If they were working all by themselves maybe. But considering their association with the Ultimate Rap League and how much attention it is currently getting because of that (Forbes, Bloomberg, SportsTechie.com), maybe the two brands partnering is actually the lynchpin in the advancement of America’s first Hip-Hop sport.
Over the last few weeks, the hate has been heavy, as fans have flocked to various social media platforms to denounce the partnership between the “World’s Most Respected” rap league, URL, and the streaming company, Caffeine.
They’ve attacked everything; referencing the very first event that they produced and streamed, Genesis, mocking how jacked up the visual experience was.
Then battle rap “purists” circulated the false rumor that Smack sold his company to Caffeine for $113 million, which is why when the app chose not to work with long-time battle rap videographer Kyle “Avocado” Gray, they rolled over and just turned their backs on a man that has been a friend and ally to the culture.
Another complaint is that the technology used in judging battles is purposefully rigged to advance white rappers like Mike P and Nunn Nunn, two rappers who had debatable battles that were left up to a fan vote —where apparently a glitch favored one opponent over the next.
For those who don’t understand the process of industrialization, Caffeine seems to symbolize the exploitation of underground Black culture.
Those same people look at the success of the Ultimate Rap League with disdain and its embrace of technology as a means to advance their corporate vision (not just their relationship to Caffeine) as an omen for what is to come.
Authenticity is lost.
Credibility out the window.
The real deal identity of their battle rap gone real wrong.
*SMACK IMAGE INSERT HERE*
In some weird way … if you let these people tell it … URL, the company that created the current “3 round acapella battle” format as a sport, has warped from an institution that has provided livelihoods for so many artists and ancillary businesses like media outlets and clothing lines, into this Uncle Tom figure in the culture that is willing to sell their people out for the big bag: Eric Beasley essentially Berry Gordy. Cheeko essentially Clarence Avant. Smack White essentially Russell Simmons.
Drake, figuratively battle rap’s Jesse Jackson, was enlisted and championed to bring this Black cultural phenomenon to some proverbial Promise Land, but he is powerless in preserving the integrity of the movement.
But if we are dealing with facts, none of that is true … and is fake as some of the personals Arsonal spits in his biggest battles.
Here are some facts.
Because of the Ultimate Rap League’s partnership with Caffeine, battle rap now looks like it is just as important as anything that Da Baby, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, or Migos are rocking with.
The relationship is akin to ESPN as the network and UFC with the fire content, making the assets of the network’s distribution all the more captivating.
The platform is like MTV — affording folk like Jay Blac and Tsu Surf to be ambassadors to the new fans in ways that Fab Five Freddy and Joe Claire were for 90s babies. Mike P is like this era’s Michael “MC Serch” Berrin.
“Hip-Hop has evolved so much since it started,” Queen of the Ring rapper C3 explains. “And in my opinion battle rap is one of the ‘purest’ forms of Hip-Hop that still exists. I’ve always felt like battle rap should be bigger than it is. And not just because I’m a battle rapper but more so as a fan of the culture.”
“I feel like Caffeine has shed much-needed light on battle rap and is on its way to getting it the recognition it deserves. Seeing the commercials all over social media, billboards, ESPN spots and even the more professional look of the battles makes me feel like ‘we made it!’ The battlers are finally being seen as the superstars they’ve always been,” C3 said.
That’s exciting in itself.
However, some critics will attack the business model because of how insulated information around this deal has intentionally been. They’ve suggested that URL has sold their souls to create this exclusive content for this entity outside of the culture.
The business model that the tri-part leadership of URL has implemented with Caffeine affords them the first rights to certain battles. Then those battles will be aired exclusively on the URL app alongside all kinds of original content and will be available across multiple outlets such as Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, Samsung Smart TV, and XBOX on Androids, Apple Tablets, phones, and televisions.
This leads to another fact …
People can make money on and off Caffeine if they are smart.
Caffeine is a live streaming service with limited capacity to store the content that is created by these new users.
Who are these new users: URL works with the service to curate and cultivate leading influencers in the culture. Once identified, they are able to get a program manager to set up shows in a cool way. If their show does well, they can do a deal for a check and get money from their emoji program.
Then, they are able to cross-pollinate their other social media platforms. They can stream live on Instagram while hosting their Caffeine show. They can store it and re-broadcast on YouTube and monetize it there. There are ways that real reciprocal business is taking place and those who participate are enjoying access to revenue that they never before experienced.
Another fact is that people are having beaucoup fun watching live battle rap like its Soul Train or 106 & Park’s UFF.
Since Caffeine’s partnership with URL, during the COVID-19 global pandemic, more high-quality battle rap programming has been made available to the fans .
According to D.I. da Hennyman from Battle Rap Trap, the partnership between the two companies has brought unprecedented energy to the culture.
“They have definitely brought excitement to the battle rap culture,” he remarked. “By presenting high energy competitions over the last five or eight months, they have made a mark. But let’s consider the fan-friendly interactive model that allows the culture to watch and even speak with their favorite emcees while enjoying the show.”
Fa da God from The Real Rap Sheet agrees with “The Trapper,” adding that by making it so fans can watch some of the most prolific emcees get busy in a battle for free is a huge plus for the new streaming service.
When asked why that is important, he noted, “It is important because you have casual fans who were hesitant in buying cards on the Pay Per View model for a certain amount of money … especially not knowing if those battles would be worth the money. This allows them to consume the art with no hassle.”
Another fact that Henny brings up is that the app builds community in a way that YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter does not.
Community is being built on Caffeine TV because of their trusted association with the Godfather of Battle Rap, Smack White.
“Battle rap favorites (from emcees to media) all have a channel on the platform that can be utilized to connect with the people 24/7, further ensuring that there is never a dull moment in the culture to be missed,” Henny said.
This variable is a huge gamechanger. This actually allows everyday people to become influencers in the culture. Fans have emerged as some of the most hilarious commentators during events and depending on their own ingenuity can create opportunities for them.
From the cash incentives for sharing, to the deals that are being handed out, those who are chasing bags have the glint of gold in their eyes like 49ers.
RECAP SHOW IS LIVE! GOT A LOT TO TALK ABOUT!! https://t.co/sUE5JPViaB
— Ultimate Rap League (@urltv) August 31, 2020
Somehow people are zoning in on lyricism more — perhaps it is the small room style or it is the frequency of the battles — but fans (not just analysis shows like Champion, PSA Hip-Hop, Nobodies Fly with Vada Fly and Showtime SP, Black Compass Media, Angry Fan, Battle Rap Stats or Ben Swayze) are paying attention to what is being said.
There is also a more concentrated focus on lyricism that has been lost in this new era of personality-driven performances. St. Louis’ Aye Verb, who has been super critical of the culture’s reliance on gimmicks over substance says, “Caffeine has brought the game back to lyrics … it’s no longer a circus show.”
Fans have been celebrating the many innovative ways that battles are being presented since the coronavirus— a move that URL and Caffeine did not solely master.
Leagues like Rare Breed Entertainment or the heavy-hitting Charlie Clips TV have shot battles in a fashion that has stripped down gas from the crowds, the extraordinary responses to reach, and all that fluff that has been making these contests corny.
But once Caffeine upped the ante, providing 24 hour COVID testing before events, limiting the crowds, and shooting high energy performances (some tournament style and some that just seem like epic events even though they are small room) every week —something shifted.
Fans see it, which is evident in some of their most honest responses.
Battle rap media also does and they are wowed even as they perpetuate some of the distrust. But mostly the artists can feel it.
Verb also stated, “The production is brand new … when we are on stage … it’s like the game has started over.”
URL’s artists look and feel like the stars that they are — and the excitement of seeing the culture exalted as an industry is long overdue (a fact aforementioned by C3).
As a vet, Verb remembers what it was like when battling was just on the corners under the street lights or considered backpacker-ish and not real or profitable Hip-Hop.
He and people of his generation, rappers as well as league owners, have been pushing the envelope to develop battle rap not just as a culture but as an industry.
This is a campaign that Smack, Beasley, and Cheeko have been hammering for years, which is evident in how they have presented battle rap over the years on YouTube, PPV, and on social media.
It is further highlighted how top-notch videographers like Avocado, Twizz, JB, and others have made events and trailers look cinematic. But like always, URL wanted to go to the next level and with an industry angel like Drake in the background, Caffeine has been able to assist in the marketing of the culture’s biggest stars.
According to Smack, Drake has long wanted to help take battle rap to the next level.
The Young Money history maker has long been a fan of not just URL but so many of the other leagues. However, there was a different attraction to what Smack and crew were doing.
He wanted to be instrumental in growing the culture in a way that the world had never seen but did not have the access to a business model large enough for even his own vision until Caffeine came along.
Smack tells the story:
“Drake and I would speak, he would always ask how he could support growing whatever I was doing, how he could play a part to help everything that I was doing. We used to just go back and forth, and we came up with the concept of how to make the viewership of battle rap that bigger,” Smack explained.
The URL icon said that Drake would buy all of the pay-per-views to his events and afterward call him with feedback and critique.
“We would talk and he would say, ‘Hey, I bought the pay-per-view and it was good but I thought that this should be like this.’ He would come with a lot of constructive criticism on how it could be an easier process on the signups or matter of fact, ‘let’s make this s##t for free. Let’s link up with a company that can make the content available where fans won’t have to pay a cover charge.’”
For the “God’s Plan” rapper, he just wanted to see how he could make the experience better from a fan’s perspective. Remember in the video of that hit song, when Drake was going around just being a fairy godfather to people dropping off treasures to those who he knew would appreciate it????
That is exactly what he did.
At least Debo from Queen of the Ring believes that Drake and Caffeine came in and made things exciting for all of us by putting more eyes on the culture, just like he promised to do.
Caffeine is not just taking and giving back, but with URL, they are building the next wave of the movement.
Despite what the running narrative is, Caffeine is a business that is offering tools and assets to celebrate the culture that fans, artists, and league owners went hard in the paint on for over at least 15 years.
The Queen of The Ring founder contends, “Some people in our own culture just take what the forefathers provided… but Caffeine is adding to what we do.”
Each week, there are hundreds of hours dedicated to battle rap programming, essentially giving battle rap content creators their own networks.
These shows actually outperform the big name artists like Doja Cat, Offset, and The Game. The battle rap presence that URL brings to the table impact just cannot be matched.
The top URL shows are URL Primetime with JayBlac and URL Recap Show with Hennyman.
The artists on the league’s roster and community affiliates are getting shine too.
Someone like Tsu Surf has tournaments, battle review shows, After Dark with Jaz the Rapper, and he even shoots the s##t with artists shows on his channel.
In the mornings, each weekday, there is the Wake-n-Bake with TayRoc or Breakfast with the Champ with DNA. There are celebrity-driven shows like Weed Like to Know with 40 B.A.R.R.S., The Doja with K-Shine, DAB TV (again with Henny), LTB Daily with Let’s Talk Battle Rap, Relationship Thursday with Anwar and Reda, What’s Goodz with Goodz, Battle Talk with Mike P (and his video game show) and JayBlac Arcade is dope.
Mt. Rushmore vet, Loaded Lux is not as generous with giving Caffeine and URL all the credit for creating this new energy in the sport, opting to give them props as a vehicle or conduit for the culture, but not the nucleus of the magic that is making the culture fun and exciting again.
“They didn’t [do that] … the rappers and the fans did that. However, Caffeine is doing a healthy job with assisting it to be more mainstream and accessible for people who do want the experience of a good rap battle,” Loaded Lux said.
That they are. No longer do you have to traverse to Harlem to see a Dot MOB member get loose. You don’t have to wait for the next card to come to your town and you dish out a phone bill to snatch a ticket.
They alleviated the dread of standing for hours to see the battle come through — and with a clearly more professional setup can get as many as five battles in a two hour time period. It is just so much easier to enter into the experience of competitive rapping.
And so maybe that is what they are adding … an easy and accessible way for fans to experience good rap battles — and that is exciting in itself.