Diss songs have been around for as long as there’s been recorded music so it’s wrong to think that it’s something that rappers started. Jazz, blues and country stars all took subliminal shots at each other. The Beatles took shots at the Rolling Stones and once they broke up, dissed each other.
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'”.
Friday I watched a clip of rapper The Game dissing Jay-Z and Jay’s wife Beyonce. I remember thinking how going after a wife should be considered “out of bounds” but since Jay himself had gone after Nas through the mother of Nas’ child, nothing was out of bounds. Then I thought of Tupac and Biggie and how it can be argued that each ultimately died because of diss records.
The question becomes then; in making diss records, is there a line you shouldn’t cross?