NEW YORK — For most aspiring artists, victory in the music industry means a major label record deal. C-Rayz Walz had an alternative strategy: He'd lose the war -- but win every battle.
The Bronx rapper, born Waleeb Shabazz, eluded the pop radar for more than a decade but gradually earned a reputation as one of the fiercest battle rappers in New York's underground hip-hop scene. With manic energy and an ear for the creative insult, he challenged scores of rappers to match rhymes with him onstage and emerged victorious in all but one battle.
Countless independent singles later, the 28-year-old Walz has finally released his official debut album, "Ravipops," on indie label Def Jux. Having informally collaborated with such artists as Mos Def, Dead Prez and De La Soul, the battle-honed rapper is hoping years of triumphant battling will prove that slow and strong-spoken wins the race.
"What I'm bringing to the hip-hop game is respect, which is the essence of hip-hop and which comes from MC battling," says Walz, sipping on peppermint tea in a Harlem cafe. "I mean, I lived '8 Mile' before the movie did."
"8 Mile" -- its mesmerizing scenes of Eminem in ferocious lyrical battle -- piqued America's interest in hip-hop's oldest sport. The much-hyped feud between 50 Cent and Ja Rule became another public battle, played out on airwaves and bootlegs. MTV recently included a climactic battle in "Making the Band 2" and aired a weeklong MC battle competition.
"You cannot deny that the huge success of '8 Mile' has turned a lot of people on to battling," says Dave Sirulnick, MTV's executive VP of news and promotions. "Rapping is the preeminent form of personal musical expression today, and since naturally you want to see how good you are, you square off with someone and get a quick answer -- either you're better or you're worse. All it requires is imagination, wits, a great vocabulary and rhyming skills."
Because battle rappers specialize in live performance and freestyling -- formulating off-the-cuff responses to an opponent's rhymes -- they often falter in a non-live setting. On record, Walz is engaging enough -- "Ravipops's" bare-essential beats and lyrical tongue twisters are a throwback to classic hip-hop -- but his true chance at mainstream recognition is the revived interest in the domain he owns: battling and freestyling.
"Nowadays, because so many artists can't freestyle, there are too many rappers and not enough MCs," says Walz, drawing a distinction between a novice and a hip-hop elder statesman. "A rapper is a piece of paper. An MC is a master of communication. A mental chapter. A motivation conductor."
Walz, whose animated conversation often morphs into freestyling, wears his beliefs on his sleeve. Literally: His T-shirt is decorated with the legendary faces of Bob Marley and Che Guevara; his tattoos include a Mau Mau flag and the word "Kenya" across his chest.
But he wasn't always so socially conscious. As a child with "nothing on my mind but sneakers and food," Walz robbed to get by. His father was murdered, and the rapper turned battling into an outlet for his anger. If the Bronx had a poster child, Walz -- freestyling in the park at age 8, working security at Yankee stadium, where crowds knew his face and his rhymes -- could be it.
"Back then, if you didn't have battle skills, you didn't pick up the mike," he says with a hint of hip-hop nostalgia.
Instead of chasing down a record deal, Walz set out to win battles, record independent singles and perform at talent shows alongside then-unknowns Big Pun and DMX. Ever on the cusp of a big break, he fielded offers from Def Jam and Interscope -- neither one of which materialized -- and befriended celebrities like Adrian Brody, who may appear in Walz's coming video.
It's been a hectic few weeks for Walz: At his July album release party in a trendy New York club, he freestyled onstage for nearly an hour; the next day he signed albums at the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan. A shameless self-promoter, he mentions his album release to all who stop and say hello, and he'll begin touring in September.
If "Ravipops" charts, it could bode well for fellow up-and-coming rappers whose names were made in battle. Soon to reach stores are albums by Jae Mills, the Bad Boy artist who battled a cast member on "Making the Band 2"; Reignman, whose victory on MTV's "MC Battle" earned him a deal with Def Jam; and Jin, the Chinese American rapper who, after winning the "Freestyle Fridays" competition on BET, signed to the Ruff Ryders and landed a role in "2 Fast 2 Furious."
"My album is for everyone," insists Walz, again slipping into freestyle mode. "For the thugs, for those who take drugs, those who come home with love. For those who've never seen the block and those who don't know of a glock." Pleased with his verse, Walz pauses and caps it off. "It's even for those who don't like hip-hop at all."