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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