Rap beef - the closest music gets to bloodsport

Intense rivalry and bitter feuds in hip hop are as old as the genre itself, but what do they mean to the culture? Gavin Tracey investigates.

The rap beef is almost as old as the genre itself, hailing from the highly competitive nature of the culture from its inception in late 70s New York. Beef can represent hip hop at its finest - fierce lyricism and intense periods of creative output, but can also give rise to the worst elements of the culture, bringing to the fore the most violent and misogynistic parts of hip hop culture.

There is no one kind of rap beef - they can range from the incredibly personal beef to the “pure” rap beef, a showdown between two master lyricists. Often they are fuelled by the business of the music industry, beefs and feuds can be incredibly profitable for those involved. 

Possibly the most well known rap beef to date has been the Tupac vs Biggie Smalls, a bitter and nasty feud that defined the East Coast vs West Coast divide. Fuelled by the men on the business end of the industry, notably Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Suge Knight, of Bad Boy Records and Death Row Records respectively. Knight, currently serving time in prison for intentionally running over a man with his car, embodies a lot that was wrong with the industry in the 90s. A ruthless businessman, he weaponized and utilised the interpersonal beef between Tupac and Biggie, which ultimately ended in tragedy.

The East Coast v West Coast feud is the perfect encapsulation of what function rap beef serves. The opening salvos were brutal, with Tupac responding to what he perceived to be a slight against him being shot in Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?” - coming back twice as hard with the opening lines of “Hit Em Up” with “I ain't got no motherfuckin friends / That's why I fucked yo' bitch, you fat motherfucker.” Things escalated from there, ultimately resulting in the murders of both Biggie and Tupac. Record sales went through the roof, both figures gained enormous amounts of press coverage, and it cemented them as two of the biggest stars in hip hop history.

Outside of this famous feud, there is far more to the art of the beef than the personal attacks and violence of the East Coast / West Coast feud. Lyrically it can bring out the best in artists, forcing them to be at their very best. In some cases, a beef can reignite a career, as was the case with Nas when he and Jay Z sparred. Take a wrong step, or do anything but your best, and you run the risk of being made a fool of. Prime example of this is when Drake released a half hearted diss track, before getting absolutely ruined by Pusha T in a track that revealed to the world that Drake had allegedly fathered a child with an ex-pornstar, as well as cutting the legs out from under him by revealing the name of the clothing line Drake had yet to announce he was working with - oh, and Pusha put a photo of Drake in blackface as the cover. Corporate espionage and a brutal takedown rolled into one song. 

The ongoing feud between Stormzy and Wiley is the most recent high profile example of this. Wiley called out Stormzy for ignoring grime, the genre that made him the star he is, and running with people like Ed Sheeran, watering down his music, as well as accusing Stormzy of stealing his flows. Wiley even went as far as to threaten Stormzy’s mum. The beef was truly ignited when Stormzy dropped his “Disappointed” single, hitting back at Wiley and his absent mother. At this point it’s gotten incredibly nasty, but goddamn if it isn’t producing some amazing tracks.  

The rap beef is a phenomenon that only makes sense within the cultural context of hip hop and its origins. MC’s have always been fiercely competitive, and in the beginning firm rules were established - to steal another MC’s lines was taboo, and resulted in ostracisation from the community. The phenomenon of the freestyle rap battle that birthed some of the most well known and respected MCs, such as Eminem and Mos Def, were lightning fast, off the cuff jabs and takedowns are vital. The level of talent it takes to do this and do it well is criminally misunderstood and underrated outside of the hip hop community.