Since the early 2000's the name SMACK rang bells from barbershops in New York to hoods around the globe. Categorized as a "DVD Magazine," the first of its kind, SMACK DVD was a grassroots brand that had its camera follow the biggest known and unknown names in Hip Hop giving fans exclusive interviews, freestyles the latest rap beefs and an inside look at the music industry no one had ever seen. As other DVD Magazines began to pop up, what really set SMACK apart was the rap battles at the end of each DVD. These battles created stars out of young MC's such as Murda Mook, T-Rex, Jae Millz and Math Hoffa
Soon SMACK DVD's became less frequent due to the over-saturation of DVD magazines and rampant bootlegging but SMACK wanted to keep the brand alive by taking the most beloved aspect of the DVD's - the battles - and creating something so big no one could replicate. So Ultimate Rap League was born. In less than 2 years SMACK/URL has gone from being an amateur battle rap league with little support holding events in small clubs, to the biggest name in battle rap culture with such exclusivity that it's become a symbol of graduation for a rapper to set foot on their stage. I got the honor of speaking to the manager of Brooklyn battle rapper Math Hoffa and one of the 4 founders of UlRL, Street Star Norbes, to get the scoop on URL's beginning stages, it's growth, the controversies and how they continue to create stars out of unknowns.
How did you get into the music business?
About 5 or 6 years ago I was invited to this meeting and basically the meeting was for an entertainment company. I aint really know much about the shit. I started running with them and they were throwing parties and shit. And I always had connections in terms of meeting people. Kool Keith was actually one of my influences, that's one of my mans. He kinda put me onto the game. And I decided to drop a mixtape out of nowhere 'cause I didnt know if I wanted to run with the entertainment company. And when I dropped the mixtape I handed it to an artist named Illanoize and he was really talented. So it kinda sparked my interest in doing the music. So thats how it started I had no knowledge of the music industry my nigga. I was on some like "fuck it ima just, I'm jumping in I dont even care." Everything is just trial and error and thats basically how I got into it 5 or 6 years ago.
How did you meet Math Hoffa?
Throughout networking, I was working with artists and I hooked up with a sneaker company after I dropped mixtapes. I was dropping mixtapes here and there and I got a buzz so this sneaker company started sponsoring me and they had took me to the Fight Klub one day. And the Fight Klub was gonna get sponsored by the sneaker company so they asked me to represent them. So i went there, I might a couple people. I actually met Math's old manager. And from there I was dropping a new mixtape. And I was like "let me hear this nigga's shit." I never really heard of Math at that time. All I knew about Math was that he knocked a nigga out so I had the same impression as everybody else. "He's a battle rapper he cant make music." Thats real talk so I was like let me give this nigga a shot so I watched the battles with Solomon, the Fight Klub shits and them shits was dope and was like "he's kinda charismatic, he a Brooklyn nigga I gotta give another Brooklyn nigga a shot." He sent me 3 or 4 tracks and I was blown away so it kinda motivated me to find out more. I started working with him and he left a CD in my crib. He was in my crib and he left a CD of like 30 songs. Shit was fire a lot of it was from ACMD Part 2 and stuff like that. Crazy. And it made me motivated to work with him cuz a lot of people like "battlers cant make music" and I felt like you know what? this is my lane. Ima prove to the world that I can bring this nigga out and he's one of the most talented niggas I've ever met. He inspired me to really wanna put his music out.
Yeah I listened to ACMD 3. It's a big step up from Part 2. He really is talented. He makes some of the best music in battle rap today.
Yeah thats real shit. And if you watch the progression of Math from ACMD 1 to 3, every tape is different. Math really speaks from what he's experienced as opposed to a lot of battlers. Not even battlers, musicians in general and it's genuine music and it's really good music. If you want something thats actually real and uncut this is the realest shit you're gonna get. Nigga really does talk what he knows and thats why I really respect him. He doesnt try to go outside the box and try to do everything that everybody else is doing he just does what Math Hoffa does. You gotta appreciate a real MC like that. You talk about guys like Nas that kept it real Math is cut from the same cloth.
Yeah I met Math at Summer Madness he seems like a real genuine dude.
Yeah he is man. His reputation precedes him sometimes but if you was to ever meet Math, this is a guy that's very dedicated to family, love his kids. Like I remember I was having a conversation with we were all like ""what would we do if we made it today?" I'm talking about I'm going travel and everybody's saying different things and the nigga kinda threw me off. He was like "I wanna build a school." Everybody talking about getting money and doing all this shit and this nigga like "I wanna build a school." He really does support his community and is one of those dudes that really wants to make an impact past rap. So you gotta appreciate that he's definitely a different individual. When you meet him people end up loving the dude 'cause he's such a real genuine person. All them rumors you hear you know, shit happens. But Math is probably one of the realest dudes you'll ever meet.
How did you end up hooking up with Smack?
When I started doing the music thing, I started networking, meeting a lot of people and I met my boy Zaire who shot a lot of videos for Smack and he had videos on SMACK DVD. So me and Zaire ended up building a friendship and he invited to a Maino shoot. to do a cameo in "My Life Is A Movie." I'm hanging out there and I dont even know what Smack looks like. But I met him, told him what I do and Smack was real humble and gave me his number. [For the next year] I would always build with Smack and one day he sat down with me and told me "Listen I wanna work with you, I need to bring you up on this team. There's something about you that I really do gotta work with you. I really feel like you could be an essential part of what I'm trying to do." I never had a defined role. So I was still in conversations with Smack while doing the whole music thing and eventually when we signed up to do the T-Rex battle against Math Hoffa, Smack and Beasley called me and was like "listen we wanna do this URL shit and we feel like you can bring us to the next level" and I started recruiting [battle rappers for URL]. What you see today in URL the work we all put in from the beginning. Smack is SMACK, he's the brand. We all do what we do best, we're all partners in it. Sometimes I like to focus on recruiting. I like to look at new talent. Smack takes care of all the editing. Cheeko do the websites. Beasley does a lot of creative shit. We work as a team.
Now I know you went through the whole story on twitter about the first URL event but you mind telling that story again? I know Math vs. T-Rex was pretty much the catalyst behind the first event.
Yeah that was actually the first official URL battle and it was actually supposed to be on Lionz Den, then Grindtime, and you know shit happens to where it didn't happen, whatever. So we agreed to do it on SMACK. There was no league yet and I always wanted to do a league So we came together, me, Smack, Beasley and Cheeko and we decided to do that. We put the card together and the crazy shit is, a lot of people don't realize, Nobody was trying to get on that card. Like I'm calling everybody, my nigga.
Nobody wanted to be apart of SMACK?
It's like what niggas say when you're hot, you're hot and when you're not you're not I guess. Some people was like "Smack? we got Grindtime, we got this we're good." Niggas was just on their own shit and niggas didnt't really know who I was so i wasn't really established either. So when I'm calling letting niggas know this is official some niggas was like "ah whatever. we know Smack, we don't know you." I called Rich Dolarz and Richie was all in. He was like "Yo I'm down give me Young Miles." Cortez was over on Grindtime. I always thought Cortez would be a better battler on SMACK. I called Cor and he battled X-Factor. Then Big T was recommended to me by Young Miles. It was originally supposed to be Big T vs Hollow Da Don. Hollow had other things to do and couldn't do it. So DNA was supposed to do it then DNA couldn't do it. Then NuBorn was supposed to do it and he couldn't do it. Then at the last minute my man Hollywood from Blue Collar TV called me and was like "What's up with Deacon Frost?" I was like "Yeah Frost gets it in." I had seen him battling Cortez, he got busy. Cortez got crazy and Frost got crazy so I said fuck it [and got Big T vs Deacon Frost]. There was supposed to be another dude, I was supposed to bring in Dizaster at that battle but he was doing the MTV shit so he couldn't do it. Beasley called me and said "That's enough lets do it" and like I said the first event was history, monumental. [The main event] Math and T-Rex was the birth of what you see today. Their battle was a classic, the first time done on this level. Six million views in 2 days it was just crazy. The hype around it was insane. People were like "yo this is insane!" and this at like the height of Grindtime and the height of Lionz Den. Smack was determined to visually put a product out that nobody can compare to and we decided to keep going hard at it and every event gets crazier than the last. That was the goal and that's basically how it started. October 31st 2009 was the first official SMACK/URL event and the first battle was Big T vs Deacon Frost.
I love that battle, that battle was sick.
Yeah it was crazy. When Big T said "LeBron James the remains of her" that was the first great punchline in SMACK/URL history.
And Deacon Frost even though a lot of people doubt him today, at the time that nigga was really going off.
Yeah people don't realize Deacon Frost is dope. It's just people don't realize when we first started URL it was at a developmental stage. People take shots at the PG (Proving Grounds) sometimes and don't realize that the original SMACK/URL was the PG. Nobody knew who Big T was. Hitman wasn't Hitman. Yung Ill wasn't Yung Ill. Aye Verb wasn't Verb and Surf and Cortez wasn't there yet. So that was actually the original PG class. That's the class of 2009. We had to develop the talent just like any new league we just did a very good job at it. As artists got more comfortable on stage certain people didn't want to continue to do it. Deacon Frost just kind of fell back from it to focus on his music and others decided "fuck this I wanna keep going" and you see what you see today. We got super stars like Cortez, we got Hollow Da Don, we got Aye Verb, we got Charlie Clips and now it's literally the NFL or Superbowl. I like to call ourselves the Superbowl of battle rap.
Big T vs Deacon Frost Round 1
Young Miles vs Rich Dolarz Round 1
X-Factor vs Cortez Round 1
Math Hoffa vs T-Rex round 1
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of my interview with Norbes to find out how the Proving Grounds was created, how he handles rapper egos, what qualities URL looks for in a battle rapper and thoughts on 2011's Proving Ground class of QP, B. Magic, Bill Collector and John John Da Don