Of course hip hop, giving you more words per bar than any other musical form, elevated the diss song to an art all its own. Before the actual diss song however, there were battle raps. Rappers would face off against each other, spit their best lyrics then wait for another rapper to spit his own in self-defense. Grandmaster Flash does a good job of chronicling these heady days in his autobiography and I’m old enough to remember attending some in person. BET even took to airing a segment called “Freestyle Friday” just to capture the rap battle phenomenon.
Established rappers however, are like nuclear capable countries; nobody’s gonna risk going it hand-to-hand. They all prefer to bomb from a distance.
The modern era of diss records owns its existence to Boogie Down Productions and the 1986 song “South Bronx“. Making an effort to claim the birthright of hip hop after what he’d viewed as a similar attempt by Queens rapper MC Shan, head BDP rapper KRS-One turned the song “South Bronx” into a shot-filled attempt to do just that. And just in case anybody didn’t feel insulted enough, KRS then recorded “The Bridge is Over” which left no doubt as to how he felt about Queensbridge and all its denizens.
Of course, since these recordings and their poorly received responses by MC Shan, there’s been literally thousands of diss records and responses. Some MCs (like 50 Cent) have even made diss songs their staple.
Some of the great diss songs in history have been LL Cool J’s “To Da Break of Dawn“, Tupac’s “Against All Odds” and Nas’ “Ether“-a song so scorching, that its title became a verb synonymous with destruction; as in “you just got ‘Ethered'”.