When you think of rap battles, it’s hard not to cast your mind back to the east coast hip-hop scene of the 1980s; pumped-up rappers clad in shutter shades and primary-colored shell suits, balancing a booming stereo on their shoulder and gearing up to take the stage in a gritty underground club. It was an era that shaped the future of pop culture and stood out in musical history, with pioneering MCs like Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee Starski—both whom took part in one of the earliest and most infamous battles—laying down a path for this new, braggadocious offshoot of hip-hop.
This was no place for humility or restraint. The rap battle podium was a space for quick-witted storytelling and ferocious expression— whether that sounded like a slick observation or a savage diss. As the format continued to grow, it evolved with each passing decade and continued to swell within the global underground, with self-sustaining micro-scenes popping up in every corner of the world.
Recently there has been an upwards tick of Spanish-speaking MCs taking the world by storm. From breakouts stars like Puerto Rico’s Yartzi and Myke Towers to Mexico’s Aczino and the Alicante-based Arkano, the rap battle scene—or batalla in Spanish—is fast-becoming a movement in its own right. As shown in Red Bull’s Batalla documentary "Imparables" where fans get an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look at the largest freestyle rap competition in the world: The Red Bull Batalla World Final 2020. A staggering amount of viewers tuned into the event, captivated by the rappers’ undeniable magnetism, sharp rhymes and larger-than-life swagger. The climax of a global, year-long competition, 17,000 rappers fought to the end until just one—Mexican firebrand Rapder—delivered the final mic drop and was crowned champion.
Watch "Imparables: Red Bull Batalla" in the player below.
Imparables: Red Bull Batalla
“What I love about battling is that you aren’t bound to any kind of guidelines—you can really just rap however you want to, without sticking to a theme or format,” Rapder says of batalla culture.
"In the beginning, batalla culture wasn’t totally taken seriously. But now people are starting to catch up to a scene that’s been thriving in the underground for so long."
The millions who tuned into his victory would agree; Red Bull Batalla was the single most watched online live music event last year. This is a significant feat as it means it out-streamed world renowned pop stars like Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande and Kylie Minogue. This signified a shift in culture, one that looked to lesser-known art forms and possessed a more global gaze.
“In the beginning, batalla culture wasn’t totally taken seriously,” explains Aczino. “But now people are starting to catch up to a scene that’s been thriving in the underground for so long.”
As the popularity of Red Bull Batalla will attest, language doesn’t have to be a barrier to world domination. The Spanish-language rap battle is at the forefront of a new wave of Latinx and Hispanic artists breaking into the music mainstream without adjusting their sound— or lyrics—for English-speaking listeners. This mass appeal stems from the fizzing energy of the battles; you only have to look as far as Rapder’s winning cypher to see how he commands both the crowd and stage, delivering bars with a cadence so fiery that the words themselves are almost secondary. It’s a charisma that transcends borders.
However, this seismic shift is no coincidence. The Spanish music takeover started with Daddy Yankee’s world-storming 2004 hit "Gasolina," which rapidly shot up the global charts, breaking into Top 10s across Latin America, the US and Europe. This was the first time a Spanish-language song penetrated western pop culture so deeply, eventually going on to be named as one of the greatest Latin songs of all time, according to Billboard. Yankee’s debut album, Barrio Fino, released in the summer of that same year, peaked at Number 1 on the US Latin chart and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. And just when we all thought that was impossible to top, the Puerto Rican rapper did it again with "Despacito" in 2017.
Rhythmic and hook-laden, the track became the first song sung in Spanish to top the Billboard Hot 100 since "Macarena" in the mid-90s. It went on to be the most-viewed YouTube video of all-time from August 2017 to November 2020, then later reached the impressive milestone of seven billion views on the site. "Despacito" has been widely credited as being instrumental in bringing Spanish-language music to the mainstream again and there’s no denying that it’s one of the most successful tracks in pop music history.
Since then, Spanish-language music has infiltrated the charts at a dizzying rate. A genre that was once seen as inaccessible and "other" was standing up to the world’s biggest pop stars—and there has been no sign of this slowing down. Whether it’s the brooding beats of trap en Español, urbano’s syrupy flow, reggaeton’s stomping dembow or the cutthroat word works of the batalla circuit’s MCs, artists are no longer tuning their instruments for the western ear.
“Thanks to social media and digital platforms, we’ve been able to communicate our art with people all around the world,” explains Azcino. “I’ve never felt held back by being a Spanish rapper, if I’m being honest.” Rapder agrees, but despite becoming a household name, he says he’s open to crossing over—just not for the reasons you’d think.
"One day I’d like to rap in English because it would broaden my horizons as an artist, but only so I could battle rappers in other countries that don’t speak my language," says Rapder.
The rap scene in Mexico has grown tenfold. We’re witnessing a whole generation looking for new ways to make a difference
These artists have penetrated the mainstream with such force that it has shifted everyone's perception of not only the batalla scene, but Spanish-language music as a whole. Until then, it seemed to exist in its own bubble; what was previously seen as a subversive underground genre that was largely shunned by the population and major labels—both Latin and worldwide—is now seen as a legitimate art form and one of value.
You only have to look as far as the success story of Puerto Rican trailblazer Bad Bunny, who has roots in the island’s rap scene and recently sold out a US arena tour in minutes. His most recent album, El Último Tour Del Mundo, became the first all-Spanish-language album to top the US Billboard 200. To solidify his influence even more, Bad Bunny became the first non-English language act to be Spotify's most streamed artist and he even made an impressive appearance at WWE's Wrestlemania.
“Being able to upload your work to YouTube, musical platforms and streaming services—this is all helping our careers as MCs. We’re all taking advantage of the tools we have,” explains Rapder. “For example, the rap scene in Mexico has grown tenfold. We’re witnessing a whole generation looking for new ways to make a difference.”
And they certainly are—from global superstars like J Balvin and Rosalía to breakout Batalla alum like Skone and Aczino. Despite their stylistic differences, there is one fact that binds them together: they unapologetically sing in their native language and they emit a cadence that is uniquely Latin. “Latin rhythms have always been totally alive. Being able to export genres like salsa and cumbia to the world has been refreshing to everyone that has heard it,” beams Rapder. “Life in central and south America isn’t something everyone can relate to, but anyone can enjoy our music.”
In fact, Spanish-language music has been so influential on the mainstream that English-speaking artists are not just folding Latin sounds into their own output, but they’re also collaborating with the original creators. Drake traded verses with Bad Bunny on the 2018 single Mia, Rosalía enlisted the help of Texas rapper Travis Scott for TKN and Dua Lipa joined Bad Bunny, J Balvin and legendary reggaeton producer Tainy for Un Día. Seeing this wave is not only heartening for a new generation of Spanish-speaking artists to step forward, but it’s also resonating with Latinx and Hispanic music fans who never saw themselves reflected in the media.
As we move towards becoming a more inclusive, global community, the meteoric success of Spanish-language music will only continue to soar. Rapder sums it up simply: "Not everyone can relate to our scene or our culture, but the bigger it becomes, the more bread everyone gets to eat."
Red Bull Batalla returns to the United States for the 2021 season! To participate, submit your video application through the official Red Bull Batalla app between April 1-May 7.