A Pit Fights rap battle usually starts with the opposing musicians facing each other as founder Shaka Pitts introduces the “fighters” to loud cheers from a surrounding crowd.

In the background, colorful banners and designs are displayed with the recognizable pink, blue and yellow logo of Mogul Printing, whose owner, Daryell Mack, is in the crowd. Pitts gives a shoutout Mogul Printing just before the action unfolds. The rappers commence their fight — not with fists but with words.

Mack and Pitts are business and brand associates. Mack produces signs and album art for Pitts and his rappers, while Pitts attends Mogul Printing events and endorses the printing services in his videos.

Their relationship has expanded to support a variety of small businesses through networking, while also promoting local musicians and artists. It’s an illustration of how creativity in the West Baltimore small business community can have broad social impact.

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Mack is “the evil genius of marketing,” said Chris Custis, a rapper whose stage name is Apex Tha Genius. Custis, president of Pit Fights, competes in the rap battles.

Mogul Printing’s van. (Bridget Lang/Capital News Service)

All of the graphics used for Pit Fights come from Mack, and they decorate shirts, hoodies and bandanas, he said.

“Because of how long I have known Shaka, he’s definitely the sensei. He’s my Obi-Wan.” Custis said. “He’s one of my favorite rappers. Once I heard him rap, like, and that’s not ‘cause I know him, it’s because he’s that damn good.”

Mack is “one of the hardest-working people I know,” said Isaiah Johnson, whose stage name is Murda and who has been battle-rapping for 15 years. “Every time I have a conversation with him, I leave and I feel like I gotta do more work with myself.”

Pitts met Mack when Mack was selling BluntPower air fresheners, known for overriding the smell of marijuana, at Baltimore rap events. As Mack transitioned into printing and marketing, he saw the potential for a business relationship with the rap league. Mack later hired former Pit Fights battle rapper Blane Spencer, stage name $pence, as his senior graphic designer.

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“[Mack] reached out to Pitts to get a battle rapper to represent the Pit through the print shop as far as clothing,” Spencer said. Mack saw the relationship with Pitts as an important extension of his business and a way to support a homegrown music culture in South Baltimore. Mack recalled hearing, “If you wanted to meet the plug for underground Baltimore hip-hop, Pitts is the man.” “Pit Fights” is a triple entendre, referencing Pitts’ last name, the infamous fighting of pit bulls and the competition between “fighters” during a rap battle.

Mike Squirrelwyde, better known as DJ Squirrel Wyde, and Pitts were early collaborators on the battle rap scene. The two co-hosted a battle rap program called “Tuesday Night Fights” on the 92Q Jams radio channel. The show was part of Squirrelwyde’s mission to give exposure to local Baltimore artists: “Black businesses, people that wrote books, whoever.” The rap battles “took off” after they hit the airwaves and were put up on YouTube, he said.

The businesses of both Pitts and Mack have flourished, and the two take great pride in what they do. The self-identifying entrepreneurs rely on social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube to reach a wider audience, with Mack telling his customers to #PutSomeMogulPrintingOnIt. However, both men recognize the importance of community connection and social capital. “Word of mouth is the best form of marketing ever,” Mack said.

Pitts is passionate about another community project: promoting bicycling. He’s a member of the Mayor’s Biking Advisory Commission and founder of Black People Ride Bikes, a biking advocacy group.

“Bike lanes are the new Starbucks,” Pitts said. “Where you see bike lanes, you know they are going to be investing into that area.”

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Shaka Pitts at Mount Vernon Marketplace, sporting a Pit Fights hat and bike advocacy sweatshirt, both designed and printed by Mogul Printing. (Bridget Lang/Capital News Service)

Despite their mutually beneficial partnership, both Mack and Pitts have faced obstacles doing business in West Baltimore. For Mack, issues arise when his storefront on West Pratt Street in the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood becomes inaccessible due to nearby criminal activity.

“They got the yellow tape out there, they’ll shut the whole block down,” Mack said. “Some people don’t want to actually come down here. … They’ll say they’d rather me ship it.”

One customer, Taimyra Jones, owner of event planning business Especially4You By TJ, said the trip from her location in Randallstown to Mack’s shop is worth it. “I travel all the way down to his shop, which like I said is in the inner city, to actually pick up my items, which I don’t mind because of the services that he provides,” Jones said.

Mogul Printing storefront. (Bridget Lang/Capital News Service)

Jones has been doing business with Mack for about a year and admires his work ethic and business standards. Jones, whose business helps organize and decorate people’s personal and professional events, recalled Mack meeting tight deadlines.

“I like him because I have always pushed the envelope in certain different aspects,” Jones said. “I create the design, and he will work with me to actually bring my vision to life.”

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Like Jones, Sharron Johnson is another Mogul Printing customer who has had positive experiences working with Mack. Mogul Printing created an event called The Branded Expo, a large gathering of different companies that have worked with Mack. It’s an opportunity to showcase their own services and products — and to network.

Johnson said Mack’s ability to bring people together represents a positive force in Baltimore.

“I feel like we are growing in so many different areas,” Johnson said. Mack and these related businesses can “show that we are capable of being one of those cities that can bring not just a negative impact to our community, but a positive impact as well.”

This story is part of a series of stories produced by the Urban Affairs Reporting class at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in partnership with The Baltimore Banner. Students met with more than 70 small business owners and staff across Baltimore to understand how they survive in the era of big-box stores and online shopping.