World War of Words

As Battles Turn Complicated, Murder Remains Bigger Than Hip-Hop

It was the news that shocked the hip-hop nation. The night of October 30, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, one-third of the genre-shaping rap group Run-D.M.C., was found dead—shot in the head at point-blank range. As with the controversial murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, the mainstream media began looking to the music for clues. Police revealed that they had evidence that another rapper's life was also in danger; they feared that Jay's murder might have been meant as a message to his protégé, 50 Cent. The sluggish murder investigation has prompted the likes of Puff Daddy and Russell Simmons to plead with the public to come forward with any information. Recent reports point to a drug deal gone wrong and name as a suspect Curtis Scoon, a man said to have been feuding with Jam Master Jay over $15,000 in lost drug money from eight years ago. Officially, police would not release any information; at press time, Scoon has not been arrested. "If anything has materialized," said one police spokesperson, "it hasn't been anything substantial."

In another turn of events, a SWAT team invaded Suge Knight's offices (Tha Row Records) last week to collect one of 17 warrants for alleged crimes ranging for homicide to conspiracy to commit murder. Though published reports say Knight is not wanted, many are wondering if there is any association with Tupac and B.I.G.

Bill O'Reilly, Fox News' conservative talk show host, has wasted no time jumping on the blame bandwagon. "The (O'Reilly) Factor has been telling you for years that the world of rap and hip-hop is full of dangerous people and harmful messages," said O'Reilly. Never mind that by all accounts, Jam Master Jay's hip-hop life was far from filled with dangerous people or harmful messages.

Mizell's death, coupled with a recent Los Angeles Times article that charges B.I.G. with orchestrating Tupac's death, has further polarized the hip-hop nation and the mainstream media. But before the hip-hop community begins to fight battles outside of the culture, there are wars to be won on the home front.

This year, battles plagued rap—some just superficial verbal jabs and others deep-seated rivalries: Jermaine Dupri vs. Dr. Dre (producers' peeve); KRS-One vs. Nelly (ol' school underground vs. new jack commercialism); Ja Rule vs. DMX (who's biting who?); and Snoop Dogg vs. his former label head, Suge Knight (David and Goliath). 'Pac and B.I.G.'s deaths, for a time, necessitated an unofficial truce. But rap has once again returned to verbal shoot-outs, and messages are mixed about whether this is just for the sake of a good battle, or if more blood will be spilled as a result.

The most notable wax war—the one that broke the wall of silence—stemmed from two of New York City's most respected MCs. Ugly words were exchanged as Jay-Z and Nas released albums within weeks of each other late last year. Tearing a page out of Tupac's war tactics handbook, Jay-Z went for the jugular, claiming he'd had sex with the mother of Nas's daughter. (Tupac had made repeated claims that he and B.I.G.'s wife had an affair.) Jay-Z later apologized for "going too far." Nas planned to hang a Jay-Z effigy onstage at Hot 97's "Summer Jam" concert this summer. When his plans were uncovered and prohibited, he refused to perform.

But since the Jay-Z-Nas conflict has died down, a slew of battles has offered more reasons for concern. In 1999, Ja Rule and 50 Cent came to blows in Atlanta. In 2000, during a scuffle at NYC's Hit Factory, Ja Rule, or members of his team, allegedly stabbed 50 Cent.

Meanwhile, a quiet rivalry between Ja Rule and DMX, his Def Jam labelmate, has been steadily progressing. Each has been criticized and commended for evoking Tupac-style emotion. And early in his career, Ja Rule was often mistaken for a DMX protégé—or clone. Ja Rule wasn't happy living in the shadows, and in a March 2001 Source interview, he decided to set the record straight, explaining that Def Jam had originally wanted to sign him; when he wasn't available, they settled for DMX.

A brutal, highly personal battle has ensued. DMX's "Do You," a high-energy single that admonished someone to stop following his lead, was widely believed to be aimed at Ja Rule. Ja Rule's new "F**k With Us" turns the light on rumors of DMX's drug addiction: "Your problem ain't really with me/It's with them drugs/Now you have lost a good n***a, DMX/One love."

With the global hood shrinking and more news outlets probing into the private lives of hip-hop artists, opportunities for rappers to dig up personal information about foes have fueled their fiery battles. "It was once good for rap to show lyrical skills, but it's beyond that now," says AZ, the rapper who stamped Nas's critically acclaimed 1994 debut, Illmatic, with a verse since considered classic. "It's harmful. With all the intensity and blatant disrespect, somebody's going to get their head taken off. And that's gonna set us six years back."

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