Inside the revival of Utah’s premier rap-battle league

On a hot summer night, rappers go head-to-head, trading insults and rhymes in a competitive art form.

(Palak Jayswal | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rappers JayJay $avage, left, and J-Villain, right, with host and Mic Masters co-founder Gabino Chacon, center, at the "Bobby's World" rap-battle event on July 29, 2023, at The Attic in West Valley City.

It’s boiling in The Attic — a venue above a West Valley City auto shop, where the air conditioning has been turned off because of the noise — as the battles are about to begin.

The only weapons are spoken words — sharpened, yes, but only hurting as much as the listener, or audience, lets them.

Welcome to Utah’s premier rap-battle league, the Mic Masters Alliance.

“It’s like boxing,” said Gabino Chacon III, aka Gabino Grhymes, who is hosting this particular event. “We say that when battlers are getting ready for an event, we literally call it sparring. … You can essentially fight with words and be very, very deep cutting.”

The Attic, true to its name, is a cramped space. A concession stand in back has a t-shirt hanging over the counter that says “I Love Mic Masters.” There’s a game of pool happening to one side, with a small fan above the players providing a brief breeze.

On the opposite end of the room, a DJ set-up has moving strobe lights bathing the battlefield in swatches of neon green, orange and red.

The light and the heat in The Attic on this hot summer night add to the ambiance of the event, called “Bobby’s World,” just one competition in an ongoing revival of the Mic Masters Alliance.

Within half an hour, between 30 and 40 people will crowd the area, eager to watch six pairs of rappers going head-to-head, spinning their carefully crafted rhymes at each other while judges pick a winner.

The competitions are three rounds, Chacon said, with each round lasting from 90 seconds to 2 minutes — longer, if the competitors are more experienced.

With every battle, the goal is the same: Outdo your opponent with your freestyle wordplay skills.

The ability to freestyle is most apparent, Chacon said, in the rebuttals — the start of rounds, where a battler is responding to what their opponent said previously. On the fly, it not only has to be quick, but good.

Generally, Chacon said, the rappers get between 30 and 60 days’ notice of who their opponents will be, giving the battlers time to do research.

But it’s the tension of the moment, seeing how battlers respond to each other, “where the magic comes in,” Chacon said. “The unknown and the chance for greatness to happen in front of you.”

A ‘flourishing’ art form

Chacon said he remembers the day — Sept. 3, 2011 — when he took part in his first rap battle. It was in Five Monkeys in Murray (now the Ice Häus).

“We had six battles that night and those battles ended up getting featured on a song battling page on YouTube,” Chacon said.

A month and a half later, Mic Masters first appeared on a flier for its flagship event: The Mountain West Showdown One. The event, Chacon said, “is basically Utah versus everyone else.”

Mic Masters, for which Chacon is a co-owner, has been taking a hiatus for almost a decade. Chacon has been steadily building the league back up, particularly in the last six months.

Battle rap, The New York Times reported in June, is a “fierce, flourishing” scene, “an art form and a sport.”

Its history and influence goes back decades, practically to the origins of hip-hop 50 years ago. Eminem, for example, credited his battle-rap beginnings (which he re-enacted in the 2002 movie “8 Mile”) with honing his skills and launching his career.

(Palak Jayswal | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mic Masters Alliance co-founder Gabino Chacon at the "Bobby's World" rap battle event on July 29, 2023. Chacon is leading a revival of Utah's premier rap battle league.

Growing an online base

The first contest at this particular event at The Attic, called “Bobby’s World,” is a slaughter. J-Villain delivers rebuttals against JayJay $avage in bursts of spoken-word poetry. The crowd snickers when he drops a mention of $avage’s cat, Princess.

Villain’s mom, Anna Peralta, said that when her son performs in battle rap, he seems so aggressive — while in real life, he’s like a “big teddy bear.” When he was younger, she said, her son battled depression, but channeling his energy into writing and music has helped him.

Before the battle, Peralta keeps quiet about her relationship to her son, because any bit of information might be used against him in a rap battle. She shot the entire battle on her smartphone, oohing and aahing with the crowd.

The events are live-streamed, and Chacon said that’s part of an effort to involve the community more in the planning and broadcasting of events. As the league’s revival has grown, Chacon has hired a dedicated production team to shoot the battles for YouTube, where they’ve really taken off. In a matter of months, he said, the league has increased their total views by 137,000, and the page now boasts more than 3,500 subscribers.

The videos are helping the league grow into a national platform, he said, where Utah rappers are going around the country to battle and outsiders are coming to the state to compete.

Emulating one’s idols

Assad Salleh, who raps under the name Emerson Kennedy, made his debut with Mic Masters a decade ago, and has been a touring battler for the last five years or so. When Chacon put him on a stage, he said, it changed his life.

Battle rap, Salleh said, was like “a perfect hit of a drug,” because it perfectly combined artistry, musicianship and competition.

Getting into battle rap, as a Black man who grew up in Davis County, was a way to emulate people who looked like him, he said.

“As a young Black person who doesn’t have other Black faces around him, you just kind of take to what you see other people that look like you doing on TV, … so I wanted to rap [and play sports], because my idols were doing that,” Salleh said.

‘You get one shot’

Mike Bailey, who made his debut with Mic Masters when he was 17, has seen the league grow since his first appearances more than a decade ago.

“There’s a business aspect to it that was never there before,” Bailey said. “Then on top of that, there’s a community.”

Bailey said he discovered rap battling on YouTube, tried out for Mic Masters and soon started writing and working with such big Utah rap names as Dumb Luck.

His first rap battle experience was just a tryout at a park, where he felt excited, but not nervous. “I kind of felt like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m going to do, because school didn’t really work for me, jobs don’t work for me all that well.’ And I was like, This is what I’m going to be good at,’” he said.

Before he took the stage at his first Mic Masters event, though, Bailey said he threw up three times. The stakes had hit a new level.

“If you’re a rapper and you make music, it doesn’t matter if you mess up,” he said. “[In] battle rap, if you mess up even one time, it’s considered like a choke. … The crowd will heckle. So you get one shot from start to finish.”

Bailey acknowledged that the concept of battle rap sounds crazy. “We get on stage and yell at each other, insult each other,” he said. “But if you look past that, if you can get other people to look past that and say, ‘OK, they’re rapping against each other, but what are they really saying?’”

There’s a particular art to battle rap, Bailey said. “You get to figure out how to take all this information and poetry in a way that maybe doesn’t make people think that we’re primitive,” he said.

Battle rap, he said, is about “being able to say two or three different things all at the same time with one phrase. … Your biggest weapon as a battle rapper is a double entendre, word scheme, metaphors. The better the battle rapper, the more difficult it is to understand what they’re actually saying.”

In Utah, Bailey said, “70% of hip-hop listeners are young white kids and they won’t let it go. Some of the best hip-hop shows I’ve been to have been in the heart of Salt Lake or in Park City.”

When he’s traveling, Bailey said, “when I’m [on] small stages — in like Indianapolis or wherever, places I was surprised that a battle rap league exists — it just reminds me of home.”

The fact that small towns across the nation have glommed on to the culture, Bailey said, is “a testament to how ubiquitous hip-hop is and how it’s just affecting almost every part of the world.”