Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
S3:E14 – What Makes Hip Hop, Hip Hop? – Part 2
I’ve been using the terms “hip hop” and “rap” interchangeably, as a lot of folks do.
However, there’s a distinction.
Hip hop is an entire culture, made up of DJ-ing, rapping, break dancing, and graffiti.
Rap is only the music portion of hip hop. It’s what I’ll concentrate on here.
In Part 1, we went over how DJ Kool Herc invented the merry go round turntable technique and that people started rapping over it.
Rapping didn’t just happen out of the blue.
Improvised rhyming goes way back. We know it was done in the West African countries, to pass history and news to other communities and generations.
This work was done by entertainers known as griots.
They were usually the tribal elders, those with the longest memories.
They told the true stories of their people, without embellishment, through music and poetry.
The griot’s role was respected and necessary in cultures that didn’t have the written word. Though most read and write today, the griot’s importance in each tribe continues. Without them, centuries of tribal history and culture would have been lost.
In the West Indies, improvised rhyming in the form of insults became popular.
Known as picong or piquant, these good natured back-and-forths are the precursor to hip hop’s rap battles.
Picong duels were rarely recorded. But in 1957, an album was released in Trinidad and Tobago, capturing “Lord Melody” battling “The Mighty Sparrow.” The album it comes from, Calypso Kings and Pink Gin, is a classic in Caribbean music.
In the United States, African American kids would play “the dozens.” This is a game of two people humorously insulting each other in front of an audience.
Often done for fun in parks or on front stoops, the topics open for insult include the opponents’ appearance or physical characteristics, economic status, clothing choices, and family members. This is where “your mama” jokes come from.
“Your mama’s so skinny you could blindfold her with dental floss.”
Like puppies play fighting, the dozens teaches fast thinking, wordplay, verbal self-defense, and how to take insults in stride.
That is, when everyone plays nice.
It wasn’t long after hip hop’s inception that insults made their way into rap.
Remember, some early rap songs were braggadocious, with the rapper telling the world how great he was.
This is what happened at the Harlem World Christmas celebration in 1981.
In a rap contest, Busy Bee Starski rhymed about how the trophy was already his and no one else in the room could beat him.
For some reason, celebrity host Kool Moe Dee thought this crossed the line. So he entered himself in the contest and went on last.
Unlike the other rappers who each talked about their own greatness, he went after Busy Bee by name, accusing him of buying his rhymes from other rappers and calling him Busy Wannabe.
Maybe it was Kool Moe Dee who crossed the line. But once a line is crossed, it’s just a matter of time before the next one is crossed, too.
An entire subgenre of rap was born that night. Now known as the diss track, it’s a song based entirely on talking smack about someone else in the scene. We’ll get there momentarily.
Kool Moe Dee’s rap became the stuff of legend. In no time, the dozens were replaced by rap battles. The good natured party vibe of the dozens made way for more aggressive, grittier, nastier insults. Battles would happen on street corners, parks, anywhere that could hold a crowd.
People started organizing rap battles where competitors could win trophies, bragging rights, and cash.
HBO had a series called Blaze Battle, MTV had one called MC Battle, and BET had 106 and Park.
In 2002, an editor known as Smack White started a quarterly video magazine called Smack DVD. Each issue included freestyle performances and interviews with top tier rappers, but by far its most popular feature was footage of rap battles. White heard from subscribers that they would skip over everything to watch the battles first.
Eventually, he made rap battles into a professional sport.
He started the Ultimate Rap League or URL. Competitors often participate in the sport, but don’t necessarily release music. Rap battles are now a separate entity from rap music.
Insulting rival MCs in songs, however, continues. Rappers disrespect someone else in song, which brings a response known as an answer song. Usually that’s the end of it, with just one diss song answering another.
But in 1984, a diss song brought at least 30, and possibly 100 depending on who’s counting, answer songs.
A group called U.T.F.O. released a song called Roxanne, Roxanne and it became pretty popular. It’s about an imaginary woman named, of course, Roxanne who turns down all the rappers’ advances.
U.T.F.O. backed out of a promotion deal with Marley Marl, a producer and manager.
He talked about his disappointment with a friend on a sidewalk and was overheard by Lolita Shanté Gooden, a precocious and talented 14-year-old with big ambitions.
She approached Marly and suggested she record a reply to Roxanne, Roxanne to get a little revenge on U.T.F.O.
They took the instrumental version of Roxanne, Roxanne and, as legend has it, Gooden improvised a rap over it in one take. She used the name Roxanne Shanté and they called the song Roxanne’s Revenge. In a flash, it was all over New York City.
U.T.F.O. recognized how clever Shanté was to pretend their song was about her. They responded with an answer song they wrote in which they claimed someone else was the real Roxanne.
The song was called, naturally, The Real Roxanne.
They hired a rapper named Elease Jack to pretend to be Roxanne and the song was a hit all over the country, not just in New York.
By doing so, U.T.F.O. managed to pull the narrative back into their control, and gain some popularity in the process. However, they didn’t credit Elease on the track and she soon had a falling out with them. U.T.F.O. replaced her with Adelaida Martinez who took on the Roxanne persona for years, despite having nothing to do with the making of The Real Roxanne.
By that point, everyone wanted in on the action.
By the end of 1985, there were at least 25 songs taking one side or the other in the Roxanne wars.
Some people claimed to be Roxanne’s parents, siblings, and friends. One claimed to be her doctor. Both U.T.F.O. and Shanté released more songs that perpetuated the beef.
A beef, in rap terminology, is a grudge, argument, or disagreement between two people. It can be in the form of diss tracks, or it can be far more serious than a simple rap battle.
Some famous rap beefs were between Dr. Dre and Uncle Luke, Ice Cube and Common, 50 Cent and Kanye West or 50 Cent and Ja Rule, and Jay-Z and Nas.
But the most famous beef was between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.
By 1993, Tupac was one of the biggest rappers in the world. Biggie was still working his way up, but Tupac liked and respected him and his material. They became close friends.
They recorded tracks together, and Biggie asked Tupac to manage him.
Biggie was already managed by Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Tupac told him he’d be better off staying with Puffy, and that Puffy would make him a star.
On November 30, 1994, Tupac was on his way to meet Biggie, Puffy, and a rapper they were going to work with called Little Shawn. In the lobby of the building, three men mugged him and tried to take his gold chains. He fought back and one of the men shot him five times.
He survived, but came to believe that Biggie and Puffy set him up. While recovering, he was sentenced to four years in prison on a sexual abuse charge. Shortly after he went to prison, Biggie released a song called Who Shot Ya. He said it was about a beef between drug dealers and had, in fact, recorded it before Tupac’s shooting.
However, it can very easily be read as dissing Tupac, which is what most people assumed, including Tupac himself.
While in prison, Tupac agreed to sign with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, at least in part because Knight said he would pay Tupac’s bail. It was $1.4 million.
Granted, some in the rap community were small-time criminals, but Knight was more like a mafia don. He had money and could make things happen.
Tupac left prison eight months into his four year sentence.
People noticed a change in Tupac after signing with Death Row. He portrayed himself as tougher than anyone else, and released the diss track Hit Em Up in which he tells Biggie and Puffy to watch their backs. He calls them out by name. He even said he had slept with Biggie’s wife, singer Faith Evans.
With the attention Who Shot Ya and Hit Em Up brought to each other, it was no longer just a feud amongst Tupac and Biggie.
Everyone involved — Knight, Puffy, and their crews — and people who weren’t involved at all took sides.
It’s possible they did so following the lead of the Roxanne wars, to get publicity for themselves.
It went from a beef between two rappers to a beef between the East Coast and the West Coast.
Biggie chose to not respond to Hit Em Up. He still considered Tupac to be a friend even though they were having a beef. He thought it best to let things cool down so they could work it out later.
Before that could happen, Tupac was murdered in a drive by shooting outside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Faith Evans said Biggie cried when he heard the news. He had really wanted to patch things up, but rumors quickly spread that he was behind the hit.
In one of his last interviews, Biggie said that with Tupac gone, it was up to him to end the East Coast vs. West Coast beef.
He said the disagreement was between the two of them and it should never have blown up to involve entire sections of the country.
Within six months of Tupac’s death, Biggie Smalls was killed in a similar shooting in Los Angeles.
No one has ever been arrested but police believe Knight hired a gang member named Poochie to kill Biggie. Poochie was killed by another gang member before police could question him.
In 1997, Puffy, then going by the name Puff Daddy, released a tribute song called I’ll Be Missing You. It features Faith Evans, Biggie’s widow, and interpolates The Police’s Every Breath You Take.
It went to #1 in many countries, and seemed to help chill the east coast vs. west coast rivalry.
In 2018, Knight pleaded guilty to a 2015 fatal hit and run and is serving a 28 year sentence. Due to prior convictions, he won’t be eligible for parole until 2034.
This is a simplified version of a very complicated story that includes other relationships, other songs, and other murders that I didn’t go into here. Rappers, body guards, and gang members lost their lives in the East Coast vs. West Coast beef.
None of these people, with the possible exception of Biggie, learned one of the basic lessons of the dozens: how to take insults in stride.
Diss tracks are nothing new:
The Damned wrote Idiot Box after Television refused to play a show with them.
When James Brown sent Joe Tex a telegram saying he could have his ex-wife back, Tex wrote a song called You Keep Her.
Yankee Doodle was sung by British troops mocking the colonist army’s poor appearance.
How it went from the good humored banter of picong to gangland style murders is complicated, pointless, and nearly incomprehensible.
While some rapped about the killing of minorities by police, here were rappers killing each other.
Rapper on rapper violence watered down hip hop’s demands for justice. It gave systemic racism all the cover it needed to continue.
Yet rap continued to grow both artistically and commercially. It influenced other genres and evolved into several distinct and interesting subgenres.
And while the east coast and west coast were feuding, the south and midwest developed their own scenes.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Picong (Duel With Insults At Six Inches)
The Mighty Sparrow vs. The Lord Melody
Busy Bee VS Kool Moe Dee Battle
Kool Moe Dee
The Real Roxanne
The Real Roxanne
Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne, You’re Through)
Who Shot Ya?
The Notorious B.I.G.
Hit Em Up
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