If you grew up in the early 90’s...
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you likely remember at the very least hearing about the Tupac vs. Biggie Smalls rap beef. If you’re a hip-hop fan and grew up in the early 90’s you likely also remember conflicts like Ice Cube vs. Eazy E and the rest of NWA. If you’re from the late 90’s/early 2000’s you witnessed the end of true rap beef. That’s right, the end of true rap beef. However, before we can talk about the end, we need to explore the beginning. See, the whole concept actually stemmed from something a lot more simple, competition.
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The seed for what we know today was planted in the early 1970’s in the Bronx. When breakdancing and other forms were brought out to the streets, people flocked and joined in on the fad. As it became more common and some perfected their craft, others decided to challenge and hold “break-offs” and almost immediately the concept of being the best was one that a lot of people focused on. Street blocks, warehouses, basements, etc. would be cleared out, then filled with spectators to witness these competitors show their prowess head to head. Everybody wanted to be known as the best for the sheer respect and boost of pride that comes with any top spot.
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Now, if you have ever seen the movie Juice, then you already know about the second chapter in the timeline; the magic behind the music. DJs (Disc Jockeys) quickly gained the spotlight and competitions were held often. Here is where the top local DJ’s would duke it out head to head for an allotted amount of time to see who was the best. With this title came respect, attention, and opportunity. Just as before, everybody wanted it. It was around this time that more attention was being paid to these competitions. Radio shows and hosts were getting involved (even hosting) and rewarding the top prize winner some air time or cash prizes. These things could launch a young aspiring DJ’s career, even more reason for everybody to fight to be considered the best. Along with this new motivation and more intense competition came friction, and the top spot became something a little more personal.
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When hip-hop was ready for something new is when the focal went to vocal and MCs (emcee, Master of Ceremonies, Microphone Checker, etc.) took the stage. This is when hip-hop became verbal and people were able to express themselves directly using their own words and opinions to gather fans and support. Artists like Grandmaster Flash, Run D.M.C., Sugarhill Gang; were all some of the earliest and most positive to run the game. Using their spotlight, these and other early artists used hip-hop to reach their audiences and show the everyday trials in inner-city life, as well as uplift their common man with upbeat songs with catchy choruses and tempos. Now don’t be fooled, even artists like MC Hammer had their own beefs, but few as serious as the later years to come.
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Hip-hop quickly became rap and then even quicker became gangster rap at the end of the 80’s, and beginning of the 90’s with artists like Ice T, Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube, Big L. Nas, and more hitting the surface and the charts quicker than ever. These artists and many more brought the initial rough, rugged, hostile and dangerous act to the hollywood surface; and with exposure like that, there will always be people who want to try you and ruin if not take what you have built for yourself. A very popular example of early rap beef is seen in the movie Straight Outta Compton soon after Ice Cube parts ways with his group NWA over a disagreement and miscommunication with his label manager and group about royalties. Cube left the group and began releasing solo records. The crew didn’t appreciate that and thus added a few lines on their EP “100 Miles and Runnin’” where Dre has some direct yet vague lines in a song.
Both parties released a few songs targeted at each other one specifically where Ice Cube is called a benedict arnold among many other things and is actually called out by his birth name “Oshea.” Cube then responded by releasing the song “No Vaseline” which had direct references to the group as well as verbal battery and low blows. This was a direct shot at the group and the direction they were headed which is why he left originally.
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Skip a few years ahead and we stand in the middle of one of the most devastating feuds to ever hit music; The Notorious B.I.G. vs. Tupac Shakur. Unfortunately, What began as a close friendship left us in a musical hiatus without two of the best rappers to ever touch a microphone. When Tupac was shot in a recording studio in New York with Biggie present, he assumed he had involvement and the beef began. Tupac then did time in prison and released the legendary diss track “Hit Em Up” aimed directly at Biggie and his affiliates when he got out. The Notorious returned with the track “Who Shot Ya” and the debate was on, who was better? As we know, the beef ends with both rappers being shot and killed, a tragic end for two of the 90’s biggest stars.
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Now we have to look closer at what it was that really caused all this tension to lead to not only threats of harm, but actual acts carried out upon the other. See, hip-hop was still budding back then as it will forever be, however, big industry was just getting their hands on it. This led to the #1 spot being more rewarding on scales larger than life itself. Making it in the rap game at this point was a rat race, everyone was representing their home cities and fighting to climb the charts. At this point, rap was honest. Many rappers actually led the life they proposed in their lyrics and were ready to back their words up at any minute. One of, if not the best to ever touch a mic, Big L, led the life he rapped about through and through, he emerged as a great and was shot in an anonymous drive-by shooting which remained a mystery until months later when a childhood friend was arrested for the crime, then later shot and killed.
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The fact remains, in the 90’s, rap was young, and it was about the streets, it was about who was the hardest, and it was competitive if you wanted to stay relevant and alive. As it aged in the coming years it became not only about gang affiliation but now about drugs and dealing. This brought a whole new world into the rap game which harbored fresh new hostility and jealousy. Soon after the tragic deaths of Tupac and Biggie, rap kept beef very much alive through new artists and for new reasons. 50 Cent was a big target during his rise due to his massive popularity with hit singles as well as chart topping albums. Not only was he succeeding on a massive scale in the rap game but he was doing it talking about the rough and rugged life he lived every day growing up in South Jamaica,New York.
50 Cent had plenty of conflicts with plenty of people in not only his everyday life growing up, but in his music career. One of his most infamous was with Ja-Rule which started over Ja getting his chain snatched by a friend of 50. Though 50 wasn’t involved the affiliation was enough for Ja Rule to start conflict, the two we reported to have fought on more than one occasion and name called on numerous tracks each. However, 50 Cent also had beef with Fat Joe, Killa Cam, Nas, Rick Ross, Jadakiss, and more less mentionable issues. Bottom line, rap was a breeding ground for hostility, competition, and multiple people willing to do whatever it takes to get their names out there as the best.
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Fast-forward to today, that’s exactly what it has become. The main goal of almost any artist in the mainstream media today is not to make the best music and be crowned rightfully as #1, they want to get their names out into the widespread media by any means necessary. It is now so easy as an artist to top charts at seemingly any given moment with any given single if it’s promoted and produced well enough. My best recent example at hand would obviously be Drake vs. Meek Mill. What a devastating and disappointing new age global rap feud. This issue began over Drake not shouting out Meek’s new album, leading Mr. Mill to put Drake on blast for not writing his own music, leading to a diss track from the canadian born superstar. Charged Up hit Meek in a few areas but was overall not very direct and not too huge of a shot to the Philadelphia rapper. Meek responded verbally during one of Nicki Minaj’s shows on her tour that was happening at the time. Without waiting for a real response track Drake released “Back to Back” which was much more direct and finished the beef officially for many spectators. Meek brought back the beef here and there in his 4/4 EP but made no moves that would consider him a gladiator by the end of that one.
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So why do we see so many here and there tiny beefs that seem to headline monday and sizzle out by thursday without any real outcome? Headlines, headlines headlines. If you haven’t said it out loud by now do it now, HEADLINES. No rap beef that gets publicized today will have any serious tension or outcome. There will be no shootouts, no studio drivebys, there will be no club brawls, for gangster rap is no more. Now don’t be mistaken, I’m not saying it doesn’t still happen, rap beef is very much alive in the local scene and people still die daily over issues stemming from this craft. However, on the television the most we’ll see is beef similar to Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj, a current icon and someone on the come up or coming back taking shots at one another until both have enough sales percentage increase and it fizzles out.
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Rap beef has been dead for some years, some say it died with the Jay-Z vs. Nas conflict, some say with the 50 vs. Ja Rule and others. One thing is for certain, in today’s music industry of one-hit wonders and comeback singles, there will be no genuine, long-lasting beef any time soon, and for the better. I for one welcome an era of hip-hop where we don’t need to worry about our favorite artists getting gunned down in their prime. With standards of lyrical content getting presumably lower it’s safe to assume new-age diss tracks will contain less punchlines and luster but harbor the competitive energy necessary to keep the altercation exciting and on our timelines for months to come.