Hip-Hop: Where’s the Beef?

The mainstreaming of hip-hop culture ruined one of the genre's defining traditions: the battle.

Jay-Z and Kanye West (Getty Images)
Jay-Z and Kanye West (Getty Images)

There was a time when “beef” among rappers captivated hip-hop fans. In 1986, when KRS-One released “The Bridge Is Over,” taking aim at his Queens, N.Y., rivals MC Shan and Marley Marl, it not only jump-started his career but also became a staple in any DJ’s repertoire. Other beefs, such as Roxanne Shante vs. UTFO, Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J, Ice Cube vs. NWA and more were integral in building the culture and produced timeless records. Hip-hop was a competitive sport, and microphone supremacy was won on wax.

Fast-forward a few decades. On the heels of the release of the much hyped Jay-Z and Kanye West track “Otis,” the second single from their anticipated collaborative album, Watch the Throne, rival emcee Game went on the attack with the quickly put-together Uncle Otis.” According to Game, the song, which features barbs like “n–gas think they coldest, but n–ga you just the oldest,” was just about him having fun. For the fans listening, it drew exasperated sighs and expletives.

It’s not 1986 anymore. The more hip-hop stars such as Jay-Z and Ludacris spend time hobnobbing with the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the more the potential benefits of being involved in a battle of ego and machismo with Lil Wayne or Young Jeezy start to dwindle. West has less incentive to respond to Consequences recent attacks when he’s courting invitations to Fashion Week in Paris. As the world more readily embraces hip-hop, hip-hop embraces less of itself.

Rappers are nothing if not business-minded, and they are more conscious than ever that keeping their stock prices high depends on how acceptable they are in “polite” society. Dissing rival emcees and crews doesn’t fit into a sound business plan anymore. Battles have become a niche market that continues in small venues, but emcees with corporate record deals and endorsements will rarely engage. This is what 2011 hip-hop looks like.

But for a large portion of today’s adult hip-hop fan base, their first musical memory is of feuding rappers. The infamous East Coast vs. West Coast beef, led by the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in the 1990s, was a polarizing and dramatic moment in hip-hop’s history that ultimately turned violent and resulted in the deaths of two of rap’s brightest stars.

For a time afterward, beef slowed down, with many emcees working to mend their differences and work together to show unity. Aside from the LL Cool J vs. Canibus feud in 1998, the period after Biggie’s and Tupac’s deaths was relatively beef-free.