A layer of haze thickens as the punchlines do. It’s Red Bull’s first Batalla de Los Gallos in the United States in a decade. The underground gone mainstream-adjacent Spanish-language freestyle competition has formally existed for 12 years, though women and men have held cyphers in parks and on corners in Spain, Latin America and the diaspora for decades. With a rise in interest for spitting both on and off tracks, urbano’s prevalence, and the known importance of fostering young talent to assure longevity in all of the aforementioned, there could not be a better time to reintroduce the states to these battles.
“We’ve established a new profession in the world of rap,” Skone says. “Y hay chavales, kids who want to dedicate their lives to this because now they know they can. We did it because we liked it, but now there are people who say ‘I can make a career out of this.’”
Skone, a respected Malaga-born freestyler who has Eminem tattooed on his arm and served as a judge in Miami and la República Dominicana amongst other countries this year, is as passionate about this as it gets.
“I think there seems to be some confusion around what 18-and-over means over there,” a woman working the VIP door said to her colleague regarding the sea of youngins waiting to get their foot in the door.
Once they inevitably made their way into Wynwood Factory, a selfie-eager crowd slowly gathered around me and Skone as we conversed about the future of this art-form and its significance in a time and industry that often values the fleeting over the impactful, and digestibility over cultural impact.
“I think, even though we think it’s not that hard to be mainstream, it’s difficult to do what Maluma does,” Skone asserts, smiling. “The thing is… I’ve tried to be as honest as I can with my music, and for my persona (because at the end of the day this is a sort of artistic role) to be, let’s say, as true to who I am as possible.” In other words, siempre real.
“In an ideal world, there’d be room for everything,” he dreams out loud. “The problem is that lately it feels like the only thing that matters is la music ludica, por asi decirlo…sometimes I wish people were more willing to listen to letra guay.”
“Todo es super fugaz,” the 2016 champion says. “Before, when a rap album came out we used to listen to the lyrics, but now there are almost more rappers than people who consume rap, and everything is chewable, needs to have a little bit of everything. I, perhaps too pessimistically, I don’t think there’s a solution.”
Serko Fu, Mexican rapper and label owner who hosted alongside Queen Mary that night, agrees, though he’s a bit more optimistic about the way forward. “We’re all about co-existing and strengthening our presence,” he says. “Before it was ‘ok, let’s do freestyle to get the push and visibility we need to then make our own music.’” Now, not so much.
An artist like Ecko, who competed in 2017, was recently signed to Universal Music. Others like Jony Beltran and Chuty, who are freestylers in their own right without leaning too commercial, travel the world doing what they love.
For years, these battles have attracted a similar group of both audience members and performers. Namely, men. Though this year was no different, Queen Mary is hopeful about a more diverse future. “It’s changed a lot in very little time,” the host of four years tells Remezcla. “I think, at the end of the day, since we’re getting more visibility, I think more women will be animated to give it a shot.”
“Tres, dos, uno – TIEMPO!” Queen Mary and Fu squalled between battles as words for the guys to riff off of appeared on the big screen.
The eight contestants trickled in pairs to amicably rip each other apart, provoke a supportive cheer from the audience, and wow the judges who all have varying degrees of experience both as judges and contestants.
The judges, Skone, Fu and Beltran, were looking for fluidity, savagery and those cherry-on-top punchlines to decide who goes to Finals in Madrid — pero sometimes it really is that intrinsic spark that takes home the cake.
Similar to Wos’ triumph over Aczino at last year’s Finals, an unexpected victor is on his way to Spain come November 30. Although OG Frases was a crowd favorite, it was 25-year-old Puerto Rican MC Yartzi who won big this year.
The 25-year-old burst into tears as Skone passed off the award. Yartzi’s dad passed away two months before the show and this, he stated, is for him.
“This was my only chance to get to International and these last few months have been rough… Coming out victorious means that at the end of the tunnel there really is a light,” the urbano hopeful says.
As each rapper on stage traded in the prevalent topics of ass and smoking for ones like immigration, Latin pride, and (of course) self-laudatory punchlines at the expense of their counterpart’s ego, audiences bore witness to a growing movement.
Come November, over 15,000 people will gather in Madrid to do the same.
“El arte no tiene que ser bonito, tio,” Skone utters. “It can be ugly. It’s still art.”