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 Consequence's 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.
After Jay-Z and Nas proved that the animosity didn't have to spill over into the streets, it gave the rest of the hip-hop nation the all clear to beef at will. No one exploited this opening more than rap's biggest troublemaker, 50 Cent.
The rapper started his career making enemies with his 1999 record "How to Rob," in which he named dozens of fellow emcees and detailed how he would go about robbing them. He was forced into a rap sabbatical after being shot nine times in May 2000 but picked up where he left off when he resurfaced in 2002.
His highly publicized but often one-sided feud with chart-topping rapper Ja Rule helped propel 50's popularity while turning public opinion against Ja Rule and effectively ending his career. But 50 didn't stop there. In the next few years, he released a dis track for pretty much any rapper with a record deal, his main targets being Nas, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Cam'Ron and former protégé Game.
It wasn't just 50 Cent spreading the disharmony, though. From 2002 to 2006, if one were to diagram the known feuds among rappers into a flow chart, it would have been more frustrating than the debt-ceiling debate. Among those involved in notable battles were KRS-One, Nelly, T.I., Ludacris, Lil' Flip, Freeway, Beanie Sigel, Styles P, Eminem, Jermaine Dupri, Dr. Dre, Jim Jones — and the list goes on.
Everyone was beefing with everyone, and the market became oversaturated with beef. After a while, the fans started to find it petty and little more than a gimmick used to generate buzz when an artist was preparing to release a new project and push sales. Interest in the increasingly mundane spats between rappers waned tremendously. In 2009, when 50 Cent (again) went on the offensive in an attempt to curtail budding star Rick Ross' appeal, Ross simply ignored his way into a victory.
Newcomers Wale and Kid Cudi got into a war of words that started in the pages of Complex magazine and dissolved within a matter of days. Then late last year and into the beginning of 2011, Lil' Kim set her sights on the red-hot Nicki Minaj and left everyone within earshot asking, "What's the point?"
Is this a sign of hip-hop "growing up"? Maybe. But it's more the result of the law of diminishing returns: The more beef consumers are provided, the less appealing it becomes. As hip-hop has become more ingrained in pop culture, it has continued to lose its edge and sense of rebellion. Working together on collaborations yields bigger exposure and profits than releasing dis tracks. The loss of beef is a casualty of hip-hop's success.
Of course, this could change, as culture is wont to do. This is hip-hop, after all, and as Big Daddy Kane once warned: "Sucka MCs, it's a must that I dis you."
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.