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What's Beef?

I Remember
Drake's recent beef with Meek Mill got many comparisons to the famed early 2000s beef between 50 Cent and Ja Rule. But do they really stack up?
Interviews Emmanuel Maduakolam and Dan Rys
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

To Drake, it must have felt something like Toronto’s very own Summer Jam screen. There he was, headlining the final night of his own festival, the sixth annual OVO Fest in his Canadian hometown just 12 days into this summer’s much-hyped beef with Meek Mill. Standing in front of a giant projection screen with an audience of approximately 16,000 at his fingertips, Drizzy was in beef mode displaying a series of fan-made social media memes making fun of Meek while performing the diss record “Back To Back.” Twitter and Instagram went ballistic.

It all started July 22, when Meek’s Twitter fingers typed out 27 tweets aimed mostly at Drake, accusing him of not promoting Dreams Worth More Than Money, Meek’s new album, on social media. The Philadelphia rhyme slinger also accused Drake of using a ghostwriter (Quentin Miller) to pen his verse on “R.I.C.O.,” their collaborative track from Meek’s sophomore LP that had come out three weeks earlier and landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Drake’s response was swift and direct; the singing MC released the diss track, “Charged Up,” aimed at Meek on July 25 via his Apple Music Beats 1 radio show and quickly followed it up with a second record, “Back To Back,” on July 29, doubling down on the suddenly outmatched Meek. The memes soon followed—#MeekBeLike became a popular hashtag—and by the time Meek’s response, “Wanna Know,” finally arrived on July 30, the stage was set for Drake to deliver his final blow. On Aug. 3, OVO Fest provided the platform.

The totality with which Drake defeated Meek wasn’t just with his songs. It was how he did it that had rap fans comparing Drizzy to the grand master of rap beef himself, 50 Cent. There were several strong jabs on Drake’s two records. The “Back To Back” cover art featured a photo of Toronto Blue Jays player Joe Carter hitting a walk off home run to win the 1993 World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto’s second straight World Series victory. And, of course, the public shaming onstage with memes.

Social networking rushed to compare Drake vs. Meek to the famed 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule (G-Unit vs. Murder Inc.) beef of the early 2000s and even both Queens MCs chimed in. Fif, echoing what many were thinking, wrote in an Instagram caption the night of OVO Fest, “this guy been watching me close,” while Ja Rule also wrote in a pair of tweets that night, “If y’all wanna compare #meekvsdrake to 50vsRule I’m gonna need one of these niggas to get stabbed or shot!!!” and later added, “All jokes aside I don’t wanna see those guys get hurt I like both of them keep it on wax but stop comparing it to other beefs...”

With the height of 50 and Ja’s issues coming more than a decade ago now, a generation of hip-hop fans missed one of the greatest beefs in hip-hop history. The Drake and Meek controversy had many young heads wondering what it really was like in the days of 50 vs. Ja. XXL caught up to seven journalists and radio personalities who covered that beef as it happened (and many more), to recount what things were like at the height of the drama and how it stacks up now.

Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica

Then: Freelance writer for XXL, Vibe and more
Now: Pop Culture Critic at The New York Times

50 had an incredible amount of street credibility at the time and was very clearly on the trajectory to being a very big star. Backed by Eminem, backed by Dr. Dre, had major street records and also crossover records; he’s coming for Ja. It was never a David and Goliath situation. Honestly, I don’t know if it ever seemed like 50 wasn’t gonna win. Look, Ja at that point had a bunch of hit records. 50 was being groomed, broadly speaking, as the next rising rap star. His ascent felt inevitable. At that time, in ’02 and ’03, it’s hard to explain in 2015 terms, but the game was much less diverse and much narrower and you just sort of saw 50 coming like this freight train. It just seemed like 50 was coming and 50 was gonna win by force or talent or by wit or by, you know, forearm. And basically everything else was collateral damage. That’s how it felt.

That era was much, much closer to the streets. The specter of street violence loomed over that beef in a way that it doesn’t necessarily loom over this [Drake and Meek] beef. Back then, there was always a kind of thing like, you just don’t know. There was always an air of impending drama around 50, around pretty much everything 50 was doing. So you just had the sense of not really knowing.

There were mixtape covers, there were shots sent in ways that in 2015 would seem laborious and overly slow. But at the same time, it didn’t feel slow. You didn’t really get the sense like, “Oh my God, Ja’s taking two months to respond.” It felt like it was an ongoing thing.

Every era has its version of immediacy, and just because what was immediate back then, 10 or 15 years ago, wouldn’t feel immediate now, doesn’t mean it didn’t feel immediate then. I think it’s much more about the shift in era and the bigger picture of what’s going on in rap. But on a major level, in terms of basically our two biggest rap stars doing that, it seems unlikely [50 vs. Ja would be possible today]. The truth is that everybody is just getting too much money and everybody is too friendly with everybody else to really let that become a thing.

Mister Cee

Mister Cee

Mister Cee

Then: Hot 97 DJ
Now: Radio 103.9 DJ

At Hot 97 at the time we always tried to have a policy of not being involved in diss records, but the Ja Rule and 50 Cent thing was just so overwhelming that we had no choice but to play these records. So when our Program Director at the time was trying to force us to not play these records, we had to kind of fight back—some of the jocks like myself, [Funkmaster] Flex and [DJ] Enuff—and tell the Program Director that we had to play the records. If we don’t play it, we’re depriving listeners of what they want to hear. It really kind of forced our hand because the beef was so strong.

It was more the diss tracks back then. It was more of them going back and forth in the diss tracks than the radio interviews. As you know, social media was nowhere near what it is today, so it was more of 50’d say something, Ja Rule would say something or one of the guys from Murder Inc. would respond.

You know, the back and forth between 50 and Ja Rule and Murder Inc. was coming often, but there’s only a few of the diss records that we kind of know and love. But the back and forth was rapid. It happened a lot more often back in that late-1990s, early-2000s era, so we as radio jocks had to deal with it more often. And I know with myself, I had to try to be as fair as possible to the two artists that was going at it with each other. The other thing was at that time, it was really about playing the music and trying not to give your opinion on who won the battle. Because being a radio jock, if you give your opinion or kind’ve say who you thought was better, then the power that you have as a radio personality can kind of sway the fans. So I was one to always not really give my opinion on the air of who I thought really won the battle.

I don’t think rappers want to get into beef as much now as they did back then during that late-1990s, early-2000s era. I think they just want to get money and just be as successful as they possibly can. Because all the beef records or all that beefing is gonna do now is make corporate America look at you as a person that they can’t deal with.

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Kim Osorio

Kim Osorio

Then: Editor-In-Chief at The Source
Now: Television Writer/Producer

When you look at the 50 and Ja beef and how far it went back, you had a couple of years of all of this stuff happening behind-the-scenes between [50’s] crew, him and Murder Inc. and their history and them being from the same neighborhood and them not liking each other. Somebody’s chain getting snatched, an incident in a studio when somebody got stabbed or when [50] got dropped from Columbia and then he got shot.

[50] became the underdog because of that shooting, because of his situation. But he had a following and then he put the mixtapes out and throughout the mixtapes there were jabs here and there. Meanwhile, Ja is on another path, he’s sort of on top of the world. He’s putting all these hit records out on Murder Inc. And then you have 50 signing to Eminem and then you have 50 doing an album with Dre. You have all of that buildup come out in this great album [Get Rich Or Die Tryin’] produced by the biggest and best producer, Dr. Dre, and you hit with that. That, I believe, in my professional opinion, there’s some calculated things going on there.

A lot of moves that were made 13, 15 years ago were very calculated. They had time to think about what they were going to say before they went into an interview, they had time to think about their actions before they reacted to something. Now I think it’s right at your fingertips. So I don’t know if all the beefs have as much history. It seems a little surface-level when you look at a lot of the beefs you see now. Unless they’re internal, like within a crew these days.

I think a lot of times we even shaped the reaction within our role in hip-hop; our role as “the media” has diminished now. It’s not the same. Really, it was sales, that’s how you knew. [50] drops an album and it sells 800,000 copies in its first week and it’s like, “Oh, he won.” That’s how you determined it.

Nowadays, you don’t really see the threat of actual physical violence within hip-hop. That’s a good thing, but then it also shows you that a lot of what we see is really just sort of fictional. It’s almost like when you watch a reality show and you see two people approach each other and then they pause and wait for security to grab them.

Photo Credit: Michael Fequiere

Keith Murphy

Keith Murphy

Then: Contributing Editor at King
Now: Contributor at the New York Post and OZY

It was like WWE wrestling, except in their case it was real bad blood. Early on it was easy to root for 50 Cent, because it was a David and Goliath thing. 50 was the people’s champ and Murder Inc. represented the guard that was ruling it at the moment that a lot of people felt weren’t really representing hip-hop in its rawest form. So everybody backed 50. The irony is—and this is how funny battles are—as much as 50 destroyed Murder Inc. and destroyed Ja Rule, 50 became Ja Rule. And that’s the irony of this.

It [came from] everything. Radio interviews, mixtapes, print interviews, anything you can think of. I mean, there was one point beyond the Murder Inc./50 Cent beef when [former G-unit member] The Game started to beef with 50 [his old boss]. I mean, it got surreal.

You would use radio more as a breaking news-type of thing and you would use print, a mix. And you just felt like at any moment, anything could happen: a beat down, a shooting. I’m old enough to remember the N.W.A days, and for people who were old enough to remember that, [the early 2000s] were a little worse because people had more money at that point. So you’re talking about people who were not only guarding their image and guarding their name, but they were also guarding what they had amassed. It was guarding G-Unit Records, G-Unit clothing, all that type of stuff. So it became like a mini game. You know, I look back at it and I laugh, but it was some serious shit going on, too.

Beef can start off in a very heartfelt, very real and very honest way. And that’s how the beef between 50 Cent and Murder Inc. really started. But beef can also morph into something disingenuous, something P.T. Barnum-like. And I think that’s what happened with 50 later on.

Social media has become the great equalizer for anybody right now, meaning that the battle was over once Drake’s fans swarmed on social media and took sides. And it becomes a pissing contest of sorts, less about whether or not you really killed somebody and more about, “Wow, did you see that meme? Did you see that .gif? Did you see that meme of Drake and Kanye and Will Smith laughing at Meek Mill?” That was the battle. The song was secondary.

Photo Credit: Michael Fequiere

Shaheem Reid

Shaheem Reid

Then: Hip-Hop Editor at MTV News
Now: President of Busta Rhymes’ Conglomerate Records

50 vs. Ja was exciting because you had two gladiators at the top of their game. Ja was a superstar at the time and he was killing it with a lot of radio-friendly hits. My first interview with 50 Cent was via phone because he was moving around because shit was still real; he was fresh from being shot. DJ Whoo Kid would give me a heads up before it was coming. They would play it and we would hear it. At that time we were doing the Mixtape Monday [column] on MTV. A lot of the DJs would give us songs before they even came out. I remember when Big Mike gave us the “I Smell Pussy” record. I said, “Oh, shit, it’s about to get really crazy.”

I don’t think radio reacted as fast in those times. The mixtapes, they were coming quick. A lot of people say Nas and Jay Z, but I think Ja and 50’s beef might have been the greatest battle, because those boys were playing for keeps. Everybody was involved. G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo was throwing bars. Then Ja Rule had Black Child and Cadillac Tah; it was all-encompassing. Compared to the Meek and Drake beef, there’s really no comparison. You didn’t hear anyone jumping in, like Lil Wayne dissing Rick Ross. It was short. Drake and Meek Mill lasted a matter of weeks. Whereas Ja and 50 Cent, it was years with no resolution or no type of compromise.

With Drake and Meek, I didn’t feel venom. Drake was clever with it. He took from 50’s playbook because he made his diss a song that you can play in the clubs and on the radio. 50 was dissing Ja like a year or two before he dropped his album. I think one of the reasons why Ja didn’t respond at the time was because Ja was so big. Then when 50 made Get Rich or Die Tryin’, he became the top-selling artist in the industry. Mainstream media was late.

They had a history of violence before we knew who they were. They had beef that originated from the hood. It got to violence and the records came after. Meek and Drake are superstars. I think these guys are wise enough to know that there is no room for violence. That early-2000s hip-hop era, people were just catching it and they didn’t have shit to do with it. Ja and 50 became 50 against The LOX, to 50 against Fat Joe. 50 didn’t care; guilty by association. Artists had to pick a side. This is the greatest battle in hip-hop the world has ever seen. I don’t even call it a battle. I call it a saga.

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DJ Envy

DJ Envy

Then: Hot 97 Radio Personality
Now: Co-host of Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club”

As far as [50 Cent and Ja Rule’s beef] was covered, it was all over wax. At that time, 50 didn’t really have a deal, so everything he did was all on his mixtapes or freestyles. Ja didn’t really reply at first. It was covered on the radio everywhere. Ja was on top of his game and 50 Cent was an up-and-coming street rapper who had a lot of street credibility, who was shooting at the king’s head. It was entertaining to see a rapper that really had no success nationally shooting at somebody who had major success. Especially when Ja was connected and had a real thorough team.

For 50 at the time, he was really messing with his own crew, so a lot of the time it was actually DJ Whoo Kid who was playing his diss records. There was a lot of DJs and a lot of people that were really scared of playing it, because at the time Ja Rule was on top of his game. Before 50 came there were kind of real radio records. It was records that you dance to in the club and sing to on the radio, records that were female-friendly. Then you had 50 Cent who was making nothing but gangsta music, looking the part and it was totally something we’d never seen before. He was running around with a bulletproof vest with 30 dudes.

What 50 did is he poked at Ja so much and Ja never replied. I think that was Ja’s worst decision he could have ever [made]. When you don’t respond to the person that’s calling you out, it looks like you lost already. And 50 never stopped. Not only did he go at Ja, he went at the whole Murder Inc. He even went at their street dudes. It wasn’t just 50 going at Murder Inc. It was Tony Yayo, it was Lloyd Banks, it was everybody 50 was involved with.

50 and Ja’s beef was real street beef. Like, I think to this day if they see each other on the wrong block they’re going to get it in. People were getting shot, people were getting stabbed and people were dying during that time. This was a Queens beef that was really nasty. Drake and Meek Mill was just battle rap between those two. [There] aren’t any similarities. Back in the day it was all about violence in beef, it wasn’t just on wax.

Back then, social media wasn’t a factor. I hate to say it, but the Drake-Meek Mill beef pretty much got commercialized. When you have corporations like White Castle tweeting about it, it becomes commercialized.

Photo Credit: Berman Fenelus

Vanessa Satten

Vanessa Satten

Then: Deputy Editor at XXL
Now: Editor-In-Chief at XXL

Back then there were mixtapes on the regular. In 2002 alone G-Unit dropped five tapes. From the skits on the mixtapes—which were hugely valuable because that’s where people would just talk shit—to the actual mixtape covers, whether it was someone holding someone else’s head ripped off their body or standing there with serious guns. Some of the best diss songs back then didn’t become radio hits for the masses; they were almost too vicious for that. And the masses didn’t care. You’d never have brands like Pornhub, Whataburger, Rosetta Stone, chiming in on the beef between Ja and 50. It was in hip-hop’s world and that’s where it lived.

Back then, their outlet was radio or magazine interviews. Radio held a whole bunch more weight than it does now as far as the rappers communicating with each other and talking shit and dropping records. There was no Twitter, but there was more heat and angst in everything. We would have people at their desks with radios on listening in unison and holding their breath for whatever was going to be said or happen next. Who’s going on the air? What are they gonna say? And we would tape the radio interviews to listen to them over and over again so we could take notes from there to write about it or interview the rappers.

It was just more exciting; something happened almost every day. Everybody felt like there was something exciting going on. Mostly musical, but there was always the idea or feeling that it could potentially be more. Remember, you had crews back then too; the outlet wasn’t just 50. So you if you jumped on 50, G-Unit all jumped back. You didn’t really see that with Meek and Maybach Music Group.

The mainstream destroyed the Meek and Drake beef, to a degree, because the mainstream mostly made fun of it. It becomes this joke that everyone is laughing at rather than what you could get out of a hip-hop beef, which is some really strong music and very competitive lyrical content. It’s a change in hip-hop itself, as well as the artists.

There was nothing like the amount of music and crazy moments that came out of the G-Unit and Murder Inc. beef. As a hip-hop fan, that was exciting. You didn’t want them to kill each other, but you saw that they all stuck to their game. You don’t want to say you need violence to get good beefs; that’s not right. But those beefs were rooted in something deeper. The comparison to Drake vs. Meek isn’t fair. Just imagine the tweets that the guys would have written to each other back then. Imagine the comments and Instagram videos. It would have been insane. We got a minuscule taste of it that night of Drake’s OVO Fest. Even later how we all waited online for Drake to drop the alleged other diss record “3 Peat” but that never happened and it all ran out of gas. Probably for the best.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

50 Cent

In the 10-plus years since G-Unit and Murder Inc.’s beef, hip-hop has drastically changed. The rise of the Internet, most specifically Twitter, Instagram and the rest of social media, has altered the way fans interact with artists and the way rappers release and consume music, leaving the idea of a long-festering beef like 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule seemingly in the past.

If the knee-jerk reaction of rap fans and non-rap fans on social media was to compare Drake’s two-week sparring match with Meek Mill to 50 and Ja’s years-long feud, each of the writers, editors and radio DJs covering hip-hop then, who spoke for this piece, rejected the idea entirely. Much of the reasoning seems obvious now; whether Meek’s issue was that Drake didn’t promote Meek’s album or that Drizzy doesn’t write his own rhymes, the beef doesn’t nearly compare to the depth of the animosity between Fif and Ja. And while Drake’s calculated moves recall 50’s laser focus and merciless attacks on Ja and Murder Inc., laughing at a collection of memes blown up on a projection screen is just one element of what 50 would have had in his arsenal.

Instead, it’s the change over the course of the past decade-plus that winds up as the most interesting part about revisiting 50 Cent’s battle with Ja Rule, whether in how beefs are conducted or how they are consumed. Today’s rapid-fire social media responses mean that a feud between two rap stars can be over before it really has time to go anywhere, while Twitter and Instagram can allow mainstream brands to come in and make jokes at hip-hop’s expense. Hip-hop’s embrace of the mainstream, too, means that rappers can be more concerned with maximizing their cash flow rather than engaging in a lyrical face-off. Beef might not ever truly disappear from hip-hop, but things done changed.