The coronavirus hasn't dulled the Columbus battle rap scene

Earl Hopkins
The Shotz Fired crew

Before Lucius Jones stepped in as promoter of the Shotz Fired Battle Rap League in July 2019, the league was a relatively unknown gem in the local hip-hop community, celebrated mostly by those diehard backers who believed strongly in its greater potential. 

But since connecting with longtime Shotz Fired owner AR Green, Jones has helped carve out a platform for the city’s top battle rappers, expanding the league locally as the artform has grown in popularity.

“I think I came at the right time where I saw, from a business perspective, the rise was coming and wanted to get our roots [down],” Jones said.

Home to some of the most notable battle rappers in Ohio, Shotz Fired has drawn hundreds of attendees this year as the league has reached unforeseen heights amid even more unexpected conditions.

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With the temporary, pandemic-driven closure of most concert and event spaces, the league’s monthly showcases have remained one of the few places where local music fans have been able to watch performers live on stage throughout the year. Outside of a four-to-six week pause at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, which briefly forced the league to reconfigure if and how in-person showcases would be held, Jones said the league has continued to build an active audience that has filled every announced battle.

“We’ve had to watch the attendance limitations because whatever the limit is we’re maxing it out,” Jones said. “We have a great base and it's been building over this year and a half.”

In line with Ohio regulations, guests are required to wear protective masks and socially distance as best they can inside the Taste of Trini (T.O.T.) building at 2600 S. Hamilton Road near Eastland Mall. And considering the energy present within the small, theatre-style venue, Jones said it’s even more pressing to maintain these safety barriers.

Despite the restrictions, Jones said there haven’t been any challenges concerning the promotion, attendance or finances of the events. Beyond a few added regulations, he said the other elements have remained on par with previous showcases.

Unless another shutdown takes place, Jones said Shotz Fired will “go full steam ahead” and continue operating as it has since late spring. And while the league has generated an increased number of fans as of late, he said the city’s battle rap scene was expanding well before the effects of the pandemic set in.

Since adding high-profile talents from the city, as well as from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Springfield and Pittsburgh, Jones said the league’s fan base has swelled in the last year and a half. Shotz Fired, established in 2014, now includes nearly 40 battle rappers, with premier verbal scrappers such as J Slash, Ghostt and Sneezey-Bo competing in regional and national competitions.

Combined with the league’s growing talent stockpile, Jones said the resources, investments and business savvy shared by him and Green have helped place Shotz Fired among the top 25 battle rap leagues in the country. In August, Sneezey-Bo and Ghostt were selected to participate in URL’s UNITY event, which drew in members from the top 24 leagues in the country. And having reviewed the number of views and accomplishments Shotz Fired members have compiled onohiobattlerap.com, Jones is confident the league will move further up the ranks in due time. 

“Just by us following that old school mantra of doing what you say and doing what you do, and treating people right, it’s working,” Jones said.

This past year, Ghostt (born Daiqwon Deal) and Sneezey-Bo (Kevin Dyson) performed with the Ultimate Rap League (URL), iBattleWW and other notable companies. For the URL Crucible competition, the two battle rappers were selected from among hundreds of Midwest rappers that tried out for the 20 available spots.

Inspired by past Philadelphia battle rappers such as Cassidy and Reed Dollaz, Ghostt is driven to use his unique penmanship to create psyche-shattering punchlines, adapting his style from the city’s historic rap battlegrounds.

The former recording artist made a pivot from writing music to battle rap after performing onstage at a URL eventin September 2017. While in the audience at the league’s Summer Madness 6 in New York, the first battle event he ever attended, Ghostt was called onstage to compete against another crowd member. After rattling off lines for three straight minutes, Ghostt stepped back and basked in the applause from the hundreds of fans in attendance. For the rapper, having that experience on the biggest platform in the industry signaled a rite of passage. 

“I knew I could battle but I never thought my first time attending something I’ve been watching since I was in middle school would get me onstage,” he said. “That felt like a sign that I needed to pursue this.”

Following his impromptu performance, Ghostt made his “official” debut at the Who’s Hot Battle Grounds in November 2018 before transitioning to Shotz Fired the following year. And since the move in July 2019, he’s drawn increased attention from fans and recruiters, most notably URL scouts Lex Luther and Billz.

“I’m not saying I’m famous, but some important people and battle rappers have seen me work,” he said. “I’m almost there.”

Sneezey-Bo, who’s been battle rapping for nearly a year, has similarly competed across the country and been championed by recruiters, in addition to fellow battle rapper Math Hoffa. He said these opportunities are a testament to his talent as well as the ongoing commitment Jones and Green have to place the group’s rappers at the forefront.

As Ghostt has garnered praise from fans and industry veterans, he has likewise continued to advocate for other performers in the Shotz Fired camp and from across the state. 

“Most people think this is just a farm town in every part of Ohio and that’s not the case,” Ghostt said.

As for his own aspirations, Ghostt not only wants to be properly rewarded for his talent, but he wants Columbus recognized as a force within battle rap circles.

“Any time I step up on the battle stage, I want them to know I'm from North Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “I carry that with pride every time.”