Since its inception, hip-hop has been overwhelmingly concerned with the purity of its narrative – the pioneer versus the swagger jacker. Inevitably, this has led to a long list of storied old timers hitting out at young pretenders to the throne; when legendary producer Pete Rock expressed his distaste for Lil B acolyte Lil Yachty, it wasn’t a surprise. Hugh Leask investigates three decades of intergenerational rap beef.
When Lil Yachty revealed earlier this summer that he couldn’t name five songs by 2Pac or The Notorious B.I.G., older rap listeners bristled at the Atlanta upstart’s apparent disrespect towards two icons of hip-hop.
The eyebrow-raising admission came after Lil Uzi Vert’s spat with Hot 97 host Ebro Darden in February, when the rising Philly star refused to rap over DJ Premier’s ‘Mass Appeal’ instrumental, dismissing the 1994 standard as “old beats”. The antagonism flared up again recently when TDE rapper Ab Soul had a pop at Uzi for passing on Primo’s work – though the one-time Gang Starr producer himself struck an altogether more conciliatory tone on Twitter. Then, just this month, renowned East Coast producer Pete Rock got into social media strife with Yachty and Young Dolph over the former’s questionable freestyling ability and the latter’s cocaine-referencing rhymes.
Whether these comments from Yachty, Uzi and others represent a playful trolling of hip-hop’s notoriously humourless ‘Four Elements’ set, a casual disinterest in an era they never lived through, or a more conscious rejection of rap’s rulebook is up for debate. Either way, the current disharmony underlines how wide the gulf between hip-hop’s new and old guards has become: the OGs are miffed that the kids haven’t paid their dues in the rap game, while the kids see such criticism as sneering condescension from an older generation stuck in the past.
But while this current fracture feels like a radical departure from previous eras, when artists recorded warm tributes to the genre’s early pioneers (2Pac’s ‘Old School’, say, or Jay Z’s Cold Crush Brothers salute on ‘Izzo’), a delve into hip-hop’s history books shows that rappers have been firing verbal shots across generational lines for decades.
Kool Moe Dee vs LL Cool J
There may have just been a few years between them, but Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J very much represented rap’s splintering old and new schools in the mid ‘80s. Moe Dee was among the pioneering first wave of MCs, almost single-handedly changing the game with his evisceration of Busy Bee at Harlem World back in 1981. LL, meanwhile, was a standard bearer for hip-hop’s trailblazing new era.
So when the former accused the latter of stealing his rhyme style, a flurry of classic on-wax disses ensued: Moe Dee’s ‘How Ya Like Me Now’, ‘Let’s Go’, and ‘Death Blow’; LL’s ‘Jack The Ripper’ and ‘To Da Break Of Dawn’. According to Ego Trip’s Book Of Rap Lists, the pair nearly squared off on stage in ‘88 when the brash young Queens kid showed up at Moe Dee’s show in St. Louis – only to hightail it when Moe Dee challenged him to a battle. But while Moe Dee was always the technically superior MC (although often hamstrung by some tinny beats), LL’s staying power saw him triumph in the end.
LL Cool J vs Canibus
It’s a point that’s long been forgotten, but Canibus was rap’s hottest emerging prospect in 1997, lighting up radio spots and mixtape freestyles with a series of blistering guest verses. Yet when he dropped by on LL’s ‘4,3,2,1’, a line in reference to the Queens legend’s microphone tattoo (“L, is that a mic on your arm? Let me borrow that!”) offended Cool J, who’d already advised Canibus not to use the line. “The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers,” the Def Jam mainstay responded, adding: “You don’t wanna borrow that, you wanna idolize.”
Canibus’ Mike Tyson-featuring comeback, ‘Second Round Knockout’, was well received, but a handful of ill-advised lines (“You ain’t got the skills to eat a nigga’s ass like me”) meant LL’s reply, ‘The Ripper Strikes Back’, practically wrote itself. LL’s “99% of your fans don’t exist” zinger proved particularly on-point, as Canibus’ debut album flopped and he subsequently faded from view.
KRS-One vs Nelly
KRS-One established his battle rap pedigree during the savage late ‘80s Bridge Wars against MC Shan and the Juice Crew. But since then, the Boogie Down Productions linchpin has tended to pick easier targets. A decade after he famously threw PM Dawn’s harmless frontman Prince Be (RIP) off the stage at New York’s Sound Factory (a move which rather contradicted BDP’s ‘Stop The Violence’ movement), KRS took issue with lightweight pop rapper Nelly.
Pitching himself as the defender of “real hip-hop”, KRS urged a boycott of the St Louis star’s 2002 Nellyville LP, throwing a few acne-related disses Nelly’s way for good measure. But rap’s early 2000s commercial boom had reshaped the genre’s landscape entirely, and KRS-One’s streets-versus-the-charts proposition felt archaic. Looking back, the squabble offered the first hint that the Blastmaster – well past his prime by this point – was losing his focus; his recent ill-judged defence of Afrika Bambaataa has done little to change that impression.
Ice-T vs Soulja Boy
“Fuck Soulja Boy, eat a dick!” Ice-T eloquently announced in 2008, claiming the exuberant ‘Crank That’ rapper had “single-handedly killed hip-hop”. In response, Soulja Boy noted how Ice had gone from taking shots at the police in his music (erroneously attributing NWA’s ‘Fuck The Police’ to Ice-T) to playing an NYPD detective on Law And Order: Special Victims Unit.
After suggesting Soulja Boy also contributed to an overall lowering of rap’s lyrical standards, Ice-T took a deep dive into the science of rhyming with The Art Of Rap documentary in 2012. Meanwhile, Soulja Boy’s rep has been rehabilitated to an extent, as time has revealed the considerable influence of not only his DIY, internet-first approach but also his bare-bones production style.
Lord Finesse vs Mac Miller
When Mac Miller agreed to settle a $10 million copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Lord Finesse, it seemed a very un-hip-hop conclusion to a beef that recalled that perennial old school rap battle staple: the beat-biting accusation.
Miller had used the instrumental of Finesse’s 1995 track ‘Hip 2 Da Game’ for his own 2010 song ‘Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza’, a move the Bronx-based producer/rapper complained was copyright infringement. A touch ironic, some might argue, given the Funky Technician built his whole beatmaking rep by sampling other people’s work, a craft reflected in the very name of his crew: Diggin’ In The Crates.
Lil’ Kim vs Nicki Minaj
After Kim issued her controversy-courting debut LP Hardcore in ’96, its risqué rhymes, porn theatre skits and soft-focus Playboy-homage cover flipped the script on the image of the female rapper following the Lyte- and Latifah-led early ‘90s.
So when Nicki Minaj surfaced with an equally bawdy style which, despite the generation gap, owed a heavy stylistic debt to the one-time Notorious B.I.G. protégé, it seemed a clash was inevitable. From Kim’s 2011 ‘Black Friday’ diss (delivered over Pharoahe Monch’s ‘90s staple ‘Simon Says’) to Nicki’s “Don’t give up on your dreams” jab at the 2015 BET Awards, the pair have traded insults for years.
NORE vs Vince Staples
After Vince Staples locked his lyrical crosshairs on crooked cops with tracks likes ‘Hands Up’, his militant perspective has resonated with many older listeners who see his material as a modern reboot of the abrasive anti-police polemics advanced by earlier West Coast firebrands such as Ice Cube and Paris. But when Vince dismissed ‘90s hip-hop as “overrated” in October 2015, a few heads from that era took umbrage at the rejection. Queensbridge mainstay Noreaga promptly slapped the Long Beach rapper down on Twitter, as Staples – who was backed by Tyler, The Creator – hit back: “Niggas will shit on you because you aren’t infatuated with their era of music then wonder why you don’t rock with they old ass.”
It proved a major flashpoint in the current generational fissure, and one of the first explicit realisations that the recognised rap classics of the 1990s now carry far less weight among younger listeners. It was also an uncomfortable confirmation for hip-hop’s elder gatekeepers that, from the perspective of today’s artists, the revered Golden Age isn’t so much a fading memory but rather a time they never actually knew in the first place.
Joe Budden vs Drake
Drake’s broad appeal beyond strictly hip-hop circles, and, of course, the whole Degrassi thing has made the Canadian superstar the subject of derision among rap purists for years. But given the unwavering support of his millions of fans on social media it’s obvious that any rapper looking to beef with Drake is embarking on a hazardous endeavour. Just ask Meek Mill.
Yet the unfolding war of words between Joe Budden and the OVO chief has at least thrown up a few mirthful moments: namely, the cameraphone clip of Budden chasing two of Drizzy’s followers off his property, and the amusing line-by-line breakdown of the Toronto star’s jabs at Puffy, Meek Mill and Budden himself on ‘4PM in Calabasas’ in Episode #68 of I’ll Name This Podcast Later.
Pete Rock vs Lil Yachty
Lil Yachty has subtly seized the spotlight in 2016, his expert trolling of traditionalists pushing him into places his quirky post-Lil B croon couldn’t quite reach. In June, his iffy Hot 97 freestyle drew the ire of plenty of rap true schoolers, peaking with a depressing back-and-forth with Pete Rock.
The Soul Brother #1 – a legendary producer whose heavyweight resume is stacked with bona fide classics – really shouldn’t need to pick fights with a 19-year-old who has more in common with CL than with CL Smooth. To put this into perspective – when Lil Yachty was born, Pete Rock’s seminal Mecca and the Soul Brother had already been out for five years.
Their recent social media spat, which also drew in Young Dolph, appears to have settled for now, with the Boatman rowing back (so to speak) from his initial “fuck a Pete Rock” tweet. Still, Yachty’s status as the hip-hop cognoscenti’s current anathema is confirmed, and any prospect of a ‘Yacht Rock’ collabo between the pair seems rather distant at this point.
Hugh Leask is on Twitter.