Once upon a time hip hop was a battlefield. Any degree of success or claim to be the best opened an MC up for attack. If you wanted to sit on the throne you had to deal with challengers. From the early days of the now legendary “bridge wars” between Boogie Down Productions and Juice Crew to the doomed east-west feud fought by Biggie and Tupac, rap was a constant competition to crush your rivals. Some of the most celebrated tracks in hip hop history are drawn from these clashes, such as Nas’ calm and calculating character assassination of Jay Z on Ether or the relentless assault of Tupac’s Hit Em Up.
The classic hip hop beef was based on skill. You mocked your opponent with all the ammunition available to you to destroy their credibility, belittle their achievements and most of all prove your lyrical superiority. Beefs were fought by trading tracks like punches (and occasionally actual punches or, tragically in a number of cases, bullets).
Even up to the mid 2000s, Eminem and his label mate 50 Cent were constantly embroiled in feuding. Some of these are remembered as prime examples of hip hop’s competitive streak at it’s best (Eminem v Cannibus/50 Cent v Ja Rule) and some of them are probably best forgotten (see Eminem’s weird clash with celebrity couple Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, which produced this horror show). Old Fiddy seemed unable to go ten minutes without goading his fellow rappers into a battle. At one point he even turned on The Game, a member of his own crew at the time.
Halfway through the 2000s and it seemed the tradition of beef was as thriving as ever, with a steady stream of diss records, some good, a lot bad, being churned out.
However, cut to 2015 and it’s all gone a bit tame. “Beef” these days is less about open confrontation and more about “sneak disses,” vague shots on Twitter and Instagram death threats. Just like everything else, the hip hop feud has migrated online.
This new era of comment section wars played out on social media just doesn’t have the same feel to it. For one, it’s hard to imagine an entire DVD series being devoted to recounting some brutal Tweet exchanges. Aside from that, music seems to play almost no part. Today’s MCs seem keen to keep their grudges outside the booth by sticking to quoting their rivals sales figures a long with some crying laughing emojis. Some of these can actually be quite entertaining, but the chances of hearing the next Ether seem unlikely in a world where diss tracks have effectively become obsolete. Beef has essentially become the same as those secondary school rivalries on Bebo, a quickly dashed off mix of insults and threats thrown into the online void. It gives the pop culture sites something to cover but it’s hardly going to enter the pantheon of hip hop’s greatest clashes.
Perhaps the problem is the standard of competition. Whatever your opinion on it, lyrical skill isn’t the defining element of hip hop any more. There are plenty of good rappers around but the ones that stand out are often differentiated by something other than ability, whether it’s content, sound or commercial appeal. A Jay Z or Nas doesn’t necessarily rise to the top just off the back of their way with words any more. Those classic battles aren’t happening because the biggest names can’t do it and don’t seem to have any interest in playing out conflicts on record anyway.
Just take a look at the sort of characters involved in today’s most publicised “beefs.” It’s not a line up that’s going to have any reasonable person holding their breath for the next Takeover. Twitter lost it’s shit over Nicki Minaj calling out Miley Cyrus at the MTV Awards. That’s what beef looks like now, two pop stars having a slightly awkward dispute at an awards show.
Elsewhere on the same list, you’d have to include Iggy Azalea, who’s frequent run ins with other rappers on Twitter have been a god send to hip hop culture sites. Highlights include Iggy branding Rick Ross a “steez stealer,” seemingly forgetting that she’s an Australian who’s built an entire career off adopting the image of a black woman from Miami.
Ok, so perhaps it’s unfair to point to the most commercial end of the spectrum as evidence of the end of hip hop competition. After all, Kriss Kross were hardly dropping vicious disses back in the 90s either. But even amongst rappers who would claim more respected credentials, it’s gone quiet. Partly this is because the youngest and most aggressive forms of modern hip hop, trap and drill, are more concerned with actual violence. The conflict between Chicago’s Chief Keef and Migos was played out in a series of bloody clashes between entourages.
But, some might object, what about Drake? Didn’t Toronto’s most famous son deliver a masterclass in lyrical demolition? Twitter collectively lost it’s shit over Drake’s musical responses to Meek Mill’s accusations of using a ghost writer. Though it’s calmed down a little bit now, at the time Drake’s first reply, “Charged Up”, came out it was greeted as the most devastating verbal assault since Roy Keane told Mick McCarthy to shove it up his bollocks. An avalanche of memes declared Drake the victor after a few days and it was universally decided that Meek Mill had been on the wrong side of a humiliating defeat.
But while Charged Up has a few memorable lines it’s hardly Hit ‘Em Up. For a diss song it’s weirdly indirect. There’s no mention of Meek Mill by name or even reference to the claims that started the rift. Drake’s follow up, Back to Back is a bit more up front, with the famous “world tour or your girls tour” line getting a lot of attention, but even then it’s restrained. Neither track is really an all out attack more a general statement of annoyance with a few obviously directed shots thrown it.
Whether the whole episode can even be considered a real beef is also debatable due to the fact that Meek Mill basically refused to engage. He initially tried to shrug the whole thing, eventually released a half hearted response and then went back to ignoring it. Whether this shows a more mature attitude in hip hop regarding confrontation is up for debate, but the same situation would be unthinkable back in the 90s and 2000s.
The other problem is that Drake is very selective with his opposition. He will gladly take shots at Meek Mill and Tyga, two rappers who’s success isn’t exactly matched by their lyrical prowess. But when it’s Kendrick Lamar or Pusha T appearing to take aim, Drake seems less interested. Perhaps by only fighting battles he knows he can win, Drake shows he’s a clever operator but it’s hardly in keeping with hip hop’s competitive spirit.
In general, hip hop seems to be a more cautious and amicable world than it once was. These days rappers seem keener on banding together to sell records and keeping things democratic than spending time tussling with each other for supremacy. Kendrick’s Control verse ruffled a lot of feathers, produced a slew of decidedly average attempts to reply, but ultimately most of the names mention merely shrugged it off or dismissed it with some vague mutterings.
Some might argue that hip hop is better without the ego clashes and hyper-defensive culture that once drove the classic battles. Certainly, no one wants to see hip hop lose it’s brightest talents again when disputes started on record are ended with bullets. But at the same time, the confrontational element has always gone hand in hand with the music. Since rappers first started rhyming over records in New York, it’s been about competition. Fans and artists alike want to know who’s the best and they want it to be settled publicly. If the tradition of beef is dying, part of what made hip hop great is disappearing to.