Tell me about competitive music
June 27, 2009 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Which other musical styles besides rap have battles, and for how long have they been around?

The wikipedia article on freestyle rap says that battling originated in the early 1980s, but I know very similar forms have been around for a lot longer than that. Within calypso there's the very similar format of picong (terrible, short wikipedia article) has been around for over a hundred years at least. Picong is very much like a battle, except that the rhymes are sung instead of spoken. Calypso also has extempo and extempo war.

Are there other musical styles which have similar competitive improvisational forms, and how long have those been around?
posted by bjrn to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Jazz, of course! Some of the most rousing examples are drum [set] battles, but all instruments take part.
posted by litterateur at 2:44 PM on June 27, 2009

Dueling Banjos(YT link) (from the movie Deliverance) might be worth considering.... Someone else might be able to comment on historical significance, but also related is competitive fiddling (cf. The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band.Awful YT video)
posted by JMOZ at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2009

DJs and scratching, of course. Not sure whether it grew out of rap or vice versa or if it was parallel development.

DJ battling goes beyond just scratching and turntablism contests. Back when raves were still happening around here, a major draw was DJs going head to head or 2x4.

Head to head: two DJs, two decks, they'd alternate records (or every couple of records). Fun to see/hear, as they'd mess with each other and challenge each other to just murder the dancefloor.

2x4: two djs, four decks. Often with at least three going at once. Really only works with proper techno so you can layer the sounds. When it's really good DJs playing with each other, the result becomes more like a jazz combo doing their thing. I have witnessed a 4x8 along the same lines, but it became rather muddy. Too many cooks etc.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2009

Phish has definitely done some "jam-fighting" at various times, usually Trey on guitar vs. Mike on bass, but sometimes Page and Fish get in the mix. Lots of jam bands play musical games where they're kind of competing, but it definitely seems more collaborative than rap battles.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:53 PM on June 27, 2009

Capoeira is seen mainly as a martial art, but music and singing play an integral part.
posted by orme at 3:00 PM on June 27, 2009

Related to DJ battles, there are producer battles (e.g. Red Bull Big Tune). These aren't really improvisational though, it's more showing off already-created works.
posted by long at 3:00 PM on June 27, 2009

Inuit throat singing.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:09 PM on June 27, 2009

There's photoshop tennis (wikipedia) for graphic artists. Which is kind of related.
posted by delmoi at 3:10 PM on June 27, 2009

Back when they had a sax player, The Mars Volta often had a duel/battle-like scenario in their jams of Goliath, where Adrian Terrazas-Gonzalez (sax) & Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (guitar) would face off, playing somewhat mirrored riffs. Here is a fairly good example; the first part focuses on a sax solo, the battle portion is a bit later. Video quality isn't great, but the audio is good enough to get the idea.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:11 PM on June 27, 2009

Competitive improvised sung poetry, following specific rhyme and meter schemes, have a long history in the Hispanic and Lusophone world. In Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, these are called payadas.
posted by dr. boludo at 3:18 PM on June 27, 2009

litterateur: Jazz, of course! Some of the most rousing examples are drum [set] battles, but all instruments take part.

I'm probably biased, but to me the most exciting and entertaining instances of jazz battles were the great cutting contests of the '30s, '40s and '50s in NYC. The world's fastest and sharpest stride players—Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, James P. Johnson (early on anyway), the great and magnificent Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and many others were active in the scene, and would often roam around Manhattan together on a Friday or Saturday night going from rent party to rent party looking for young, fresh pianists to “cut.”
posted by koeselitz at 3:20 PM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hip-hop battling comes from the dozens, which is more than 100 years old, which is not to discount any parallel (or independent) evolution and discovery in Brazil.
posted by rhizome at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2009

Reggae would have sound-system clashes - in the UK Saxon were frequent winners of these, and the subject was a key feature of the film Babylon. Recent clash in New York.
posted by Abiezer at 3:37 PM on June 27, 2009

Growing up in Mississippi, my old man (a blues guitarist) called two guitar soloists dueling back and forth Cuttin' Heads. So at least back to the '60s.

A grand idea, though. Who needs war if all ideological differences could be settled like this?

/yes, it's obvious Macchio isn't playing.
//still awesome

posted by sapo at 3:38 PM on June 27, 2009

Cuban contraversia.
Afro-Brazilian coco de embolada.
Luso-Brazilian desafios/cantoria de viola.
posted by umbú at 3:46 PM on June 27, 2009

Bomba might fit
posted by Erberus at 3:51 PM on June 27, 2009

There's the ancient Scottish art of flyting.
posted by wireless at 3:53 PM on June 27, 2009

IIRC the back-and-forth of love songs (山歌) among the Miao people was sort of a battle in that the men and women would tease and try to out-do each other. Examples here (starts after the drinking songs at around 5:20)
posted by Abiezer at 3:54 PM on June 27, 2009

Here's a classic southern brazilian desafio.
posted by umbú at 4:00 PM on June 27, 2009

More organized-ly, there's rock Battles of the Bands and classical competitions.
posted by mendel at 4:03 PM on June 27, 2009

Dueling Banjos... might be worth considering.... Someone else might be able to comment on historical significance...

Dueling Banjos highlights the competition between two different styles of playing the banjo: four-string w/plectrum versus five-string bluegrass style (finger-picking and frailing). By the time the song was written, there had already been fifty-someodd years of the two camps sniping at each other over which style was superior. The song plays with that, making competition and cooperation work for the better whole.
posted by lekvar at 4:32 PM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, it may not be exactly what you're looking for, but industrial bands used to have mix-offs, where two bands would remix each other's songs.
posted by lekvar at 4:33 PM on June 27, 2009

Tenor Madness is John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins battling on twin tenors.
Eternal Triangle is Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt on twin tenors (there's some good story about this but I can't really remember it, I think Sonny Stitt walks across the studio before the recording and says "I'm going to cut you" or something like that.

I'm not sure the dueling banjo thing is actually based on anything historical, but I don't know.

I do know that fiddle competitions are a huge part of many American fiddle styles, particularly Texas. It's not dueling quite so much as just competition but it's a big deal...that's how Mark O'Conner got his start, I believe.
posted by sully75 at 5:27 PM on June 27, 2009

More embolada.

The film Saudade do Futuro is worth checking out for more, with English subtitles. Here's the trailer, but with subtitles in French. At 1:22 there's a young man who's about to go up against an older woman. He's checking that any subject is fair game for their insults. In the film, he gets is ass handed to him.
posted by hydrophonic at 5:29 PM on June 27, 2009

Hip-hop battling comes from the dozens, which is more than 100 years old, which is not to discount any parallel (or independent) evolution and discovery in Brazil.

Rapping has had a lot of influences. Scat singing is another, also not the least of which was the style of DJing coming out of Jamiaca. Rap battles were set up along with the a DJ and some dancers who were also battling at the time. Wild Style and Beat Street capture what these scenes were about early on.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:36 PM on June 27, 2009

Jazz competition gets its due in the classic King of Jazz by Don B
posted by neustile at 5:57 PM on June 27, 2009

There are duels in Mexican trío and ranchera genres. Honestly, I think it was only done in films.

Here's a YouTube video of a very famous scene, from Dos tipos de cuidado (link in Spanish), a Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete movie, where both of them duel singing along with tríos. They are insulting each other because Jorge married the girl Pedro loved.

Also, not exactly a duel, but it was common for brokenhearted or scorned men to get drunk and bring a Mariachi serenata to the girl in question. Instead of singing romantic songs, they would choose songs like Perfidia (Perfidy) or La chancla ("when I throw away an old shoe, I won't pick it up again"). There are really rude songs in some regions, I've heard one called "La cabrona" (a vulgar word for bitch) in Zacatecas.

Everybody on the block would hear the serenata, so it was an effective way to humilliate their target.
posted by clearlydemon at 8:14 PM on June 27, 2009

Here's a nice little Time article from 1946 about Wilmouth Houdini, renowned Calypso warrior.

His toughest battle was against the old Master, Lord Executor, until he found a fatal weakness to sing about: Executor's big toe had just popped out of his canvas sneaker.
posted by ormondsacker at 8:48 PM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Didn't ole' Johnny and the devil duel it out in Georgia? :)
posted by mcschmidt00 at 9:48 PM on June 27, 2009

Doo wop, the elegant older brother of rap music. (sorry for the feeble link).
posted by ouke at 1:05 AM on June 28, 2009

Not improvised and not one on one, but drum corps is entirely competitive. (Terms to google for more info: DCI, Phantom Regiment, Cadets, Blue Devils.)
posted by Brian Puccio at 9:28 AM on June 28, 2009

There are dueling piano bars around. For instance i know of at least two in Seattle,88 keys being the one i go to the most.

On a slightly different note, i remember somewhere in Brooklyn a bar having an "art" battle where two people painted on a stage for an hour or so and the bar crowd judged.
posted by Black_Umbrella at 11:47 AM on June 28, 2009

also, here is the history of dueling pianos
posted by Black_Umbrella at 11:49 AM on June 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all for your answers! Lovely to see so many things, both those I had heard of before and those I had no idea they existed. I'm not going to mark best answers, almost all comments had something I was looking for.

And for anyone who is curious what extempo can sound like: watch & listen.
posted by bjrn at 2:24 PM on June 28, 2009

A lot of the pianists during the late 1700s & 1800s had these kind of contests--for instance, here are some details about one between Mozart and Clementi. Apparently they took turns playing at times but also played together on two pianos, apparently accompanying each other as each took turns developing a given theme.

Similar contests also were fairly common during the Baroque period. Performers might be asked to improvise a fugue on a theme given them on the spot and improvise a variety of other types of pieces, like preludes, chorales, etc. There was a famous contest between J.S. Bach and the french organist Marchand (Marchand got cold feet and took off early in the morning by stagecoach).

But going back far earlier, there are the mythological contests between Apollo and Marsyas and Apollo and Pan.

Not to say that those mythological musical competitions actually took place, of course, but it shows the concept was familiar as long ago as ancient Greece--and I would suspect, as long ago as music has been made.

(And haven't we just recently found out that human music making goes back at least 35,000 years? I'll just bet they were holding "vulture bone flute duels" back then, just like we do now--only difference now being the modern replacements for the vulture bones.)
posted by flug at 12:31 AM on June 29, 2009

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