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Flyting: More than 1,500 Years of Rap Battles
Battle Rap. Have you heard of it? It’s a fairly new thing that started in the 1980s, I am told. In fact, Wikipedia says:
Rap battle is generally believed to have started in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1980s. One of the earliest and most infamous battles occurred in December 1982 when Kool Moe Dee challenged Busy Bee Starski – Busy Bee Starski’s defeat by the more complex raps of Kool Moe Dee meant that “no longer was an MC just a crowd-pleasing comedian with a slick tongue; he was a commentator and a storyteller” thus, rendering Busy’s archaic format of rap obsolete, in favor of a newer style which KRS-One also credits as creating a shift in rapping in the documentary Beef.
It is only when one gets down to the bottom and to the “See Also” links that one finds mention of Flyting. Flyting is the term for poetry battles of the wits, usually involving insults. The term has roots in English going back to at least the Anglo-Saxon invasion. If one investigates Wikipedia’s entry of “Flyting,” one will also find a link to “The Dozens.” This is basically the same thing, but what black Americans called it before there was rap and battle rap as a genre/subgenre.
There is evidence of poetic insult battles in most of the Indo-European traditions, and indeed, outside of the Indo-European language family as well. It is a tradition probably only a few days younger than poetry itself. According to some of the traditions that have come down, apparently before a battle, there would sometimes be a poetry battle before the two sides engaged with sharper implements. Sometimes they were also used to solve disputes.
It was not unusual in many warrior traditions that the warrior should be mentally and physically proficient. He should be able to compose poems and songs, and for the warrior, especially important were flyting and boasts. Even the Spartans had their own version of this, although their challenge was to be the most pithy and sparing in their use of words. (Reading that sentence, no, I am not a Spartan. How did you know?)
In many royal courts, flyting was practiced. We have some examples that have come down to us. It was especially a strong Germanic tradition. An ancient Norse poem that has come down to us is “Lokasenna.” Jackson Crawford, an Old Norse specialist, likes to describe it as Loki’s locker-room banter.
In the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, it was very popular in Scotland, and a makar1 could get away with a lot during flyting that anyone else would be heavily punished for doing.
In the ancient Japanese court, they had other types of poetry. Courtiers were expected to be poets. There was a form called renga that was an interwoven tale that would be composed on the spot by two or more courtiers with the first composing a seventeen-syllable poem to be answered by a fourteen-syllable response and then on to a new verse. That at some point, developed into haikai no renga. Haikai, meaning “vulgar” or “earthy,” brought this quite a bit closer to flyting. The earthiness was often achieved through puns and innuendo.
The much shorter version is that “battle rap” is often much more complex and poetically rich forms is nothing new in our lifetimes. It is something that has existed along with the human race for close to as long as we have had poetry.
My own favorite form is the limerick duel. It can be fast-moving and fun for those involved and the audience.
Have you ever been involved in flyting? What form did it take?
1. Scottish term for a poet, especially a court poet
2. You were expecting a second one, weren’t you?Published in Entertainment
There once was a poet called ‘hant,
Who loved his witty black cat,
They battled in flyte
A sorrowful sight,
Cause the cat beat the pants off of ‘hant.
Boy that‘s good stuff, And I wrote it in five minutes. You’re not the only poet in Ricochetland, ‘hant. I’m only sorry that ‘hant doesn’t rhyme with cat. I call that an off rhyme. Will that do, ‘hant?
Oh yeah? Well so’s your old man.
Is haikai related to haiku?
Are you sure you aren’t talking about a Yo Mama Fight?
The term “arahant” has varied over time. One version is “arhat,” which does sort of rhyme with cat.
Yes. Renga and then haikai no renga were done as group exercises. The form was a tanka, which looks like a haiku with two extra seven-syllable lines. (All reference to syllables here are approximations since languages vary significantly, especially Japanese from English.) The first person would start with the first three lines, and the next person would respond with the final two. A chappie named Bashō started writing the first part while alone and thinking about life. This became the haiku, which he seriously elevated from what it had been in the haikai no renga.
It’s definitely related, Spin.
As you noted, there is indeed a long tradition of which I’m proud to be a part.
Yo mama’s so fat she stepped on a scale and it said “ To be continued.”
Old and emeritus Kent
His perspective was possibly bent.
For likes he would flog
With pics of his dog,
But likes never did pay the rent.
Yo mama’s so fat that when she was dropped off at the airport, she bent over to grab something and her tight yellow pants split, and two guys got in because they thought she was a cab!
‘Hant, you’ve put me to “flyte ” with your limerick. I’m left struggling to keep my ego from plummeting after that satiric pummeling.
I’m forced to admit that you’ve got a good limerick there, especially the part about my flogging for Likes by inserting pics of my dog Bob into my posts. There might be truth in that. You and Marie the wife agree with one another.
So good on you, ‘hant. I’m always underestimating you.
Yo mama so fat, Pando saw her and thought he’d met his match.
I just read that to Marie and she chuckled. And she doesn’t have the best sense of humor in the world, so I think you’re written something funny there. I did emphasize the word “yellow” when I read it to her, though, because I thought she would miss the significance of the word. She’s not all that bright.
Yo mama so fat that when she sits around the house, she really sits around the house.
When dishing abuse poetic
Against philosophers noetic
It may well be
A new light you’ll see
And switch to music threnodic.
You mama so fat she replaced Pluto as the ninth planet.
She married Kent, ain’t that right.
There you go again, Arahant, shaming me in rhyme. I’m a very sensitive person, so I can only barely take the abuse.
Come on, Kent. You taught literature. Step up to the plate. Return fire. Any cliché you want. Come at me, bro. 🤣
Fancy words of prosody like“noetic” and “threnodic” are uncalled for, ‘hant. No one knows what those words mean. I think you’re putting on the dog.
I have others…but I can’t put them here…
‘Hant, I would clean your clock, but I must go now. I have to walk the dog — and in the Oregon rain as usual.
Sloppy trails, Kent.
I’ve got no dogs to put on, Kent, only cats. They hold me to a higher standard.
He may enter the contest with heart
And then find that he’s not very smart
He will try very hard
To lay down a trump card
But he’s also not very good at rhyming.
There once was a fellow named Judge,
Who with rhyme was well-known to fudge.
But his rhythm was worse
Dragged away by a hearse
To a dirge as the horses did trudge.
Fool Arahant thinks I can’t rhyme
Though we know that he’s well past his prime
He can barely compare
And thinks it unfair
I’m so good that it’s nearly a crime.
Pretty good, Mr. Mental. I think you can more than hold your own with ‘hant.