Internet rap battles are far from the gritty intensity of live showdowns familiar from Eminem's "8 Mile." One digital tournament has its share of critics, but it has catapulted several German rappers into the charts.
Freestyle battles have always been a part of hip-hop culture - challenges between multiple rappers in which hard beats, quick and witty turns of phrase and rhyme, displays of flow and creativity as well as gesturing are rewarded or mocked with immediate audience feedback.
The live stage spectacle has migrated partly to the internet, where a number of hip-hop tournaments are conducted on YouTube and other video sharing platforms. For standout MCs, club gigs and even record deals are the reward. Thus also with the German-language contest Video-Battle-Turniers (VBT), hosted by the online platform rappers.in.
This year marks the eighth edition of the VBT, where top prize is the chance to perform alongside the likes of Outkast, MIA, Angel Haze and German star rapper Cro at Splash, the country's biggest hip-hop festival. 134 participants are involved in the 2014 VBT. They start off in teams, and each round gives them two weeks to put together a video with their new song.
For rappers without a studio budget, that means pressure. Competition is fierce right up to the two finalists battling it out for first place in June.
Lance Butters, who climbed into the bracket of the top eight performers in 2011, has since joined the legendary indie label Four Music - home to stars of the German scene such as Casper and Marteria. Weekend, a rapper who won past editions of the VBT, earned enough attention to get signed to the country's Chimperator label, where he joins the top-seller Cro. The album released in the wake of his success hit number three in the German charts.
But 27-year-old rapper Dobbo, who is taking part in this year's VBT, says success will elude most of the tournament's participants - even those with big talent. "Without real charisma, nothing comes together. Maybe at the VBT, but nobody beyond the tournament will notice you."
Attention - for better or worse
Dobbo's friend Weekend pulled off the jump from the VBT to a music career. "There was no one like him before - he's got a very different approach to the battle," Dobbo said.
Weekend is the stage name of Christoph Wiegand, who prior to his breakthrough was making ends meet working as a trained social worker and in the discount grocer Lidl. With his self-deprecating style and unimposing apearance, Wiegand can size up both his strengths and weaknesses. "Skinny arms? Doesn't matter, then I'll just have to be a Kraut rapper," he said. In his single "Hi Chimperator," he warns his label they've made a mistake. The lyrics, translated from the German, go, "I think I forgot to let you all know / Getting commercial success with rap isn't my thing."
Contestants and audience for the battle are drawn from the online community rappers.in, with 500,000 members. Videos by the participating MCs tend to rake in seven-digit clicks on YouTube, so attention is guaranteed.
Not that clicks always mean praise; a strong audience contingent delights in the lackluster entries.
Mixed reception in the scene
Berlin rapper Liquit Walker says he understands why a 16-year-old rural kid might want to use the internet to connect with the rap scene but insists that an online contest cannot replace the immediacy of a live battle.
Dobbo counters that with their high numbers of viewers, video battles bring their own set of pressures. "When you mess up in front of an audience in the hundreds of thousands, it's just as humiliating as when you get destroyed on stage."
"Juice," a hip-hop magazine, has called the VBT a training ground. While success stories such as that of Weekend support that picture, one of this year's jurors, Sherin Kürten-Szillus, says the contest doesn't draw enough outstanding MCs to be considered a major talent pool.
There are a number of reasons for that, she explains: "For one thing, only a few stand out. On the other hand, a lot of them are still looking for their artistic identities. And some are not very interesting when they're not in the context of a battle."
Sparring until June
Part of the search for a creative identity involves choices about how much the MCs want to reveal about who they are and where they're from. Weekend was more forthcoming than most - about the perceived indignities of his job, for example - while others use masks or contact lenses to obscure their features on video.
One participant this year, Mikzn70 from Munich, prefers the authentic approach, and his songs often deal with his desire to break away from what he calls the everyday grind - as in the track "Frei." Mikzn70 is a regular participant in the VBT, saying that success there is addictive. "But it has nothing to do with hip-hop culture. Just like today's hip-hop concerts, which aren't jams anymore. The improvisation is missing!"
The "Stepbrothers," Dobbo and Buddi, who started rapping at age 14, have already gone through the VBT rounds. Dobbo became a back-up rapper for a friend and later toured with Weekend. Buddi took part in live battles, recalling, "In 2010, I won the 'End of the Week' contest, the prelims in Bochum and then the finale at Splash."
But the duo missed their chance this year, failing to make it beyond the top 16 participants (Listen: "Grenzen," one of their entries this year). Mikzn70 and partner Akfone continued on and are hoping for the chance to perform for an audience of 20,000 at the Splash festival. Their videos for this year's competition have already reached twice as many viewers.