The Origins of Rap Battles

From Duel by James Landale, 2005

Some duels – if one stretches the definition a little – were even resolved by the humble spoken or sung word. The African bushmen, the Australian aborigines and the Inuit tribesmen of the Arctic all have traditions of resolving conflict through a verbal battle of wits. Thus, as Richard Cohen described, a duellist in Greenland would challenge his opponent to a duel of satirical songs: ‘One after the other the two disputants sing at each other their wisdom, wit and satire, supported by their partisans, until at last one is at his wits’ end, when the audience, who are the jury, make known their decision.’ Perhaps, as one historian noted dryly, one must be half-frozen to enjoy such good sense. Yet such traditions of verbal jousting do have surviving echoes today in the modern, oral combat between rival rap stars. In 1826, however, there were only two ways for a rational, sensible, educated European gentleman to resolve a dispute and that was either to stab his antagonist with a sword or shoot him with a pistol.

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