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Rap contests and battle records have been instrumental in keeping the form moving along. In the movie 8 Mile, Eminem's character, Rabbit, goes toe-to-toe with a bevy of adversaries, taking verbal low blows and serving up some of his own. And every Friday, on BET's 106th & Park, a freestyle competition features two challengers matching wits for 30 seconds each. It is this kind of lyrical sparring that old-schoolers remember.
"The battle between me and MC Shan would have never come to violence," says KRS-One. "The whole reason we were battling was a way to settle disputes within the culture. If it really would have got wild, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation would have stepped in." KRS believes verbal disputes between rappers would not threaten lives if hip-hop had such a leader today.
"Any battles I was involved in were just purely rap battles," recalls L.L. Cool J. "It was just about the art and the sport of hip-hop. It was no different than Michael Jordan trying to dunk on Pat Ewing."
L.L. was noted for his famous battles with Kool Mo Dee around the same time as the legendary battles between KRS-One and MC Shan. Though they did take their battling seriously, they took care to keep them contained onstage and between grooves on wax.
"I don't see anything wrong with competition," says L.L. "I don't want to judge anybody; I've been involved with battles too. I've made albums that are as aggressive as everybody else's out there. However, I do think that it should be left on the records and it should be left as entertainment. You don't have to hurt one another in order to prove that you're real."
When the lyrics touched sore spots in those times, there was little concern among listeners that their favorite rappers could lose their lives. The landscape has since changed as more rappers begin to take sides in what is shaping up to be a hip-hop world war.
Suge Knight has been vocal about his disdain for Snoop and Dr. Dre and, by extension, Xzibit and Eminem. In retaliation, Snoop has recorded "Pimp't Slapped," a scathing dis record calling out Knight. (He raps: "Suge Knight's a bitch and that's on my life/Your rappers and artists, tell 'em shut it up/'Cause I'll fuck every last one of 'em up.")
Nas has formed an unofficial alliance with Irv Gotti's Murder Inc.; Gotti, Knight, and Rap-A-Lot's James Prince are reportedly teaming up to form a record label. (On "The Pledge," from the compilation Irv Gotti Presents . . ., Ja Rule asks, "What up Suge?" before starting his verse.) These extended families can make the hip-hop battles complicated. Gone are the days when choosing sides was easywhoever came up on your end of town or went to your school was your crew. Now bicoastal stepfamilies are making the beefs harder to decipher.
50 Cent thinks Ja Rule's recent connection with Suge Knight is all about choosing teams. "Weak n****s need a crutch," says 50 Cent. "They're trying to align themselves so they're strong enough to go against me." But 50 Cent doesn't want to be defined by his adversaries. "Yeah, me and Ja Rule don't get along, me and Irv Gotti don't get along. But that's not what my career is based on."
50 Cent has his share of enemies. After releasing "How to Rob," a comical tutorial on robbing successful rap artists, he found himself on the outskirts of an entire community of rappers. In turn, he established himself as a witty and inventive lyricist, one worth a reported million dollars to Eminem's Shady Records.
Battling continues to be an entrée into the rap music world. 50 Cent owes his success to his ability to clown mainstream rappers; newcomer Jin, a winner of a rap contest on BET, has since signed a record deal with Ruff Ryder/ Interscope; and rapper Benzino has received airplay with two obviously staged dis records, baiting Eminem and 50 Cent.
While Jay-Z has recently said that hip-hop battles are about as real as WWE wrestling, artists like 50 Cent, who happens to be an ex-boxer, take things more seriously. When asked if he is concerned about being a target, 50 Cent answers, with no hesitation, "If n***s wanna shoot each other up, we can do that."
Obviously, while rap itself has grown beyond the streets, many rappers have not. So the street rappers struggle to find balance in a commercial industry. "I just learned how to differentiate the music from the street shit," says AZ. "A lot of brothers can't differentiate. Everybody's claiming they're real; eventually, somebody's going to have to show and prove."
Prompted by the Jam Master Jay murder and the shooting death three days later of lesser-known rap promoter Kenneth Walker, according to a New York Post source, the federal government is working with the NYPD's gang unit to determine if there is a link between the two killings. Furthermore, the source notes, the feds are investigating rappers and their connection to organized crime.
The link between rap music and murder goes beyond gun-toting gangsta rap, falling along the familiar lines of race and socioeconomic categories. Rappers have been falling to violence since Kool Herc put a needle to the groove. When Scott La Rock was killed in 1987, no one blamed combative rap lyrics. In 1999, when Lamont "Big L" Coleman was shot and killed, no one questioned his musical affiliations. When Raymond "Freaky Tah" Rodgers from the Lost Boyz was murdered in Queens later in 1999, there were no reported tie-ins to his profession. These victims were all a part of a demographic that runs a high risk of being murdered: black males.