The fallout from the 2012 Hot 97 Summer Jam debacle seems to have made everyone forget that the annual event has always been a breeding ground for controversy. A not so subtle reminder came last week when a troubling featurette surfaced online. In it, a Special Makeup FX artist was preparing an animatronic of Jay-Z at the behest of Nas. During Nas’ set at the 2002 Hot 97 Summer Jam, the animatronic was to be placed on gallows and hung, possibly to the delight of many in attendance. Roc-A-Fella caught wind of Nas stunt, and pressured Hot 97 not to allow it. Nas subsequently pulled out of the Summer Jam lineup. Keep in mind this was six months after “Takeover,” “Ether,” and “Super Ugly” had come out.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time that beef has been taken to theatrical extremes. However, something about Nas attempting a mock lynching of his rival at the biggest Hip-Hop concert in the world (and commissioning a white guy to help him do it) crosses a line. Not that Jay-Z is innocent, as the vile imagery of “Super Ugly” even turned his own mom against him. But it seems that in the last 16 years, Rap beef has taken an ugly turn that goes beyond the boundaries of grand theater and into the realm of vicious defamation. Had Hot 97 not stepped in, who knows how far the fued would have gone, or what the effect would have been on either rapper’s career? This begs the question, is there such a thing as going too far when it comes to rap beef?
Beef, in the modern sense, doesn’t begin with Kool Moe Dee and Chief Rocker Busy Bee at Harlem World. It begins with a fearsome declaration of war entitled “Hit ‘Em Up.” So venomous was that record, that its reverberations can still be felt today. B.I.G fans and old school New Yorkers still cringe at its very mention. Throughout the song, 2Pac strategically took his enemy apart. It played like a highlight reel of low blows. He claimed to have slept to B.I.G’s wife, and questioned B.I.G’s player credentials. He also took aim others in the same vicinity. He made sport of Prodigy’s cycle cell condition. He even issued death threats, and taunted any would be opponent to test his wrath. The song was unbridled rage, consisting not only of verses and egotistical rants. For better or worse, it changed the game.
The laundry list of supposed low blows was not seen as such by Tupac’s public. His fans, many of whom lived outside of the New York tri-state area, welcomed both the song and its poisonous sentiment with open arms. Even within the five boroughs, Pac’s heartlessness seemed to engender both admiration and respect. The public reaction to the song only prompted Pac further, even when it became clear that B.I.G had no interest in engaging him. Pac’s desires seemed to mirror that of Conan the Barbarian. In the 1982 film, when asked what is best in life, Conan replied,“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”
As damaging as “Hit ‘Em Up” proved to be for the east coast, east coast rappers adapted to it the most. Beefs between New York rappers seemed to take on a new mean-spirited edge in it’s the wake. Its influence could definitely be seen in 50 Cent, who is an unabashed Pac fan. 50 borrowed much from Pac’s playbook. Their backstories seem to have many similarities, from failed assassination attempts to public feuds with former colleagues. So close was 50’s approach to Pac’s that it could be considered 2Pac lite.
50 penned disses at an assembly line pace, using “Hit Em Up” as his template. However, he intentionally left out a key ingredient: venom. 50 may clown you mercilessly, but he does so with a smile and even a bit of playfulness. Still, his glee at watching the downfall of his enemies was clear. He wasn’t out to win a game of the dozens, or merely to generate controversy. He meant to destroy his opponent both publically and professionally. His victory was to be absolute.
This tendency was also evident in the Jay-Z/Nas feud. Years of subliminals manifested themselves into a handful of scathing diss records. “Takeover” focused solely on the stats as they pertained to Nas career. “Ether” was a parade of childish but effective insults. The latter was clearly powered by a certain understated emotion. Nas was incensed to the point that he went for the jugular. Showing the influence that Pac had on the song, Makaveli’s voice is even looped on the intro, saying “Fuck Jay-Z!”
The irony in that is that Pac had no love for either artist, or so he proclaimed. Either way, “Ether” had the intended effect. The public was so shocked that Nas actually struck back that he was proclaimed the winner. At this point, Jay decided to take the gloves completely off. “Super Ugly” employed nauseating imagery, and brought Carmen into the conversation. This may have been the main factor in Nas decision to hold a mock lynching.
In charting the course of NY rap battles over the past 16 years, it’s clear to anyone with a brain that something has changed. In the thirteen years prior to Hit Em Up, battles played more like a game of the dozens. Once Pac showed that the public was ready for something a bit meaner, other rappers took notes. The mock lynching that never was would likely never have been conceived without it. In the ten years since that non-event, Pusha-T and Common have made notable efforts to reignite Hip-Hop’s oldest tradition. Again, their respective disses show the influence of Mr. Shakur, especially the latter.“Exodus 23:1” is dark and brooding. It’s undeniably effective, but lacks any sense of fun. Pusha clearly means to tear down the house that is YMCMB.
I can’t help but to wonder to myself if this course of action is wise. Beef may indeed be an essential part of Hip-Hop, but does it have to be so serious? As much as people celebrate the legacy of “Hit Em Up,” they seem to forget one minor but telling detail: it got its maker murked.
When the artists themselves can no longer tell fantasy from reality, the grand theater that is Hip-Hop beef stops being fun, at least for me. Nas attempted mock lynching of Jay-Z made one thing clear. At some point, things got all too real for him. A man’s got to know his limitations. Even for Hip-Hop, there is always a line.
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