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Dodging a Bullet: How Nas and Jay-Z survived the Deadly Game of Rap Feuds

by admin on November 22, 2012

When one thinks of rivalries in Rap music, images of Tupac “2pac” Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s gruesome murders spring immediately to mind. Their deadly rivalry, started by an alleged hit B.I.G. put out on 2pac, was brought to the public eye through threat-filled lyrics and personal attacks. The feud resulted in three horrific murders (those of 2pac and Notorious, and that of Yaki Kadhafi, a member of 2pac’s crew “Outlawz,” who was rumored to know who killed Shakur). Almost five years later, two more of rap’s heavyweights would become entrenched in a similarly heated rivalry. The second feud involved New York rappers Sean Carter a.k.a “Jay-Z” and Nasir “Nas” Jones. The rivalry started when Jay-Z used a sample from Nas’s song “The World is Yours”” in his song “Dead Presidents.” There was already a competition between the rappers over who was the “King of New York,” but the use of Nas’s sample created bad blood between them. The MC’s proceeded to make “diss tracks”: songs filled with violent and hurtful rhetoric used to disrespect another person or crew. Once again, a falling out between friends quickly escalated into full blown hatred. This rivalry, however, had a drastically different end result from that of Biggie and 2pac.

Pac and Biggie’s beef was filled with hate-fueled songs directed at one another. 2pac’s song “Hit ‘em Up,” he talks about sleeping with Biggie’s wife Faith Evans, and then threatens rapper Lil’ Cease with the line “go ask your homies how I’ll leave you, cut your young ass up, leave you in pieces, you’ll be deceased.” Unfazed by personal insults and threats of dismembering his friends, Biggie responded in his song “Who Shot Ya?” with lines like “Neighbors called the cops said they heard mad shots… Slaughter, electrical tape around your daughter.” Like Pac and Biggie, Nas and Jay-Z also utilized dis tracks to voice their hatred for one another.  In his song “Super Ugly” Jay-Z explicitly describes an alleged sexual encounter with the mother of Nas’s child, and adding low blows such as “Skeeted in your jeep, left condoms on your baby seat.” In his song “Ether,” Nas responded with lines such as “Semi-autos at your cartilage, burner to the side of your dome, come outta my throne.” These and other boastful lyrics—par for the course in rap music—would appear to be superficially similar.  Why then, if the feud between Carter and Jones shared similarities with that of rap’s deceased heavyweights, did it not end in the same violent fashion?

To answer this complicated question one must first examine the concept of territory in rap music. As early as 1988, Nelson George was writing that “Rap has gone national and is in the process of going regional.” Once rap spread outside of New York, rappers and DJs began glorifying their own hometowns while insulting the origins of others, which eventually led to what Murray Foreman has called “a decade-long antagonism between East and West coast rap that has too frequently proven that the gangster themes comprising the lyrical content are based in more than mere lip service or masculine posturing.” In other words, aggressive and violent lyrics in rappers songs were more than just talk. Being raised in ghettos, rappers were exposed to, and therefore prone to commit, violence and frequently did so (Jay-Z pleaded guilty to a stabbing in 1999 and Philadelphia-based rapper Cool C shot and killed a police officer in 1996). Violent lyrics were usually aimed towards rappers from other regions, but soon grew to include rappers who represented the same city. Thus Foreman would extend Nelson George’s observation to argue that “rap, having gone regional, is in the process of going local.” This process is clearly at work in the rivalry between Nas and Jay-Z. However, because the rappers were from New York (Nas represented the Queensbridge Projects, and Jay-Z represented Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects), less national attention was brought to the beef and less people became involved. With Biggie and 2pac’s beef, they represented East and West; therefore every fan of rap was taking sides based on geographical affiliation.

Perhaps the most vital factor in the differing outcomes was the attitudes of the rappers involved. Nas and Jay-Z were both making money rapidly, with Carter launching his own clothing line. It was in these rappers’ best interests to stay alive. On the contrary, 2pac and Biggie seemingly had little regard for their own lives. Biggie had an album entitled Ready to Die and detailed his own suicide in the song “Suicidal Thoughts,” whereas 2pac constantly predicted his early death and described himself as “hopeless.” We all know how these stories ended: Nas and Jay-Z reconciled, formally announcing it to the public by performing together at one of Jay’s shows. Luckily for Nas, Jay-Z and rap fans everywhere, their feud never escalated past threats and insults. 2pac and Biggie’s beef unfortunately took the opposite route. These contrasting rivalries in rap show us how senses of place can affect the combative nature of rap; in some cases it leads to violence, while in others it can be controlled and resolved peacefully.

by Harrison Johnston

Works Cited

Murray Forman, “‘Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music,” Popular Music, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2000), pp. 65-90.

George, Nelson.  1992. Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture (New  York)

_____., 1993. ‘Hip-hop’s  founding  fathers speak  the truth’, The Source, November

Danusha Chenchik November 26, 2012 at 9:18 pm

I thought this was a really interesting piece of writing, the intro really grabbed my attention, much more than most other pieces would. Also I never really knew, to what extent, how rappers would insult and threaten each other in their songs. I’m surprised that their record companies let them release songs with those kind of lyrics. I would like to know though in more detail about how exactly Jay-Z and Nas solved their rivalry with each other. There must be more to the story than them figuring out that they are rich.

Casey Murphey November 22, 2012 at 3:44 pm

This article was a very powerful piece of writing to me. You really demonstrated the hatred between all sides of every battle. I also liked the videos of all of the songs that were used in the violent rivalries. The video of “Who Shot Ya” was especially disturbing. The lyrics were threatening. Your introduction was spot on, it immediately caught my attention.
One thing I would change would be to describe how combative rivalries can be solved peacefully. Your last sentence leaves the the reader with a curious question.
Otherwise, this article was very well written.

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