Hip-hop took off its cool over the weekend — and lit itself ablaze in the process.
Two seemingly unrelated threads this past weekend served as raucous, yin-and-yang reminders that hip-hop is not just a genre measured by charts, award show accolades and platinum plaques, but an organic culture unbound by industry rules.
In one corner, a battle staged between legendary beatsmiths turned into a lovefest. In the other, a shot of ether, fired from one New York queen towards another, was instantly canonized alongside the most vicious disses on record. The Internet erupted in customary fashion, but the drama also sparked an internal debate that highlighted one ironic fact: In hip-hop, the culture is often at its finest when its players are presumed to be at their baddest.
"Everybody in here, you are privileged to be in this space tonight, where we invited you cause we wanted to keep it clean," producer Swizz Beatz announced, stopping the music inside his studio nearly 30 minutes into an epic-but-intimate "Battle of the Beats" between he and producer Just Blaze. Streamed on Instagram live for its majority, the event was hosted by Hot 97 radio personality Ebro Darden and attended by Swizz's wife Alicia Keys; his uncle and Ruff Ryders label co-founder Darrin "Dee" Dean; former protégé Cassidy and Busta Rhymes, whose climactic stank-face reactions to an unreleased Swizz track featuring Nas, Jay-Z, Jadakiss and DMX became instant meme material. But before all that, Swizz had to establish some rules and remind everybody it was a cause for celebration. "But all this cool s*** in here," he said, before restarting the battle, "this ain't no library. We in here turning up for the culture."
Less than 12 hours later, veteran rapper Remy Ma unceremoniously released a diss track titled "ShETHER" via Soundcloud with a tweet that cast zero doubt about the song's lethal lyrical content or its intended target. "'You wanna see a dead body,'" she tweeted at reigning rap queen Nicki Minaj, referencing the classic John Singleton film Boyz N the Hood. Rapped to the beat of Nas' classic Jay Z diss "Ether," Remy Ma's six-minute-plus tirade includes unprintable jabs at Nicki's physical anatomy, love life and family. It was a personal attack, reflective of the complicated legacy surrounding hip-hop's grimiest beefs.
The response reverberated around the web, sparking murderous memes and retweets. One, from Insecure creator/actor Issa Rae, read: "Nicki, don't Meek this up" — a direct reference to Minaj's former suitor, Philly rapper Meek Mill, whose battle against Drake was the talk of 2015 (and which Meek was widely seen as having lost). Minaj posted her own response on Instagram, where she harped on the lackluster chart performance of Remy's recently released album with Fat Joe, Plato O Plomo, as proof that her queendom remains untouched. But rap dominance does not revolve around sales figures alone.
The history between the two emcees – which stretches back a decade — came to a head in a recent collaboration between Minaj and Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane, "Make Love," released on Feb. 23. The song contained what many took as not-so-veiled shots aimed at Remy Ma — but the deeper backstory of Ma and Minaj is less important than the contextual history of battle rap from which it springs.
As tests of lyrical dexterity, rhetorical wit and competitive charisma, battles harken back to rap's roots in Jamaican toasting, the on-air boasts of black radio announcers like the late Jack the Rapper and the trickster charm embodied by street hustlers of a bygone era. At their best, classic beefs — perhaps most notably KRS-One vs. MC Shan and Ice Cube vs. NWA — helped elevate the culture. The lyrical retaliations of Tupac against Bad Boy Records and the Notorious B.I.G. sparked bicoastal grievances — exacerbated by sensationalistic media coverage — and ended in the tragic murders of both iconic '90s rappers, marking the form's lowest point.
That dark period continues to link battle rap with the distorted mythology of black-on-black crime or other pathological stereotypes erroneously attributed to black America. It's part of the reason why beefs of this sort, often composed of violent metaphors and clever quips, provoke equal parts exultation and condemnation from critics and fans alike. As the saying goes: It's all fun and games until someone gets shot.
The gender-specific critiques can be equally layered. The belief that there is only room for one rap queen at a time persists largely because major labels have increasingly deferred from signing and investing in women emcees since the golden era (roughly, from 1988-92), when hip-hop was flush with more top-notch female talent (MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Yo-Yo). These are the politics of gendered performance rarely applied to men in a testosterone-fueled industry.
Even within the culture, conflicting views persist. Like the timeless cries for unity that suggest black America moves best as a monolith, many view the performance of beef as a sign of cultural dysfunction rather than proof of a well-functioning subculture. While established OGs Swizz and Blaze engaged in plenty of trash talk, they were love taps compared to Remy's verbal assault.
"I don't know who Just Blaze thought he was coming to see tonight?!" Swizz Beats taunted his competition in the midst of their friendly-yet-cutthroat beat battle. While Blaze set up hit-after-hit by dipping into his eclectic catalog of old soul-to-samba samples that inspired such Roc-A-Fella-era hits as Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls" or Jay Electronica's "Exhibit C," Swizz bounced back with a discography of aggro street anthems including DMX's "Party Up," Ruff Ryderz' "Down Bottom" and, ironically, Remy Ma's "Whuteva."
It was an even match, musically. But in the end, it came down to the power of performance. The introverted technician Just Blaze was bested by Swizz's oversized personality as he swaggered and lip-synched the lyrics to his self-credited hits. Swizz was a gracious winner.
"This was more about unity. There was no violence in here, no negative energy in here," Swizz said at the conclusion, shutting down Darden's pronouncement that he'd won. "We was competitive because that's the culture. But I wish that more artists would come to the table to do these things without all of the foolishness, because this music allowed us to get out of our ghettos ...."
Despite shouldering so much cultural baggage, both Friday's battle and Saturday's beef reaffirmed the grassroots vitality of hip-hop that's immeasurable by typical industry standards. On the same weekend, astronomical artist Future dropped his second near-surprise album in two weeks, which is predicted to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (an unprecedented feat). But these DIY happenings — distributed over digital platforms that privilege accessibility over paid exclusivity — dwarfed the conversation surrounding his historic releases. And at a time when the tenets of battle rap are viewed as fading tradition for better or worse, each worked together to reinvigorate debates around representation and respect — proving that the culture remains its own harshest critic.
While Swizz made his closing speech, he had no idea that the Internet would be wrapped up in a beef of historic proportions less than a day later. Just as he began promoting the possibility of future soundclashes between super-producers Pharrell and Timbaland, or Pete Rock and DJ Premier, Swizz's old protégé, the rapper Cassidy, insisted they do something similar for the emcees.
"Naw," Swizz responded. "The rappers be beefin' too much."