DigirhetoratiA Digirhetorati is a 21st Century rhetor who works with multiple
electronic literacies with the goal of publically showing them on
the Web or in some other public venue. “Digi” comes from
“digital” and “ati” or “rati” from “literati.” -Dr. John Scenters-Zapico- The Digirhetorati Analysis presented here focuses on Hip Hop and its link to classical notions of rhetoric. I specifically look at the final “rap battle” scene from the film 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical look at a defining moment in rapper Eminem’s life. I undertake a rhetorical analyses of this scene.
8 Mile’s Final Battle: A Rhetorical Analysis
Introduction: Why Hip Hop Rhetoric?
Hip Hop rhetoric deserves a place among the diverse pantheon of rhetorics studied, analyzed, and theorized in our field. As studies done in ancient rhetorics continue to grow, and as we continually use these ancient rhetorics to give us perspective on modern rhetorics and modes of discourse, we must not ignore one of the most influential cultures and discourses of the late-20th and early 21st-century—Hip Hop rhetoric.
Ultimately, Hip Hop rhetoric is not simply a niche discourse which should be viewed as a “fun” or “popular” rhetoric, for “fun” and “popular” are many times code-words for “simplistic” or “non-theoretical.” My claim is that Hip Hop rhetoric is as complex and important as any of the rhetorics being discussed and studied in our field. We should make room for Hip Hop rhetoric in our syllabi and in our discussions of the history of rhetoric.
There has been some serious rhetorical work done in Hip Hop (Campbell; Richardson ) but very little that analyzes Hip Hop rhetoric in light of ancient rhetorical historiography, especially anything outside of the thinkers of ancient Greece. This essay serves to introduce ideas which relate Hip Hop rhetoric to ancient rhetorical thought, and thus does so with a broader stroke than would be appropriate for a deeper analysis of any one particular issue. My aim is not to focus on one of these issues, but to provide an early roadmap for analyzing some ways in which Hip Hop rhetoric can be approached in future work.
If some of earliest rhetoricians were poets, then, in a strong sense, my work harks back to ancient times, when talented writers spoke of communal truths. Hip Hop is no stranger to talented written and spoken discourse.
Battling, The Move and the Scene (full video below)
As the ultimate illustration of glibness and rhetorical showmanship in Hip Hop rhetoric, the rap battle, competitors are not interested in any Platonic, philosophic Truth or in refraining from unrelenting attacks. And they are certainly not interested in silence. Silence in the rap battle constitutes defeat and humiliation. Some could compare these rap battles to a more traditional war-of-words such as a presidential/political debate, but that is a weak comparison. In political debates there tends to be specific issues addressed and each participant is attempting to get his view and agenda across to the audience/voters. While the audience determines the “winner” in polls and on election day, there is always a focus on topics during the debate itself.
All that matters in the rap battle is rhetorical talent, in some sense similar to epideictic speeches/dialogues of ancient Greece and in a sense, very different. Looking again at one of Plato’s seminal works, Phaedrus, we have the title character and Socrates examining a speech by Lysias and Socrates first speech in the text. The speeches are meant to be strong and complex rhetorical works, but not meant to point to any real Truths, in the Platonic sense. They consist of word-play and the manipulation of thought to show rhetorical talent—much like the rappers in a rap battle. But, ancient Greek rhetors, like Plato and Socrates, as illustrated in the second half of Phaedrus, were ultimately interested in using language to figure out and convey Truths about the world. Philosophical thought was meant to prevail, not the language used (glib or otherwise).
Thus, much of Hip Hop rhetoric, particularly in the realm of the Hip Hop battle, is at odds with the view of rhetoric by ancient rhetors like Socrates, Plato, and Confucius. To illustrate the aggressiveness of the rap battle, and to make further connections with ancient rhetoric, particularly Aristotle, let us look at the final rap battle of the Hip Hop film 8 Mile.
The movie is based on the life of rapper Eminem, who grew up in Detroit, in the area known as 8 mile, a lower-class area where he honed his skills as a rapper and was involved in number of these rap battles. Eminem’s character in the film, Rabbit, makes his way to the finals of a rap battle competition at a local club and, in the final battle scene, goes up against “Papa Doc,” known as the best freestyle rapper in the area. The two go head-to-head, with each getting two minutes to lyrically attack the other. The cheers of the audience determine the winner.
This scene is reminiscent of the ultra-glibness and showmanship previously discussed, and in clear contrast to the philosophic rhetoric proposed by Plato and the respectful, relenting speech favored in ancient Chinese rhetoric. The rap battler is highly confrontational, many times getting right in the face of the competitor as he rhymes/attacks, and is only concerned with defeating his/her opponent, nearly always making personal attacks. So, in nearly every important way, the rap battle and rhetoric produced from the battle, is at its core, extremely different from the use/limited use of rhetoric proposed by ancient Greco and ancient Chinese rhetoric. But, this is not to say that the rappers in these battles do not employ devices that are central to some ancient ideas of rhetoric, namely, Aristotelian rhetoric.
Glibness and aggressiveness in Hip Hop rhetoric goes to another level when one considers a central phenomena in Hip Hop rhetoric—the rap battle. Rap battles are when two rappers go head to head in a battle of lyrical talent and wits. Each rapper gets a turn (usually lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes, if timed at all) to show off his lyrical talent and, importantly, to attack his/her opponent. The winner is sometimes determined by an individual who has been chosen to pick the winner, but is usually determined by audience applause and feedback. These Hip Hop battles can take place on a large scale (Rap Olympics; Scribble Jam) or on a much smaller scale (schoolyards; street corners), but always involve the lyrical battling between two competitors who are trying to beat, even destroy, the other participant verbally.
Contextualizing the 8 Mile Final Rap Battle
In the final rap battle of 8 Mile, we have a lyrical confrontation between the lead character, Rabbit, and his enemy throughout the film, Papa Doc. Some background on the movie is needed to set up this final scene. Throughout the move, Rabbit’s clique is in constant confrontation with Papa Doc’s clique, who call themselves “Freeworld.” The two groups get into a couple of physical altercations during the film and Rabbit gets into a personal altercation with a presumed friend who ultimately sleeps with his love interest and joins the Freeworld group. Throughout the movie we see Rabbit, a white male in his 20s who lives in a trailer park with his mother and younger sister, struggling to make ends meet and struggling to get his rap career going. We also learn that Papa Doc, an African American male also in his twenties, attended a private high school and that his given name is Clarence. Also, during one of the altercations between the two groups, Rabbit’s friend, “Cheddar Bob,” shoots himself in the leg while trying to defend his group. With all this in play, we come to the final rap battle scene, in a crowded club, made up mostly African American males, where Rabbit and Papa Doc, each flanked by their group of friends, engage for the rap battle title.
After the flipping of a coin, Papa Doc chooses to allow Rabbit to go first in the battle. The background music starts and Rabbit is given two minutes to attack. In a rhetorical display that is heavily linked to Aristotelian notions of rhetoric, the rapper delivers a rhetorical blow that sends the crowd into a frenzy.
Video of Final Battle Scene
The Rap Battle and Aristotelian Rhetoric
In introductory notes to Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric, H.C. Lawson-Tancred summarizes Platonic feelings toward glib and extravagant rhetoric:
The contemporary practice of oratory, with its shameless emotionalism and attempts at psychological manipulation of the audience, [is] not worthy to be classed as so rational thing as an art (139).
From the Platonic view, the rhetoric delivered in rap battles is neither an art nor rational. As displayed so clearly by Rabbit, rappers use
emotion and psychological manipulation of their opponent and audience. And in a rhetorical move reminiscent of Aristotle, the rapper is
aware of ethos, pathos and counter-argumentation—all pieces of ancient Greek rhetoric in general, though Plato was more suspicious of
these elements than Aristotle.
From an Aristotelian viewpoint, rhetoric should be centered on “finding the available means of persuasion in any given case,” the definition
of rhetoric that dominates the tradition (Lyon 132). Rabbit clearly employs rhetorical devises spoken of by Aristotle.
Audience (and ethos): Connectin’ With the 3-1
To begin with, he is keenly aware of his audience and sways them in his favor within the first few seconds of his lyrical delivery. To
connect himself directly with the audience he opens by facing the crowd, not his opponent, and tells the crowd “everyone from the 3-1-3,
put your…hands up.” 313 is the area code for Detroit and is used to display one’s loyalty to the city from which they are from. Claiming
one’s city/neighborhood is common in Hip Hop rhetoric. Everyone in the crowd is excited by the reference to their home town and
proceeds to wave their hands in the air along with Rabbit. Papa Doc, and his crew, while from Detroit as well, do not raise their hands up
with everyone else, and Rabbit points this out to the crowd: “notice, while this man stands tuff, he doesn’t have his hands up.” The crowds
cheers Rabbit for pointing out this fact and jeers Papa Doc for not being proud and representing his city. So, in the opening lines of the
battle, Rabbit has already established a rapport with the audience and develops his ethos.
Counter Argumentation and Rhetorical Situation (and ethos)
Rabbit then proceeds to “dis,” or disrespect, his opponent by saying, creatively, that he and his crew are “done.” He continues to verbally attack Papa Doc by claiming that “he’s no MC,” the term used to signify a rapper (coming from the early days of rap when the person at a party with the microphone was the “Master of Ceremony”). Then the rapper cleverly uses counter-argumentation in his rhetoric. He preempts Papa Doc’s lyrics by stating “I know everything he’s going to say against me,” then proceeds to give a list of attacks his opponents will likely use when it is his turn at the microphone:
– I am White (in many rap battles, and in Hip Hop in general, being white can be detrimental and hurt one’s ethos or Hip Hop credibility)
– I do live in a trailer with my mom (being dependent on one’s parents can also be detrimental to one’s ethos)
– I do have a friend named Cheddar Bob, who shoots himself in the foot with his own gun
– I did get jumped, by all six of you punks (he’s sure to point out that it took all six members of the Freeworld clique to beat him up)
– [He] did [sleep] with my girl (referring to his one-time friend)
– Don’t judge me…you don’t know what I’ve been through
The rapper is highly aware of the rhetorical situation he is in and takes the air out of his opponent’s coming attack.
Attacking Papa Doc’s (Hip Hop) Ethos
He goes on to directly attack Papa Doc’s reputation and Hip Hop ethos. Within inches of his face, Rabbit delivers a verbal onslaught:
I know something about you/you went to Cranbrook/that’s a private school/
What’s the matter? You embarrassed?/ (addressing crowd) This guy’s a gangster?/
His real name’s Clarence/…and Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage/
This guy doesn’t want to battle, He’s shook/
In a Hip Hop setting, where struggle is a central theme, the perception that someone has had an “easy life” is a negative notch on their
ethos. By pointing out that Papa Doc attended a private school and that he was brought up in a household with good parents, Rabbit
turns the crowd against him and devalues his credibility as a Hip Hop lyricist and rap battler. Rabbit even addressed the fact that Papa
Doc’s real name is Clarence, a sly attack considering Rabbit is a nickname as well. But the tactic works because having a very
conservative name like Clarence is perceived as weak and humorous, especially when accompanied by the facts given about Clarence’s
[Papa Doc is attacked and emberrased]
[The battle is always ultra-aggressive]
Rabbit then ends the battle by referring back to his counter-argumentation strategy, in telling Papa Doc, “tell these people something they don’t know about me,” before tossing him the microphone. In a show of impressive and complex lyrical dominance, Papa Doc is so defeated, and his arguments already undercut, that he isn’t able to say anything on his turn and forfeits the rap battle to Rabbit. The audience is astonished by Papa Doc’s silence and go onto cheer Rabbit loudly as he is named the winner of the battle.
Aristotle: Invented and Situated Ethos
In Ancient Rhetorics for Modern Students, Sharron Crowley discusses Aristotle’s view that there were two kinds of ethical proofs: invented and
situated. “According to Aristotle, rhetors can invent a character suitable to an occasion (invented) [or] if rhetors are fortunate enough to enjoy a good
reputation in the community, they can use it as an ethical proof [situated].” For Rabbit, and Eminem outside of the movie, some have argued that
his Hip Hop ethos is invented instead of situated. Much of this is based on race. When some people see a white person rapping, and incorporating the Hip
Hop, “gangsta” life, they assume that that identity is not genuine. But, over the years, Eminem has achieved more and more “street cred” because people are
swayed by his talent, but just as important they have learned that he grew up in a lower class area of Detroit, grew up around many African Americans, and
struggled to get where he is. Class, race, and struggle have helped Eminem achieve a greater Hip Hop ethos, and all these factors are genuine, and perceived to
be genuine, which seem to point to his ethos being one that is more “situated” than invented.
(Rabbit’s “situated” ethos is illustrated throughout the film)
Kairos can be described in many ways, but here let us discuss it as saying or doing the “right” thing at the opportune moment. That is, constructing and
delivering one’s speech/discourse to “fit” a particular situation and, usually, to persuade in that situation. For Rabbit/Eminem, the discourse produced (what the
rapper “spits”) during the rap battle must fit the moment and the audience in order to persuade them that he should be crowned victorious. As we can see from
the video of the final battle, Rabbit fully understands the moment he is in and delivers discourse (personal attacks, attacks on his opponents Hip Hop ethos,
counterarguments) that engages the audience and allows him to beat his opponent. Some specific points:
-Rabbit/Eminem knows he is in Detroit and that claiming and representin’ one’s space/city is important in Hip Hop (thus the opening with “3-1-3” and previously discussed.
-Rabbit/Eminem understands that he is a white rapper in a culture dominated by African Americans. He not only states his whiteness during the battle but isn’t appearing as a fake rapper/Hip Hopper.
-Rabbit/Eminem dresses for the occasion. He doesn’t wear a tuxedo, or small, tight, shorts, but is casually dressed in what might be described as Hip Hop attire (baggy jeans and a tank top/”wife beater”); not to mention tattoos. As discussed above, Eminem’s dress is not invented/constructed for the situation but instead it is something he doesn’t have to consciously think about because he is already situated in Hip Hop culture.
-Rabbit/Eminem’s delivery is consistent with the delivery of rap artists, and particularly rap battlers. He is aggressive and “in the face” of his opponent. His voice is loud and clear and he directs his discourse towards the audience, towards his opponent, and towards his opponent’s clique, as needed.
Karios and Audience
A quick note about kairos and audience. In postmodernism, kairos is not strictly contained to the orator and his ability to delivery the “right” speech/discourse
at the “right” moment, but also pertains to the audience’s responses. There is interplay between audience and orator as they are “caught up” in a rhetorical
situation. The orator attempts to understand the audience and situation, and provide discourse that will allow him to achieve whatever s/he is trying to achieve
with the audience. The audience, not a passive phenomena, is responding at certain moments to the orators discourse, maybe with applause, laughter, jeers,
questions, silence, etc.
As we can see in the final battle of 8 Mile, the audience responds at important points and in important
ways. They are hyped up by Rabbit’s reference to the 3-1-3 and respond with waving their hands in
the air and cheering loudly. After certain poignant lines delivered by Rabbit, the crowd responds with
cheers, applause, and laughter. Papa Doc knows Rabbit’s rhymes are effective through the
audience’s response. The audience also applies the pressure to Papa Doc once Rabbit is done rhyming. He feels the pressure so much
that he isn’t able to respond, losing the battle.
The Battle (With Commentary)
Though Rabbit, and the true-life rapper his story is based on, Eminem, are not students of rhetoric, and have not read Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, they employ rhetoric that is clearly aware of audience, pathos, ethos, psychology, counter-argumentation and achieve a “metalinguistic awareness of language, awareness of language as a system or complex to be manipulated in the service of identity, communication, persuasion, or artifice (Lyon 132). Hip Hop rhetoric in general is highly saturated with uses of Aristotelian teachings on rhetoric (i.e. deliberation, emotion, character, style, composition, etc.), and making more in-depth connections between these two rhetorics is wide-open for study.
While the battle scenes in 8 Mile were written and choreographed, Eminem freestyle rapped/battled numerous times (including the Rap Olympics) before he became a multi-platinum selling artist. Below are links to some “real life” examples.
[Eminem at the 1997 Rap Olympics]
Works Cited in this Analysis:
Crowely, Sharron Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students
Lawson-Tancred, H.C. Trans. Plato’s The Art of Rhetoric. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Lyon, Arabella. “Confucian Silence and Remonstration: A Basis for Deliberation?”
Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. New York: NY Press, 2004.
http://mason.gmu.edu/~ajryan/cv.html [Class in Hip Hop Literacies at George Mason University]