The Art of War, or, The Calculus of the Diss Track
The most electrifying times in hip hop are when emcees take to the booth to lay down verses going after their rivals. It feels like these intentionally public airings-out happen about as often as a really good election season, when it is time for a new king or queen of hip hop to seize the throne.
Plenty of situations give rise to a diss track. Allegedly stealing verses (see Big Bank Hank taking Grandmaster Caz’s rhyme book and making “Rapper’s Delight”), club incidents (too many to name), fighting over a man or a woman (Kurupt going after DMX for an alleged affair with Foxy Brown); whatever it is, when emotions run high, some rappers step up to the mic to settle the score.
Hip hop diss tracks became the art form they are when KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions took to wax with “South Bronx” in 1987. KRS was responding to MC Shan of the Juice Crew whose cut “The Bridge” was taken by BDP to claim that Queens was the birthplace of hip hop. It is accepted by all now that 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York, is recognized as the birthplace of hip hop and KRS was defending his borough with lyrics like:
“So you think that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge/If you pop that junk up in the Bronx you might not live.”
Shan then jumped headfirst into what became known as The Bridge Wars, but came out all wet in the end. The Juice Crew’s response came on Shan’s album Down By Law and was titled “Kill That Noise”. Boogie Down Productions’ follow-up “The Bridge Is Over” is oft-credited as one of the greatest diss tracks ever recorded.
Another interesting rap beef was going on before, during, and after the Bridge Wars: The Roxanne Wars. In the early 1980s, another Juice Crew affiliate, Roxanne Shante took the mic as what may be the first feminist revolt against the male gaze. “Roxanne’s Revenge” was an emboldened response to a B-side (“Roxanne, Roxanne”) by a trio called U.T.F.O.
Shante’s diss track resulted in a series of “Roxanne” tracks involving UTFO, Shante, another Roxanne going by The Real Roxanne, and other crews trying to get in on the fad. Ultimately, KRS-One could not stay away and in the midst of the Bridge Wars he chimed in with a vulgar line about Shante on “The Bridge Is Over,” a line he claims he regrets terribly now. Juice Crew pulled out the heavy artillery as Big Daddy Kane ghostwrote Roxanne’s response, “Have A Nice Day” which fired back at KRS.
In any event, the Queens/Bronx-Juice Crew/BDP rivalry continued for years and played out over several albums, and stands as a diss battle for the ages and one that helped to shape rap music for years to come. Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions died during the Bridge Wars in an unrelated shooting.
Whereas the Bridge Wars stand as East Coast’s (if not all of hip hop) marquis rap war, the West Coast’s banner beef came when NWA began to fall apart in 1991.
Ruthless Records was founded by Eazy-E and became the vehicle for E and manager Jerry Heller to manage and, in some eyes, capitalize on the work of NWA and other artists on the roster. Suge Knight started Death Row Records and persuaded Dr. Dre to move over and, not long after, release The Chronic, which featured the above diss track about Eazy-E. Not only was the song a slap in the face (“Used to be my homie/Used to be my ace/Now I wanna slap the taste out your mouth”) to Eazy-E, the video visually parodied Dre’s former bandmate.
Eazy-E did try to respond with “Real Muthaph*ckkin’ G’s” in 1993, using Dr. Dre’s formula of incorporating his Ruthless proteges, Gangsta Dresta and B.G. Knoccout, but neither the song nor the careers of Dresta or Knoccout took off.
Dre was slightly late to the party, as another N.W.A alum, Ice Cube, had already gone solo and dumped on his bandmates (and Jerry Heller) with “No Vaseline”, rapping:
“You lookin’ like straight bozos / I saw it comin’ that’s why I went solo.”
While “No Vaseline” was a response to various shots at Cube by the remaining version of N.W.A after his departure, there was no response by N.W.A to “No Vaseline”. The response was more of an exodus, as Dre left N.W.A and Ruthless to join Death Row, and the rest was history.
Let us return east, and rewind in time. The precursor to the diss track was the battle rap, and Kool Moe Dee dethroned the once-untouchable Busy Bee Starski at Harlem World in 1981. Moe Dee made a name for himself by taking the mic at the popular venue and dissing Starski in an infamous verse.
A few years later, LL Cool J was getting hooked up with the fledgling Def Jam label founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. LL went platinum with his debut LP, Radio, cementing his and Def Jam’s legacy early on.
Moe Dee was, apparently, not happy. He released How Ya Like Me Now in 1987 with a red Kangol under the front driver’s side tire of his white Jeep. LL Cool J’s calling card was the red Kangol much like Moe Dee was known for his blackout sunglasses.
LL Cool J responded the only way a rapper in 1987 ever would, with a diss track, “Jack The Ripper”. The song was brilliantly titled, as it responded to Moe Dee’s allegations that LL had stolen his style in the very title itself. Then LL Cool J bit Kool Moe Dee’s album title in this famous line:
“How ya like me now I’m gettin’ busier/I’m double platinum, I’m watching you get dizzier”
Yet LL was not done with Moe Dee after this. 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out was immensely successful and LL’s career seemed unstoppable whereas Moe Dee’s was all but over. So LL poured salt in the wound with “To Da Break of Dawn” and showed that all the emcees who sought to enter the ring with James, well, were going to get knocked out.
Not ready to give up his title belt, LL Cool J had to take jabs at a rapper he asked to appear on his 1997 album Phenomenon. On “4, 3, 2, 1” a hungry newcomer, Canibus, recorded the bar “L, is that a mic on your arm, let me borrow that” and LL was not having anything of the sort. In what was perceived by more than a few as an amateur move, or a move by someone past his prime, LL Cool J responded to that line within the same track when he subsequently recorded his verse taking a shot at Canibus. Matters were made worse when LL allegedly told Canibus that in order to stay on the track he would have to change his lines, to which the eager emcee agreed.
Not to be punked by anyone, even the king of the ring, Canibus recorded a diss track — the only track he charted — in “Second Round K.O.”. ‘Bus did try to go after Eminem later on with a track called “You Didn’t Care” which was a response to Eminem’s “Stan” (which has become a euphemism for superfan in the hip hop world) but, well, no one cared.
Returning to his best fight, Canibus hit LL with everything he had and the Little Mac of hip hop did punch out his Mike Tyson on the track, with a little assistance from the literal Mike Tyson who offered a guest appearance on Canibus’ cut. Unfortunately for Canibus, this did not turn into long term commercial success. He is, however, recognized for his epic battle with LL Cool J, which for anyone scoring the fight, Canibus won.
As the commercial public began to get interested, and A&R started looking in other major metropolitan areas for talent, it became that much more likely the long shadow of hip hop drama might cast itself across the coasts.
One such example was when the Chicago rapper Common released “I Used to Love H.E.R.”
In this classic 1994 cut, Common spun a metaphoric tale where the “her” was hip hop. The essence of the extended metaphor is that hip hop had been degraded through the ‘80s and ‘90s (essentially the whole of the Golden Age of Hip Hop) and he offers such lines as “I wasn’t salty she was with them Boyz N the Hood” which caused Ice Cube to take umbrage to the point of dissing Common on Mack 10's “Westside Slaughterhouse”:
“All you suckas wanna diss the Pacific, but you busta n****s never get specific/Used to love H.E.R., mad ‘cause we **** her/P***y-whipped b***h, with no Common Sense”
Mostly recognized as a “conscious rapper” who stood above the gangster rap facade that was being exploited by labels for profit, Common came back with a shocker in 1996 called “The Bitch In Yoo”.
Common Sense fired off bars that many did not think he had in him:
“A bitch n***a with an attitude named Cube/Stepped to the Com wit a feud/Now what the **** I look like dissing a whole coast/You ain’t made s**t dope since AmeriKKKa’s Most”
As an aside, this grievance which covered a few thousand miles from Chicago to Compton (which by all accounts Common took the W in) is claimed to have started when Cube took Common’s lyrics out of context and thought a diss was directed at the West Coast, much like MC Shan claimed BDP took things out of context listening to “The Bridge” as Shan stated he never intended to assert that Queens was the birthplace of hip hop.
The East Coast/West Coast battle phenomenon hit its peak and, soon thereafter, took hip hop’s longest fall, between Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
Representing New York and the East, B.I.G. had enjoyed success behind his amazing knack for story rapping (unparalleled other than by maybe Slick Rick) and the Bad Boy/Puff Daddy machine and production on his debut album, Ready to Die.
2Pac was still riding high on the relative success of his second LP, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., but never in his lifetime enjoyed the success that Biggie did with Ready to Die. The former has been certified platinum-plus, but not quite double, as of this writing while the latter was four-times platinum before the end of the 20th century. Commercial success not a reliable indicator of talent for an emcee, the battle goes on to this day as to which is the better emcee. Naturally, they both repped hard for their cities and their coasts.
“Who Shot Ya?” has become one of the most memorable, most celebrated songs in hip hop history, an immediately recognizable beat underneath the voice and cadence of one of the immediately recognizable greatest emcees. Easily forgotten were the days when Pac and Biggie/Bad Boy shared the stage after this track came out.
A bit of background: In 1994, Pac was shot in the midst of a recording studio robbery and hospitalized. He survived. Two months later the world received “Who Shot Ya?”, the timing of which annoyed Pac, to say the least. He was quoted in 1996 as saying to VIBE magazine:
“Even if that song ain’t about me, you should be, like, `I’m not putting it out, ‘cause he might think it’s about him.”
Not one to stand down when he felt slighted, Pac shot back with “Hit ‘Em Up”. If “Who Shot Ya?” was unloading the nickel nine, “Hit ‘Em Up” was assault with a fully automatic weapon.
2Pac mirrored Big by releasing the track as a B-side to “How Do U Want It” from his album All Eyez On Me. He claimed relations with Faith Evans, who was married to Biggie. Fat jokes, mocking visuals along the lines of “Dre Day” and absolute, bloody verbal terrorism on Biggie, Bad Boy, Lil’ Kim and Chino XL (for a one liner Chino had used on his debut LP) and Mobb Deep.
Big for his part denied that “Who Shot Ya?” was ever about 2Pac, claiming it was written before the shooting. Even Puffy couldn’t leave it alone, telling Vibe “We know that he’s a nice guy from New York. All **** aside, Tupac is a nice, good-hearted guy.” The difference, however, between Puff and Pac was that, when it came to Pac, you believed he could perpetrate the things he talked while Puff hid behind his shooters (see, ex., Shyne).
So 2Pac had put the beef into high gear and, in the process, divided hip hop into a schism. Thus was the story of the East/West feud, Bad Boy versus Death Row, a sensationalized war of words that may or may not have been fought with iron, as well.
In the wake of “Hit Em Up,” two of hip-hop’s greatest talents in B.I.G. and 2Pac would be killed (both murders remain unsolved), changing the face of hip-hop — and beef — forever. This battle will forever be a reminder that, unless kept on wax, rap beef can quickly become real beef with dire consequences.
Before he died, Pac also recorded “Bomb First” and “Against All Odds”, which would be released (posthumously) on the 7 Day Theory album, also known as Makaveli. Here, 2Pac attacked the usual — Bad Boy, B.I.G., Mobb Deep — but also went after Jay Z, Nas and Xzibit (in “Bomb First”) and even De La Soul (De La had been in a dispute with Treach, with whom Pac was friendly, and Pac had felt De La lampooned him in a couple videos and lyrics).
In the end, 2Pac ended up shot to death in a hail of bullets in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Six months later, on March 9, 1997, Notorious B.I.G. was shot in similar fashion in Los Angeles. Each had a posthumous album (Pac’s aforementioned, and Biggie’s Born Again), proper releases which were followed up serially with more material found on cutting room floors.
In the wake of the East/West feud came the Jay Z/Nas beef. It possibly couldn’t have been a worse time for Nasir Jones, the Queens emcee whose Illmatic is quite possibly the best hip hop album of all time. After he released two albums in 1999 — I Am… and Nastradamus — Nas’ career was more or less on hold for personal reasons in 2001. Where many fans criticize Nas for not being able to quite match Illmatic, somehow fans forget that Jay Z could not keep up the fire that he stoked with Reasonable Doubt, but allow your writer some opinion time here, will you?
Staying on course here, it was Jay who finally made this one official, when the song “Takeover” from his album Blueprint ended with a shot at Nas. The Queensbridge rapper wasted no time and fired back with the “Stillmatic Freestyle” which went bar for bar after Jay Z and later became the title of his next album.
It was “Ether” that became the wake-up call for Nas who, prior to Hov starting this up, had been caring for his ailing mother. “Ether” was intended to be a knockout potion for the burgeoning King of New York, and Nas went off on Jay Z. He referenced the infamous Hawaiian Sophie:
Nas made the requisite (if questionably appropriate, at best) homosexuality jokes about Roc-A-Fella. He said “It shoulda been you in that plane crash” referencing the loss of Aaliyah. He asserted that Hov was recycling and/or stealing Biggie lyrics in the wake of the latter’s death. He repurposed the outro from “Takeover” by rapping “R-O-C, get gunned up and clapped quick.”
Best of all, “ether” has become an action word in the hip hop lexicon and the Jay Z/Nas battle brought Nas out of the house and back into the hip hop world, where he is acknowledged in every top five conversation not involving anyone suffering an insane delusion.
There are at a minimum two more instigators worth mentioning in this essay. Both involve Dr. Dre, if only proximately, as his Aftermath label claims Eminem and Fifty Cent as part of its stable. By all accounts, Fif never met a rapper or recognizable scene name he did not want to cut off at the knees.
Curtis Jackson, AKA Fifty Cent, made his name as a diss emcee. In fact, his breakout cut, “Wanksta”, is widely believed to have targeted Ja Rule (a popular subject for Curtis). Fif went after Jadakiss, The Game, and many others on his ride to wherever he landed in the end.
Eminem had notable disputes with the Insane Clown Posse (who did take a pretty amusing, for them, shot at him with “Slim Anus”), Canibus, Mariah Carey, Limp Bizkit, Everlast, and most famously Benzino of The Source Magazine. ICP ended up becoming a meme (“Magnets, how do they work?”) and while Benzino tried hard to body Eminem’s career, maybe it was the pills that did that.
Eminem released “Nail In The Coffin” in 2003 after Benzino stated that Eminem had an unfair advantage as a white person in rap music and that he was bad for hip hop culture. Benzino released diss track after diss track to try to start his own rap career, but Em delivered “Nail” as well as “The Sauce” and put a stop to both this feud and Benzino’s career. On every level.
Eminem was fired up for years over The Source never giving him the five mics (their review icon) he felt he was owed, and “The Sauce” read like a reference track for “The Way I Am”, one of Eminem’s singles. In the end, Em emerged victorious as anyone can see. Have you ever heard a Benzino cut?
Plenty of honorable mentions exist and, as of the date of this writing, and one leaves this on the table, with room for you dear readers to comment with your favorite diss tracks:
P.S.: Hip hop ethics require that Kendricks’ verse on “Control” be mentioned, as well. A verse so good Big Sean would not put the song on his album so that he would not be “killed on his own ***” as Nas stated Eminem did to Jay Z on “Ether”:
Many responses appeared to the “Control” verse, but no one mentioned any but Kendrick — a given, since he was shooting across the bow at many, even calling himself the King of New York (he’s from Compton)- and all fell short.