In hip-hop, rappers and movements come and go like the wind. Staying power is scarce and only the savviest emcees stand the test of time. Pioneers blaze trails, opening doors for many to walk through. Sadly, these pioneers often end up in poverty while the doors they’ve opened reap bountiful harvests for later generations. Murda Mook, a battle rap pioneer who plans on enjoying the fruits of his labor, has one more trail he’s yet to blaze: the first million dollar payday in battle rap. “I like to do things to push the culture forward. I don’t go out there and battle for the sake of battling because I did that so much when I was young[er],” Mook said.
Don Diva was able to sit down with Mook while he was between promoting a new series called Mafietta, (directed by Dame Dash; written by EW Brooks; starring Mook and Deelishis), a RZA-directed film, produced by Lionsgate and, of course, his bread and butter, a new music project, titled Fuxk The Politics. We also get his thoughts about megastar Drake challenging him to a battle, the economics of battle rap and why no league has locked him in for two years. “[Battle rap is] what pays the bills. That’s what got me to where I need to be,” Mook explained. “I’ll never be neglectful towards what it is that I am, but just because that’s where I came from, don’t try to stick me in a box. So, I’m trying to get my feet wet [in other industries, as well]. It’s nothing out of the question.”
Murda Mook started as a kid from Harlem, who started seriously rapping at 12. By the age of 17, he was the most known battle rapper in New York City, hip-hop’s birthplace which over eight million people call home. Mook says when he began battling, there was nobody recording battles. “It was kill or be killed. It was instinct. I was doing it for the respect,” he reflected.
One of his more notable early battles happened to be caught on camera by a young man who no one really knew at the time. “Smack just happened to be somewhere with the camera and he caught a moment,” remembered Mook, who says the battle gained him shine in Harlem in a DVD series called ATM Live. Later, that young man with the camera, who we’ve come to know as Smack White, released his own footage of that same battle which went on to garner Mook accolades from across the nation and essentially spawn modern-day battle rap.
Since its inception, battle rap has become widespread, rife with battle leagues across the nation, curating exhibitions of lyrical pugilism regularly. In some rare cases, you get classic battles, but in other cases, you may get a sideshow act with battlers going to extremes for notoriety in the bustling industry. Some have shot up heroin mid-battle, while others have sucker punched their opponents out of pure frustration from losing so bad.
Mook does not partake in the sideshow. Not one for he antics (when it comes to fighting in a rap battle or taking a dispute outside of a battle) Mook considers it “a joke.” “Gangsters don’t beef on the internet. You gotta get paid. This is the name of the game. If you’re in this [battle rap] shit to be a tough guy, you’re in the wrong fucking game!”
Don’t expect any prop guns, ominous music, or violent outbursts during a Murda Mook battle. One could reckon that the reason Mook is one of the most respected and sought-out battle rappers is he never throws away a performance. Every round is masterfully crafted and is taken just as seriously as the ones he spat when he first made a name for himself and Smack, at least a decade ago. Mook’s mission in a battle is different. He said, “When I do things now, it’s to elevate things.”
“Elevation” was a great choice of words. When comparing a Mook battle to any other battle, the contrast in demeanor, approach, and purpose is clear. Mook has truly perfected his craft.
The reverence Mook receives from the battle rap community stems largely from the unblemished record he’s enjoyed over the years. “I’m great at making people see my perspective in a battle,” Mook diagnosed. “I’m just gonna kill you with raps.”
Mook elaborated, “I’ve battled some of the dudes people considered to be the greatest battle rappers ever. Then [when I beat them], people say [that great battle rapper] had an off day. If there is anybody you would prepare for to have your best performance against, it would be me. It’s not a coincidence. This is strategy. This is what I do. It’s so cerebral, that once you perceive something one way, it can change how you feel about everything. It’s something you have to be great at and I happen to be great at that.”
Even with so many wins, people still call Mook out and send shots his way. “People try to antagonize me because I don’t battle a lot,” he said of his competition. “A lot of fans, I understand their frustration. They want to see me battle. They try to figure out a way to get me to battle.”
However, time and time again, once his peers finally get Mook to battle, they end up losing every last round. Mook explained the allure of being lyrically trashed by him for other rappers saying, “Niggas [battlers] want to be martyrs. You gotta die for what you believe in, right? They want to be put on the cross and for them it’s a win. They can tell people, ‘Mook killed me.’”
Mook boasted, “Nobody in this world can beat me in battle rap.”
With power players like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Diddy profiting off of battle rap, it’s no wonder Mook refuses to battle for the slave wages that some league owners allegedly demand. When asked why he should receive the biggest payday in battle rap, Mook responded that he downright refuses to be a celebrity figure not making celebrity dollars in battle rap.
“You have to know that once you get involved in this, you no longer belong to you. When I see celebrities start talking about they just want a private life, I’m like, no. When people didn’t know you and you were dying for muthafuckas to buy your shit, or to acknowledge you existed in music, you would’ve killed for muthafuckas to want to be around you and take pictures of you and do all these things,” Mook surmised. “Once you kind of realize that you belong to the people, and you no longer have a private life, it’s kind of like, be careful what you wish for. You have to make sure you’re really prepared for the lifestyle it’s going to be. Because there is no more hiding; there is no more anything. You have to learn the game.”
And the game is you get what you negotiate. Now the biggest battles have become high-powered promotional events, similar to boxing matches. Some have pondered legal gambling systems for rap battles, like sporting events. This would undoubtedly ensure better paydays for battle rappers, but is it practical? “It’s hard to gamble on battle rap because it’s all perception, whereas boxing is physical; you can physically hit somebody and everyone can see that they got hit,” Mook analyzed. “In battle rap, a punchline might not resonate with me the way it resonates with somebody else. [For instance] if you have a great battle live, there is no way you can just judge a great battle right then and there. You would have to watch it again, then rewatch it, then come back in like two days with the judgment.”
Whatever judgment process a league might eventually decide on, it is fathomable that battle rap itself could become a multi-billion dollar sport, once attached to legalized gambling. “That’s the reason I’m here,” Mook says of this notion.
Regardless, the fans are in a frenzy, the battle rappers are mostly in it for popularity, and the top tier leagues are making a killing.
The biggest leagues are charging anywhere from $50 to $200 a head, with crowds of 100 to 1000 people, at least five or six times annually. If you include the Pay-Per-View revenue (event views range from about $10 to $30 a pop) after potentially being broadcast to millions of people, we are talking about a hefty profit. Let’s just do the math:
Say we throw one event and sell $100 tickets to 300 people. That’s $30,000. We have $500 stage passes and 30 stage slots. That’s $15,000. That’s a total of $45,000 so far. Let’s say you allow PPV streaming to this event. At $30 a person, let’s say the most popular battler performing at the event has 82,000 social media followers online who tune in live. That’s a total of $2.46 million. We won’t account for the popularity of the league he’s on or of the battler he is facing. That makes a total of roughly $2.5M to a league owner from one event. More than enough to take care of expenses, make profit, and pay Mook a million dollars. Remember that leagues throw more than one event per year.
By not competitively paying stars, leagues are basically begging to have their infrastructure ripped from beneath them, hence Murda Mook’s legendary match versus Loaded Lux, which started on Smack and ended on Eminem’s platform in 2014, at Shady Total Slaughter. The leagues could regulate the industry themselves by making sure the best battlers get the biggest paydays.
It’s alleged that Joe Budden took home about $200,000 from his Total Slaughter battle. Some say Shady pocketed upwards of $1 million (one of the more revealing moments of that event was when the headliner, Hollow Da Don, used his first round to accuse Shady Records of culture vulture-ish tactics). In one of the biggest events in the culture (promoted by billionaire Alki David’s live streaming company FilmOn), rumors have it that performers were never paid, while platinum-selling Philly rapper Cassidy says his PPV appearance earned him about a quarter of a million dollars.
Of course, Eminem and Shady Records see the multi-billion dollar big picture and made sure winners were declared by judges in every battle of their event; a practice leagues haven’t all adopted yet. With these types of numbers being thrown around, it’s only a matter of time before there is a judging system enacted, enabling fans to legally gamble on the sport.
Mook is priceless to hip-hop. His brand is worth millions and a battle from Mook is worth a million in his pocket. Evidence of the significant echelon battle rap and Mook are on would be when Drake descended from his perch and challenged Mook to a battle, publically. Mook takes us back to the night Drake and him posed for the viral and now infamous standoff picture. “In hindsight, me and Drake was in the club and he was caught in the moment. He didn’t fully understand what he was doing in the moment. I want to do anything to get the battle done and he knows that,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be a good idea for him and the people around him. He is an empire. Remember, before Drake became Drake, I was on Smack and he was a fan first. When people see me they relive those moments.”
When the possibility that Drake never battles him after stirring up all of this dust was posed, Mook’s response was succinct: “I don’t care.” He expanded, “I enjoy looking for the next thrill. I recently got a part in a movie and I really like acting. I don’t want to be categorized as one thing. I’m an artist first, and as result of me battle rapping, it turned into its own genre. I was Murda Mook before Drake [was Drake].”
Although fans are begging for his return, Mook isn’t stressing a rap battle. For years, he battled for the sake of battling and it made him a legend. Now, it’s important to him to push the culture forward, again, by holding out until the leagues pay him what he knows is a fair performance fee. Although league owners boast their business acumens, one has yet to sign Murda Mook, strictly as a battler. A superstar athlete’s deal might be structured over years with milestones attached, allowing him/her to earn and be a benefit to other. Mook is an intelligent businessman and when asked would he sign to a URL or 50 Cent as a battler, similar to a boxer signing to a promotions company, he said, “Everything is a conversation. I’m not against it.”
When it comes to Mook, the truth is crystal clear “They know the type of attention my name bring when I battle. It’s not the same,” he declared.
Even at Total Slaughter, Budden was the headliner, but the consensus at the end of the night (by everyone, undisputedly) was that Mook’s battle was the main event and best performance of the night.
When Mook takes home his million dollar payday, it will expand the battle rap culture to its final frontier. Battle rap will become a genuine route to get out of poverty for people from the inner-cities. The money is available. Who can pay like they weigh or is it all an act? Everyone is claiming that they run the culture, but the old business adage rings true: “You haven’t made it because you’ve made a million dollars. You’ve made it when you can pay someone a million dollars.”
Whatever the future of battle rap holds, Mook will be waiting patiently, like a meditating samurai on a remote mountain, sharpening his blade. When it’s time to emerge once again and push the culture forward some poor sap’s head is getting sliced off.
Nevertheless, Mook attributes his ascent to the Most High, claiming it’s a divine gift. “Nothing is by chance,” Mook elaborated. “The design is God design. You have to make sure you don’t waste the talent that He gives you. I wasn’t even thinking about battle rapping. It just so happened that God had me do this.”