Diss Tracks Have Come a Long Way But Not Without Big Changes in the Digital Age
Diss tracks aren't what they used to be. In the pre-Twitter world of rap conflict, the norm was a rapper directly calling out their enemy in song. The track was sharp, cunning and linguistically penetrating, leaving the target no other option but to respond in equal or rarer form. These days, venomous cuts like 2Pac’s “Hit Em Up” are unheard of, where in one fell swoop the rapper annihilated much of the East Coast rap game and called them all by name, including Diddy, The Notorious B.I.G. and Junior Mafia. Many rappers have had their own 2Pac moment when it comes to diss tracks through the years, but it's hard to replicate what the late MC had with "Hit Em Up."
Looking back, when rappers did choose to keep names out of disses, the metaphors were so blatant that it was easy to tell which artist was the victim. For better or worse, artists died over these beefs. And while there’s been a considerable (and thankful) dearth in the violence that chases these tracks of rage, something else has dropped off in the process: directness.
On Drake’s recent release, “Two Birds, One Stone,” he brings allusions of grandeur without naming names—charging at Kid Cudi for his mental instability and Pusha T for his drug-dealing past. No names, save for a “man on the moon” reference. Drake also decided to go without direct name-calling a year prior on both “Charged Up” and “Back to Back,” presumably both aimed at Meek Mill, and again on “4PM in Calabasas” toward Meek, Diddy and Joe Budden.
What is this lack of straightforwardness a testament to? Is it legality? Liability? Or have rappers just gone soft in their new age? In 1987, Boogie Down Productions delivered what remains as one of the slickest diss tracks in hip-hop history. The song was called “The Bridge Is Over,” a hip-hop turf wars anthem over the dispute of the Bronx vs. Queens. On the song, KRS-One highlights two names rather boldly and emphatically: MC Shan and a then-teenage Roxanne Shante, the latter targeted as being “only good for steady fuckin’” per KRS-One’s bars.
“The Bridge Is Over” set an unfair precedent, really. This was the most nefarious form of “if you see something, say something,” which would not only demand a straight name-call from here on out, but it had to count. While LL Cool J diverged from that formula, songs like “Jack the Ripper” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” suggested that if a rapper wasn’t going to use names in a diss, really use the words to make a point.
Disses followed after that, getting more infuriating with rage. Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” did all but dismantle what was left of N.W.A by 1991, and Cube would be served a dose of his own poison by 1996, with Common’s “The Bitch in Yoo.” Of course that would be the same year 2Pac delivered the most heinous diss track of all time, “Hit Em Up,” where he tarnished The Notorious B.I.G.’s name along with Bad Boy “as a staff, record label and as a muthafuckin’ crew” and would throw in Mobb Deep and even Chino XL for extra measure.
While this East Coast vs. West Coast war would end in violence in the late 1990s, the concept of a diss track lingered on. In 1997, LL Cool J would attempt subliminals against Canibus on “4,3,2,1,” on which the latter rapper was even featured. Canibus would return the favor with “Second Round K.O.” and LL would resume name-calling on “The Ripper Strikes Back” asking, “Can-I-Bus?”
By the early aughts, Jay Z and Nas would reintroduce the inferno on their respective songs “Takeover” and “Ether.” Even then, almost 15 years to the date of KRS-One’s anti-poetic charges against Queens, the names were still called out. “Ask Nas, he don’t want it with Hov!” and “Fuck Jay Z!” are two pull-quotes from the aforementioned tracks. The tides started changing, though. Sure, hip-hop always had the playground bullies like Eminem spitting off a laundry list of people who pissed him off that day, but as social media trickled into the picture, the need for candor took a back seat.
There were exceptions, like the never-ending feud between The Game and 50 Cent, where Fif would call out Game directly on “Not Rich, Still Lyin.” The Game also fired at 50 on “400 Bars.” Even before that, 50 was taking pages from 2Pac’s book to deliver throat-slitting diss tracks like his 2003 charged-up verse against Ja Rule on Eminem’s “Hail Mary” freestyle and his divinely symbolic “Ghetto Q’uran.” But as social media became a vehicle, rappers used it to bulldoze their enemies.
“Subtweet” has become the term du jour in the digital age, where rappers find clever ways to wedge passive aggressiveness within 140 characters (the limit on what a user can write) on Twitter, leaving followers and rap fans bewildered and praying that someone can decipher tweets. Subliminal tweets have also evolved into direct replies to an enemy, Instagram memes, Snapchat videos and now defunct Vines. So by the time music even enters the equation, a name becomes ancillary.
When Nicki Minaj said “has been” on her 2010 cut “Roman’s Revenge,” she didn’t have to say Lil’ Kim’s name. The entire smear campaign was all over social media. Kim, however, gingerly abided by the old guard’s rule of diss tracks on her song “Black Friday” with both names and sound bytes. It was the turning point of old school meets new school, witnessing the equally clever and vile exchange of bars—one direct, and one indirect.
Once Kendrick Lamar checked in for Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013, he shifted the new diss model with names once again. “And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron', Tyler, Mac Miller, I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you niggas,” he spits on the track. Sure, its intent wasn’t the same as a run of the mill diss track, but it was a call to action for anyone hiding behind their iPhones and MacBook Pros. It was only a brief diversion, with the aforementioned recent wars returning to social media pokes and side-stepping real shout outs on tracks.
Perhaps this is the new wave. We live in the post-modern world of Kanye rants and meme culture, allowing poetic license to take the place of pointedness in songs. Anti-bullying campaigns seem to be reserved for real life, but there's a call for more fire from celebrity burns, and then when it happens, fans get upset. Maybe rappers are taking note.
Even in Drake’s less than spectacular aim at Kid Cudi on "Two Birds, One Stone" recently, he was read for filth for making light of depression. Kid Cudi didn’t make a song about it (yet) but his response over Twitter was more direct than any syllables Drake has thrown out into the ether. “@Drake Say it to [my] face, pussy. You think it's a game. I wanna see you say it to my face. I'll be out soon. Promise,” he wrote. The recent finding that Kanye West, once a close friend of Cudi, was a co-writer on “Two Birds, One Stone” may also inflate this narrative soon enough. And as Tory Lanez came for Drake in metaphor form on Meek Mill’s “Litty,” perhaps rap fans will be in for some more musically indirect references.
Further, as Kid Cudi was rumored to have subtweeted Big Sean back in August over his relationship with Jhene Aiko (“The funny thing is, we aint sweatin’ these bum bitches and these corn ball ass niggas. We too busy makin better music,” Cudi tweeted), Sean went direct on his recently released track “No More Interviews.” “Cudi and ‘Ye what happened to our family ways though/When I put you on that song with Nas you had told me that you was forever grateful/And that we brothers, so it hurt to hit the internet to find out that me and you don’t fuck with each other over a miscommunication/That probably could be fixed with a 5 minute conversation,” Sean Don rhymes.
It’s a game where now, social media plays a part in diss tracks, where subliminals more often than not are reserved for the actual songs and the direct replies come on the internet, pointing with a cyber finger. The middle one.
So while diss tracks feel like they’ve moved from arrogance to ambivalence in the digital age, bravado is still in the bars of the beholder, and the true test of characters seems to be what a rapper does with their 140.
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