Hip-hop may have started out in the parks of New York, as everyone from MC Shan to Jay Z has reminded us, but Toronto’s world-conquering battle-rap scene started out in a back alley behind the Eaton Centre.
“We couldn’t get a venue. We were 21 years old, and no venue wanted to associate themselves with battle rap,” says Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, recalling the pauper origins of his King of the Dot empire, nearly a decade ago, in 2008. “So we just did it any way we could. Originally we were planning to do it at Yonge-Dundas Square, and then they kicked us out so we had to move to the closest alleyway.”
Understandably, Toronto police thought the circle of 40 or so kids cheering and jeering as two alpha males squared off was building toward a fight. But once they realized that the blows would be only verbal, the cops let it slide.
“They never once shut us down,” says Fleetwood. “They would always ride their bikes by the alleyway and they looked at it like, ‘at least they’re doing something productive and not out causing trouble.’”
After a few more outdoor events that kept doubling in attendance, Fleetwood eventually found a basement venue belonging to a friend’s dad, and sold it out before the doors opened. His fledgling battle-rap league King of the Dot would soon grow into a WWE-like phenomenon, boasting a YouTube page of their fiercest live face-offs with nearly 600,000 subscribers and more than 170 million views.
“We literally built his from the ground up,” says Fleetwood, who quit his steelworker job to run KOTD full-time in 2014. “Everything we’ve done has been trial and error. There was never no blueprint to run a battle-rap league.”
“We literally built his from the ground up. Everything we’ve done has been trial and error.” – Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, of King of the Dot
Battle rap began as a natural outgrowth of hip-hop culture’s inherent braggadocio and competitiveness. It’s a feature also found in the breakdancing, DJ, and graffiti pillars, but came to define this rap offshoot. Battle rap evolved from freestyle sidewalk “cyphers,” where early MCs showed off their rhyme skills to brutally personal lyrical beat-downs, as battlers competed to land the cleverest, cruelest insults. It remained an underground proving ground until an Eminem movie delivered the scene into the mainstream in 2002.
“I was battling when I was super-young, in the ‘90s, I was just going neighborhood to neighborhood. That was the raw feel of it,” recalls veteran Bishop Brigante, King of the Dot Vice-President and the first Canadian battle rapper to appear on BET’s 106 and Park. “By the time 8 Mile dropped, I was like, ‘I did that. I already been through those trenches.’”
“[Back then] it was on beats, it was freestyle off-the-top,” Brigante explains. “It was the purest form of battle rap, because you had to be super-skilled on the spot, with no preparation.” But King of the Dot helped the musical sport evolve into its current form, by having competitors rap a capella with pre-written punchlines, allowing the insults to cut deeper, and the rounds to last longer. “The entertainment value went up when you had a couple months to prepare, and you really wrote it out,” Brigante says. “It became a performance.”
But like Bob Dylan going electric, longtime fans needed convincing, and Drake stepped in to help add credibility by co-hosting a 2011 event, and helping run another in 2015.
.“A lot of people were still on the fence because the battles were now written, and [Drake] made the city get behind us a lot more,” says Fleetwood. “Toronto was thriving at that time, so it was more than just supporting the league, it was showing unity between the hip-hop scenes from the industry level to the underground level. It showed that the whole community was standing together. A lot of cities don’t got that. You’re not seeing the big names over there going to these underground functions to support these kids on the come-up. Drake was doing that. And it helped us push our brand into America.”
Maybe it wasn’t hard to become the biggest battle-rap league in Canada, since there wasn’t much competition. But King of the Dot has successfully expanded southward, throwing throw-downs in Massachusetts, Arizona and California, while attracting international competitors to their World Domination events. Legendary MCs like Too $hort, E-40 and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Method Man have co-hosted events.
Even the new Eminem-produced battle-rap movie Bodied, which debuted at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, was scripted by Toronto battle-rapper Kid Twist, the first King of the Dot champion. “It’s a good dive into the culture and people are gonna be wowed, and when they’re done they can go on YouTube and check out King of the Dot and see a lot of people who were in the movie,” says Brigante.
“We were actually one of the more prominent battle scenes in the world but I don’t think the rest of the world knew that yet,” adds Fleetwood about the old days. “We knew up here because we could see what the rest of the world was delivering, but not many people had their eyes on Toronto. Back then it was a tough struggle.”
Back then. But nowadays they’re the kings – and not just of the dot.