizations model themselves after Ultimate Fighting Championship-style events, down to the way they are often called “cards,” like a UFC fight card (e.g., the schedule for the night). It’s a unique ecosystem that thrives on the interplay between physical spaces, social media and video platforms like YouTube.

“When Get You Some drop posters and flyers for a battle event,” $ANTHI continues, “fans and supporters are ready to pack a venue downtown Des Moines, or in someone’s crib for a super rap battle house party, or even on a rooftop. It doesn’t matter. These dudes will battle anywhere and people will come watch. It’s dope as hell.”

Battle rap cards usually consist of three rounds of rhythmic linguistic jujitsu performed by two emcees who cleverly mock, disrespect and shred their opponents until only one is left standing. They’re like a cross between slam poetry, professional wrestling and a game of the dozens. And the fact that they do it a capella gives the emcees the freedom to stretch out tempos and add dramatic pauses and other theatrical flourishes.

Battle rap leagues are a DIY offshoot of hip-hop culture, which began a half-century ago in New York City and eventually pollinated places in the cultural margins, like Iowa. The coasts didn’t come to these artists, so they did it themselves within a labyrinthine tapestry of micro-scenes made up of groups, crews and hundreds of solo emcees who are well-aware of the limitations of their geographical location.

“It’s kind of cool that you actually reached out,” said KrzyBby, who currently books battle cards for Get You Some, “because I’ll say Des Moines is not the first place you think of when talking about rap battles.”

Get You Some co-founder UndaDawg told me much the same: “We’re in Des Moines, Iowa, and, you know, nobody even knows what it is. They always think, like, it’s in Idaho.”

Despite Iowa’s homogenous demographics, many of the emcees who battle are African American — like UndaDawg and KrzyBby — and the scene also includes the Asian-American artist $ANTHI and white boys such as Ryan Nixon and Mac Paddy (the Irish-American emcee asserts, “I’m the best rapper you’ll ever meet in Ames. Challenge me and you will be defeated”).

$ANTHI was born in Marshalltown and has family all over Iowa, but he grew up in Rockford, Illinois, where he fell in love with hip hop as a teenager.

“I began writing to release stress and other emotions,” he said. “Nas, Eminem, Big Pun really influenced me, and then, man, battle rap blew my mind! Eventually, I grew competitive and began looking for battles during high school lunch, uploaded those on YouTube, and I was shocked how much interaction it was getting.”

Riding on an adrenaline rush, $ANTHI made a flyer for a “16 EMCEE RAP BATTLE TOURNAMENT — $20 EACH, WINNER TAKE ALL,” which he hung up around school and posted to social media. The event’s success made him realize, “Man, this can be organized and we can spark something special, so I founded Battlefest in 2008.” That league is no longer around, though he currently runs the Rotation TV/Rotation Hip-Hop platform, which organizes battle events under the name DISS/RESPECT.

After $ANTHI moved to Iowa City in 2015 for work, Get You Some co-founder HUNGRY invited him to battle in Des Moines when the league was just starting out. “They brought Des Moines’ absolute best rappers, emcees and performers together, and some of those guys I thought needed to be highlighted outside of Iowa too, so we first started collaborating with crossover events in Rockford.”

The Des Moines-born UndaDawg started out rapping in church with his brother and cousin, who he formed the Oktane Gang with; they dropped a couple mixtapes before fizzling out. That’s when he started getting into battle rap, which led to the formation of Get You Some in 2014. The events started out in a Des Moines bar named Lefty’s, which was around the time when UndaDawg brought in KrzyBby, who started off as a cameraman.

“We just did that over and over again for years,” KrzyBby said, “and we ended up creating a buzz. We’ve had like 200 people in the crowd before — 200 people in the crowd, in Des Moines, Iowa? For a rap battle? You know, Iowa is not really like a hip hop state, nowhere near. So to make something like that happen without a big name is crazy. It was just all us regular people.”

“I’ve known KrzyBby since he was a teenager,” UndaDawg said, “when I was doing my Oktane Gang thing. I used to take him to all my shows with me and I’d have him perform a song with me. He was in his own group at the time, and then we started booking him for battles too. He’s good, he’s aggressive and he’s one of the best in the league.”

KrzyBby explained that hip hop was programmed in him as a baby, because his mother would put the radio near his crib when he was falling asleep.

“I’d go to sleep listening to hip hop music every night,” he said, “and then I just woke up one day and said, ‘I’m going to write.’ Then I battled the best guy in Roosevelt High School. I lost that battle, but then we ended up battling again when I was a junior, and I pretty much smoked him. I just ended up falling in love with it, and then came the battle league.”

Battle rap cards are often booked three months out, which gives the opponents plenty of time to study each other’s previous performances online until they’re ready to go three rounds on game day. Over the past two decades, the artform has evolved from off-the-cuff freestyles to elaborately written performances that contain a dizzying array of wordplay, internal rhymes, off-the-wall puns and lyrical barbs that are designed to sway the crowd and make them go, “Oh, SHIT!”

“It’s like watching someone else’s game footage,” said UndaDawg, explaining how he prepares for a battle. “I watch their videos trying to figure out how to mimic them, find their weak spots, and also to make sure I’m not saying something that hasn’t been said before. Then I just write, write, write and memorize it for a couple weeks so I’m ready.”

“It’s about how lyrical you are and how much you can do with one line,” KrzyBby said. “So you have to work very hard to come up with that material, because if you can control the momentum, you have the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand, and you can land a line that shakes the building.”

If you’re interested in getting involved in GYSBL, contact KrzyBby at 515-322-0611 or message him on Instagram: @Krzy91Bby

Kembrew McLeod’s b-boy name circa 1983 was Cold Crush Kembrew when he was a member of the Virginia Beach Breakers. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 295.

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