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Rap battles in 2009 have come to this: guerrilla Internet videos, costumed caricatures, 48-hour "rapid-response" windows, hatchet-job background checks, lurid baby-mama-wooing, wanton stalking of your enemies' friends' mothers, and lots and lots of Photoshop. Actual rapping is optional.
The current master of the form is Curtis Jackson, a/k/a 50 Cent, currently waging an epic war against rival Miami rapper Rick Ross. Battles have traditionally revolved around lyrical put-downs and, occasionally, actual violence. But this is a new type of conflict, one that goes beyond diss records and mean-mugging and into the unrestricted world of new media. Using his popular website, thisis50.com, as a bully pulpit since its 2007 debut, 50 both promotes himself and disparages his foes with cartoonish taunts and comedic skits. But lately, he's elevated its focus and apparently found newer, stranger sources of inspiration—Obama, for example.
"I looked at this beef like how Barack ran his campaign," says Chris "Broadway" Romero, the site's creator and the VP of digital marketing for 50's G-Unit label. "He had people who understood how to mobilize people on the Web. People always asked me, 'Why are rappers always going at each other's throats?' I say, 'Why do politicians or businesses go after each other?' Rap is very competitive."
50 Cent, if anyone, understands the combative nature of hip-hop, with an illustrious history of baiting and battling fellow rappers. He elbowed his way onto the scene in 1999 with "How to Rob," in which he fantasized about mugging better-known rappers unaccustomed to being lampooned by newcomers. 50 was later stabbed at Manhattan's Hit Factory studio and famously shot nine times while sitting in a car near his home in Jamaica, Queens; upon recovering, he hit the mixtape circuit and ran a clinic on rap beefs with an endless onslaught against rival Ja Rule, whose popularity plummeted as a result.
Such an insatiable appetite for beef naturally led him to the Internet. When longtime rival Fat Joe released his eighth studio album, The Elephant in the Room, last year, 50 posted a free G-Unit mixtape the same day to thisis50.com, subtitled Elephant in the Sand, in addition to a litany of mocking videos; he waged a similar multimedia war against Harlem-based adversary Cam'ron.
Throughout his reign of terror, 50's antics have echoed the rough-and-tumble nature of political mudslinging. Most notably, he's developed deadly rapid-response techniques, launching quick retaliations against slower-moving opponents. "If you wait outside the news cycle, a negative attack can take on a life of its own," says Jacques Degraff, former deputy campaign manager for Bill Bradley's presidential run and campaign manager for Al Sharpton's mayoral venture. "But rapid responses are not just for a defensive mode anymore—it's also about connecting with a counter-punch. For example, if you're the Obama campaign, and you're being attacked for the bailout, you say, 'First of all, the initial bailout was contrived under a Republican administration—we reached out in a bipartisan way.' Then you deliver a punch: 'As Rush Limbaugh, the leader of the Republican party, knows . . .'—now you have the Republicans struggling to respond."
Lately, Rick Ross knows how the Republicans feel. When the rapper debuted "Mafia Music," a cut from his upcoming album Deeper Than Rap, in late January, he blindsided 50 with a few choice barbs, highlighting the very public rift between 50 and his son's mother over child support and the house she lived in with their child. After the court ruling (in 50's favor), the house mysteriously burned down as mother and child escaped. "I love to pay her bills," Ross rapped. "Can't wait to pay her rent/Curtis Jackson baby mama I ain't askin' for a cent/Burn the house down gotta buy another/Don't forget the gas can, jealous stupid muthafucka."
"I think it came as a total surprise," says Minya Oh, a/k/a Miss Info, the snarky Hot 97 gossip and news reporter who's covered the battle via her radio updates and industry-insider site, Missinfo.tv. "50 was so busy trying to bait Lil Wayne and Kanye, this came out of nowhere. It was like a late Christmas gift."
But 50's initial response, a monotone diss record called "Try Me," failed to gain traction. Sensing he won an easy round, Ross's hubris kicked in: "We're going to act like we didn't hear that," he crowed during an interview with Angela Ye on Shade 45 (Eminem's satellite-radio channel). "We gonna give him 48 hours' time to come up with another one."
Battle-tested rapper Saigon, who recently took to the Internet to launch diss records and threats at his own adversary, New Jersey–based emcee Joe Budden, has dealt with that narrow a window before. "When I was going through my thing, motherfuckers were like, 'You got 48 hours to respond,' " he recalls. "And it wasn't fair, because with Nas and Jay-Z, you had to wait. I remember it took months to hear Nas respond with 'Ether' after Jay-Z dissed him on 'Takeover.' The Internet is microwaving hip-hop. It's about everything else except skills."
But while that brief skirmish came down to lyrical wit, 50 Cent blew out his "rap" battle to variety-show proportions. After Ross's 48-hour challenge, he posted a faux-presidential video address to thisis50.com. "There's nobody in control of me," he declared. "I do what I want to do. . . . Rick Ross, I'm-a fuck your life up, for fun. . . . You're gonna really understand how resourceful I am." Then 50 got into character—several characters. He released "Officer Ricky" cartoon spoofs (playing off Ross's controversial pre-rap history as a corrections officer), diss songs, and disparaging videos. He also developed an over-the-top, wig-sporting persona named Pimpin' Curly who sometimes takes time out from working his "hos" to belittle his enemies. "Rick Ross started calling 50 Cent 'Curly' in interviews—we didn't know where that came from," Broadway recalls. "After that, 50 just went in and said, 'I got some stuff to shoot. Let's get going.' We'd shoot something, and it would be out the next day. And because he is who he is, we learned to shoot more discreetly. It's usually done in one take, too. It's guerrilla filmmaking mixed with a director and lead actor who knows exactly what he wants to do."