An actual rap battle IRL. Image: Eli Duke/Flickr

Get Rich or Die Typing: The World of Textcee Rappers

Delve into the forums where internet rappers exchange lyrics in text-based battles.

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Jun 10 2016, 9:00am

An actual rap battle IRL. Image: Eli Duke/Flickr

There are rappers who pride themselves on never writing a verse down. There are others who are open about their craft, sharing lyrics sheets on their social media. And then there are rappers who only publish lyrics, without any backing track, in forums dedicated to text-based rap battles.

You might not have witnessed a "textcee" battle before, but search and you'll find them all over the web.

On a Nigerian lifestyle forum called Nairaland, in a thread titled "Damnation Alley," a showdown is kicking off. Verses are in couplets: "Ibime" is battling "Coogar," judged by an elaborate set of voting criteria which rewards the opener, similes, punchlines, "personals" (personal insults), wordplay, and flow.

The battlers aren't afraid to get personal, even if they have no idea what their opponent looks like. "Yet you continue to eat few more fries/Your huge circumference should be blamed ........on too much pie," Coogar writes. This is rap with hyperlinks: You might not have to show your face but your profile is searchable, and the most cutting lines are reserved for an opponent's online history. Ibime's retort reads:

"Click on his profile. . . and peruse through his stats/ 26,000 posts in 3 years. . . you do the Math/ That's roughly 24 a day. . . this dude truly is sad!/ Every hour of his life spent cruising for chats/ When Nairaland crashed. . . if Seun hadn't rebooted it back/. . . .he was 2 days away . . . from jumping off the roof of his flat!!"

"When the lines get really serious like, 'I'm going to kill you and your whole family,' at what point is this cyberbullying vs battling?"

Delving further into the world of textcees, you get familiar with their lexicon, and the terms they apply to themselves. There are textcees, netcees (also the name of a site hosting battles), and keystyles, a pun on freestyle rap in which the lyrics are improvised. The tendency to rap battle in text is rhizomatic: it crops up on subreddits like /r/Cypher and /r/RapWars and in unexpected locations like YouTube comments for instrumental videos. On Rap Genius, battles can kick off unexpectedly in the forums, then end up in turn getting annotated on the main site.

There are also communities created for the purpose, structured as traditional, old-fashioned forums. These include Netcees.org, Spitsville, Lyrical Assault and Rapnometry. Some sites are populated with hundreds of textcees, while others are quite tragically empty. There are "text brawls" and accusations of biting (stealing) verses—unsurprising when it's as easy as pressing copy/paste. Textcee names are an art in themselves, combining rap bombast with the traditional snark and smart-ass humour of forum handles: I came across gems like "Theodore Killingsworth," "GrimmZReaper," and "Jihad," which maybe seemed like a better idea back in 2006 when the user was active.

There are hierarchies and threads reserved only for established members. Some, such as this section of Rap Pad, are referred to as a cypher, the name for a circle of rappers, beatboxers and dancers who gather around to stage rap battles.

Cyphers give rise to some of the most active and accessible threads, a rap free-for-all which can run and run like a lyrics-based exquisite corpse. Sometimes they're just never-ending threads of rhyming words, or thousand-strong chains of users insulting the last person to post above them.

TJ is a moderator on /r/Cypher, one of several Reddit text-rap communities. He started writing in his free time around 2007 "I was joining local spoken word clubs, attending battles, collaborating on songs," he said. "It's also fun when you drunk cypher with your friends."

"When some of the best writers are posting crazy bars, it makes you wanna sit down and just pen some mad shit…"

TJ gave me a brief history of how text rap evolved, starting in the early 2000s and gaining traction around a decade ago. Typically, sites hosted sections for "topicals" (where writers riff on a given subject), cyphers ("more flexible and open to group participation"), and formally-staged rap battles where competitors vied for the most creative insults (/r/RapWars still caters to this market). Whereas many of these sites have declined, the Reddit community has survived.

Another /r/Cypher member, Jamhank, mentioned the archival nature of the subreddit—each profile traces an evolutions of sorts. "It's dope to see how much you've come on compared to some of your first posts," he said. Jamhank described a Wu-Tang-esque swarm effect as the main motivator. "The community is what drives it, that's why we need more people," they said. "When some of the best writers are posting crazy bars, it makes you wanna sit down and just pen some mad shit…"

There's a contradiction that's central to textcee-ing: For a community built on skilfully insulting other users it's surprisingly inclusive and polite. TJ said he hadn't witnessed any major beefs. "There are the few that need to put others down for their own egos, but I see it as all part of the fun." Similarly, Rapnometry's rules put an emphasis on respect for other members. They discourage insulting family members (no "yo mama" jokes) and warn members not to pick fights with rappers better than they are. The final rule is ominous: "Do not be a snitch."

I also spoke to Amir, founder of RapPad, a forum which sprung out of an app he created in 2013 for textcees. The app combines a text editor, rhyming dictionary, and beats you might otherwise queue up on YouTube. Over time, Amir added social elements to the site for users to share their work, and RapPad became a social network for rappers. Amir said "There have been several 'big battles' and these come from the fact that users can actually talk to each other on the site. They make friends. They get to know each other. The battles then become more interesting because the lines are more personal, and they're more direct attacks."

While the Reddit community might favour respectful raps, RapPad battles have a tendency to turn vicious. Amir himself has even attracted ire—and diss tracks—for being vigilant as a mod. He said, "When the lines get really serious like, 'I'm going to kill you and your whole family,' at what point is this cyberbullying vs battling? It's a weird line to draw because I want the site to be conducive to battlers as well as be a generally positive place."

Over time Amir has noticed curious tendencies among users: Sometimes a textcee will turn down challenges only to post veiled attacks on their opponent in other threads—the rap battle equivalent to a sub-tweet. Sometimes, users claiming to be children write in, asking to have raps about them taken down. "What's been surprising is the diversity of people who battle. One that comes to mind is a battle between a 17-year-old black kid from New York and a 30-something year old mother from Kentucky. And if you think they held back, they really didn't."

Today, rap is at once more commercial and more geeky. Any obscure reference is sure to be analysed on Rap Genius, Twitter, and in YouTube comments, while YouTube is full of lyrics videos, many of them released by artists themselves. How many retired rap battlers are still out there, their best verses preserved in ancient Word Docs?

For most, the days of the textcee seem long departed, buried in dusty forum threads from back in the day. On Twitter, people speak of those days as long gone: "Lmao my textcee days were fun" says an account for "Tha Beast", whose bio reads "a psycho and a rapper". "#BeforeFacebookI was a Rapnometry textcee/femcee/battle rapper," says a user whose bio reads "Earl Sweatshirt is bae." "Gone are those days when I rule in textbrawl," writes one who tags a crew with no Twitter presence. Another says, "RT if you were ever a textcee." There is only one retweet.

Textceeing is somewhat at odds with today's social networks: Sites like YouTube and Instagram expect an aspiring rapper to show their face and flaunt their personality. But for many, textceeing was a way to negotiate the rap world incognito, without committing wholesale to a rap identity. You could still take part if you were too shy to rap aloud, or too nerdy. These rappers never put a face, or even a voice to their lyrics, but this freed them to assume whatever identity they chose.

As one Twitter user reminisces: "They ain't even know I disguised me/ My ghost account ghostwrote for people who criticized me!"

Forum Cop investigates the ugliest of internet beef, getting to the heart of online squabbles and extricating facts from gossip in digital enclaves.