Sometimes words puncture deeper than bullets.
The origins of hip-hop, as showcased in Elijah Wald’s book “The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama,” consist of rhyming insults slung back-and-forth on street corners. If you’ve watched Netflix’s new show “The Get Down,” you know exactly the type of banter I’m talking about. While the MC’s art has grown and flowered since then, there’s still an undercurrent of verbal battle that’s vital to hip-hop.
Sometimes words puncture deeper than bullets. Lines that seem to be all in fun have serious consequences. Hip-hop’s macho atmosphere means you can’t just let a diss go. You need to retaliate, and you need to escalate. And when things escalate past the point of no return, we’ve got beef.
Come with us as we dig through the crates to replay the rap wars that made hip-hop history.
Jay Z vs Nas
New York’s a big town, but it’s not big enough for two egos like Jay Z and Nas. One representing Brooklyn, the other from Queens, these two rap titans went at each other for much of the late ‘90s. The beef allegedly started when Nas ignored Jay’s request to guest on his debut album, but the duo would send snipes back and forth in their lyrics across multiple records.
It’s generally thought that Nas fired the killshot with “Ether,” his 2001 single off of “Stillmatic,” but the aftermath has been much kinder to Jay. He’s established himself at the head of Roc-A-Fella as the tastemaker of East Coast hip-hop, and while Nas remains creatively vital he certainly doesn’t have the commercial clout his rival swings.
NWA vs Ice Cube
When West Coast hip-hop blew up in the early ‘90s, producers saw blood in the water and signed artists to some pretty crappy deals. One of the worst hit was Compton’s finest in N.W.A, who signed a deal with Priority Records that gave most of the profits to Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller.
Ice Cube, who was responsible for more than half the lyrics on the band’s debut “Straight Outta Compton,” peaced out immediately for a solo career. The remaining members of N.W.A. fired back with passive-aggressive jabs, but Cube went buck wild on them with “No Vaseline,” where he tore his former crew to bits.
N.W.A. never recovered, as the group dissolved after Dr. Dre walked away. Eazy-E and Cube didn’t manage to bury the hatchet before Eazy died of AIDS in 1995.
Lil Kim vs Foxy Brown
If you’re in the market for a long-running rap beef that probably won’t cool down until both sides are in the grave, look no further than Foxy Brown and Lil Kim. The distaff duo have been going at each other on-and-off for 20 years straight.
The tragic thing about this one is that Kim and Foxy were friends in high school. But the game got in the way in 1996 when both ladies’ debut albums were scheduled to drop in the same week. Things just escalated from there, climaxing in 2001 with a shooting outside the Hot 97 studios, incited by Foxy’s verse on “Bang Bang.”
The pair will temporarily settle things every few years to promote a concert or something, but the bad feelings always come back.
Eminem vs Benzino
Most of these beefs feature two rappers going head to head for microphone dominance, but what happens when the press gets involved? Raymond “Benzino” Scott was one of the men behind hip-hop rag The Source, widely considered the arbiter of taste and success in the community. When “The Marshall Mathers LP” got just two out of five mics in its pages, Slim Shady started a war against Benzino that took no prisoners.
While Benz delivered some solid hits on tracks like “Pull Your Skirt Up,” few MCs can rain down hellfire like Em, and his retaliation scorched the earth so badly that Benzino retired from the rap game and eventually issued a public apology.
Drake vs Meek Mill
Canadians aren’t exactly known for their killer instincts, but the Champagne Papi shocked us when he took down Meek Mill with the quickness in 2015. It all started when Meek accused Drake of using ghostwriters for his rhymes (which shouldn’t surprise anybody—if y’all think every rapper writes their own stuff you’re clueless).
As befits a beef in the social media age, the feud started on Twitter but quickly spilled over into the music, with Drake dropping “Charged Up” and “Back To Back,” both of which took shots at Meek. Even worse, the dude who everybody was saying was Drake’s ghostwriter stepped up and said he didn’t do it.
This one looks to drag on for a while. Every time things cool off, one of the two steps up to the mic and rips a little more heat on the other.
Roxanne Shante vs The Real Roxanne
The early days of hip-hop were totally New York-focused, as producers rounded up just about anyone who could sling rhymes to get records on the streets. One of 1984’s biggest hits was UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” about a girl who won’t holler back at her man.
To cash in, 14-year-old Roxanne Shante recorded “Roxanne’s Revenge,” an answer song from the girl in question. It sold a quarter of a million copies with no radio support and made Shante a star. Then UTFO recruited their own girl to make “The Real Roxanne” and the Roxanne Wars began.
This beef was all about size—at least 30 different groups and MCs got in on the act with their own spin on the Roxanne story, and eventually Shante dropped the Roxanne from her name and everybody moved on.
Tupac vs Biggie Smalls
There can be no other beef as notorious or as tragic. East Coast vs West Coast has been the animating conflict of hip-hop for decades, and in the mid-90s the biggest names on either side were Tupac Shakur, riding with Death Row, and the Notorious B.I.G. with Bad Boy. This beef started with violence and escalated from there.
In November of 1994, Tupac was robbed and shot in the lobby of Quad Recording Studios in New York. Shortly after, Biggie dropped the single “Who Shot Ya,” which many took as an admission of guilt. The pair?—?who had been relatively friendly a few years before—turned into instant enemies. Tupac delivered multiple assaults on Bad Boy, including the banger “Hit ’Em Up.”
Everything came to a head in 1996 when Tupac was shot dead in Las Vegas. The next year, Biggie was killed by a drive-by in Los Angeles. Neither murder has been solved.