If you haven’t engaged with a hip-hop beef in a while, here’s a quick FYI: the days of simply claiming to be the best, folding your arms tightly across your puffed-out chest and saying “word” are well and truly over. Things have radically changed since the days when rappers would scrap over which New York borough is the greatest (witness Marley Marl’s Juice Crew from Queens epochal clash with the Bronx’s KRS-One in the mid-1980s), or as with the murderous feuding of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac in the 1990s, which side of the country rules the entire hip-hop nation. In many ways, it’s a race to the bottom that marks out modern beef. It’s a desire to be the worst, not the best.
Getting personal is nothing new. In one of the first ever commercially available rap battles put onto wax, 1981’s ‘Busy Bee vs Kool Moe Dee – Live at Harlem World’, Manhattan’s Kool Moe Dee eviscerates his slightly gimmicky party MC opponent with such a merciless lyrical onslaught that Busy Bee can be heard by the end shouting “and that’s why I’m on Moe Dee’s dick”.
But while it’s reductive and flat-out untrue to say that skill has no place in beefs today, what marks out a modern grudgefest is less the delicate use of a lyrical sword to cut your opponent to shreds – more the ability to blanket bomb both the target and everyone around them until they’re all vaporised. It’s the era of collateral damage, where a rapper’s wife, fiancée, kids, family and more are seen as fair game. As we’ll see, it all feels simultaneously real and fake at the same time.
Perhaps the great defining beef of recent times has been the war of words between Pusha T and Drake. After years of simmering tension, Drake stuck his head above the parapet with ‘Duppy Freestyle’, which took aim at Pusha but controversially also name checked his fiancée, Virginia Williams. It was the catalyst for Pusha to go even harder, just four days later. On his reply, ‘The Story of Adidon’, he outed Drake as a father, called him a deadbeat dad and mocked Drake’s producer 40 for having multiple sclerosis for good measure. While the grim exhilaration this slew of personal attacks created felt new and groundbreaking in rap, it’s frankly been that way for years.
Sometimes the consequences of ‘going personal’ are plain funny, like when Jay-Z’s mother Gloria Carter admonished her son for using lines like ‘left condoms on your baby seat’ in ’Super Ugly’, a diss song aimed at long-running rival Nas. Jay duly retracted. Or take 50 Cent, almost 20 years into his beef with Ja Rule, buying the first 200 seats at a 2018 concert of his rival and then photoshopping himself into the awkward void for Insta lols.
Too often though there’s a darker set of consequences that are rarely taken into account – namely the feelings of innocent family and friends who get pulled into beefs not of their own making. Take Carmen Bryan, an ex of both Jay and Nas who ended up humiliated amid the rappers’ macho battle. Her daughter was even picked on by rapper Cam’ron. Perhaps nothing was more ugly than the treatment of Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans, in the fateful war of words that defined the 1990s. ‘You claim to be a player, but I fucked your wife’ was how Tupac saw it on ‘Hit ‘Em Up’. Evans had to just sit there and take it.
All of these brutal spats took years to simmer before they boiled over into something super personal. But what makes beefs increasingly resemble mere marketing tools today is how strategic and goal-oriented they are. Today, many fledgling and nascent rappers will initiate a beef by immediately going for the areas considered off-limits. Probably the most blatant example of this in recent years has been Machine Gun Kelly’s craven attempts to prod the biggest bear in the forest – Eminem – and thus grow his own brand in the process.
Back in 2012, a then 22-year-old MGK tweeted that he thought Eminem’s 16-year-old daughter was ‘hot as fuck’. Having his daughter dragged into matters wasn’t new for Em: perennially beefing also-ran Ja Rule went there in 2003, which Eminem swiftly dealt with. ‘There’s a certain line you don’t cross’ Eminem later surmised in ‘Like Toy Soldiers’.
By contrast, young buck MGK chipped away with low-key disses for six whole years before Slim Shady eventually took the bait, on 2018 album track ‘Not Alike’. Like Pusha responding to Drake, Machine Gun Kelly replied quickly (a sure sign of someone perhaps too keen for their own good) with ‘Rap Devil’ – in which he portrayed Eminem as old, as well as ‘sober and bored’. Eminem eventually decided to unleash the full whoop-ass buffet on his pesky upstart foe – dropping the gleefully unforgiving ‘Killshot’ and smoking his opponent once and for all. But it proved too late: fans at this point had already started speculating that the whole thing was staged, largely because the pair share the same label and the same producer. The smell of beef was duly replaced by the smell of baloney.
Authenticity is a problem, not helped by the fact that so many aspects of society – from mainstream entertainment to big business – have incorporated the dynamics of hip-hop beefing into their idiom. Sure, people have feuded since the Montagues and Capulets, but there’s a huge amount of what I call ‘soft-beefing’ out there today – be it lolsy, knowing pastiches such as Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Damon’s jokey squabbling, or more weirdly when brands such as Taco Bell and McDonald’s cringingly attempt to sassily scrap on Twitter. Burger King weirdly launched an app that let users virtually burn competitors ads. If marketing has taken on the dynamics of hip-hop, it’s no surprise that people start to see hip-hop as just a form of marketing.
In many ways, the fact that Eminem has become the rap Goliath everyone wants to topple is his own fault. The success of 8 Mile – a film which made a generation think that battling and beefing was the sole point of hip-hop – has left the genre exposed to the same kind of fanbase that watches Formula 1 just to see the cars crash. Where the artform began as a force for togetherness, with Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation preaching ‘peace, unity and having fun’, many modern hip-hop fans think that success runs in tandem with distress. This pervading hunger for beef can even end up inadvertently causing it. For example, if you unpick the knotty roots that led Cardi B and Nicki Minaj to brawl with each other at a New York Fashion Week event in 2018, at every stage in their deterioration, both artists expressed the feeling that fans on social media were stoking them into having a brutal sparring war.
Unlike the sad, unloved ‘Coleslaw’ which Cam’ron used as a metaphor for Kanye’s unpopularity in 2017 (‘Coleslaw, nah, ain’t nobody eating you’), people still massively crave a nice bit of beef. But hip-hop has entered its vegan phase, and frankly nobody cares any more if the beef is fake or real.