*Sayin' yo momma black, his momma this, his momma that/Then he get mad and wanna scrap/We stay mad about 10 minutes then it's like back on the bike…
— "Back in the Day" by Ahmad
—In middle school, battles for respect weren't decided on dodge ball courts or black asphalt. Back then folks lived or died by the "yo mama" code—vacillating daily between assassination or rebirth, depending on the cleverness of their put-downs. It wasn't a complicated system.
Rappers, these days, are a lot like eighth grade boys. Sure they're battling it out on YouTube and not in front of the monkey bars, but the game remains the same. There's lots of puffy-chested bravado mixed with the kind of sexual bottleneck that makes jokes about eating and tasting each other's body parts somehow more hilarious than—I don't know—homoerotic.
In the past two weeks alone, Soulja Boy has bested Ice T on YouTube, baller and sometime rapper Shaquille O'Neal has creeped out MVP Kobe Bryant and dirty south rapper Young Buck has learned that 50 Cent plays dirty. But it was the "beef" between Ice T and Soulja Boy Tell 'Em that seemed the juiciest. And beneath all the profane bravado, there is a serious debate about hip-hop's future direction and which of its traditions should endure.
"Eff Soulja Boy, eat a dick," growls rapper-slash-actor (raptor?) Ice T on the recently released Urban Legend mixtape, adding that the teenage rapper "single handedly killed hip-hop." The black blogosphere went wild last week over the clash between old school versus new, devouring the 49-year-old gangster's minute-long rap rage against the crankster who turns 18 next month.
"We came all the way from Rakim; we came all the way from Das EFX; we came all the way from [artists] flowing like Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, and you come with that Superman nonsense?"
Ice T doesn't like his hip-hop happy, but he does like it viral. Too bad Soulja Boy's seven-minute-long diss-clip (I can't believe I watched the whole thing) not only made me happy but actually inflicted a different kind of love for the kid who had little white ballerinas sashaying to the verse "superman that hoe."
"[Ice T's] the forefather of my nuts," laughed the teenaged two-step prince while his court jesters, er, friends waited patiently in the background. (Every champion of the dozens needs a hype man or two.) Call me a 12-year-old boy because I was laughing. Forefather? That's just clever vocabulary. It wasn't on Nas-level lexicography, as Kanye West suggested (randomly throwing his two cents in on his personal blog), but definitely giggle-inducing.
The next six minutes dragged on a bit with a few bright spots—"rocking the sherm perm," "think about what you said," and "you oughta be ashamed of yourself." Still from that first minute the damage, or repair, had been done.
Ice T—the guy who inched his way to fame with the protest record "Cop Killer"—was playing a different role. Detective Odafin Tutuola was becoming a caricature of himself: The old "crank that" curmudgeon in an XXL Allen Iverson jersey, shaking his fists at the young bucks.
But what does playing into "all the Internet drama" do, aside from create more of the same? And doesn't the advent of the diss-clip in and of itself represent this new hip-hop "Mr. Ice T, sir" is so adamant about crushing? What's a freestyle battle if not a rapid-fire version of a "yo mama" joke without the mamas (sometimes)?
It's no huge surprise that hip-hop has always been a pious observer of the powers vested in the dozens. Respect on wax is as easily gained as respect on the playground. But, nobody's rummaging through records anymore or even buying CDs (except that new Lil' Wayne), so YouTube is obviously the next available turf.
Still, rappers might be weary of the game because what's hot on the screens one minute is last week's left-over beef.
Helena Andrews covers the nexus of pop culture and politics at Politico.com.