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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."
The lead actor then went a step further and swift-boated his opponent, posting an interview with Tia Kemp, the mother of Ross's son. In the clip, 50 eggs her on as she disses Ross in multiple ways, even touching on his law-enforcement past, a sore spot for a rapper who now portrays himself as a lawless gangster. Later, 50 took Kemp on a shopping spree, fitting her for a fur coat. (Tia has since announced that her tell-all book, Tia's Diary: Deeper Than Rap, will steal not only Ross's album title, but also the record's release date: April 21.)
"Fans loved the comedy of the shopping video," Miss Info says. "I did a spit-take myself when I realized that Stevie Wonder's 'Isn't She Lovely' was playing in the background while Tia was trying on fur coats! That gal had a look on her face the whole time like she was Lil' Orphan Annie meeting Daddy Warbucks. And the audience ate it up. They couldn't believe Fif would find Tia, fly Tia, hotel Tia, sit down and interview Tia, go shopping with Tia, and bond with her. This was a whole new level of war-face that we've never seen happen in real-time."
To be sure, Ross didn't stand totally flat-footed in response. Aside from pleading his case in interviews across the Web—and unleashing a few more diss records—he also offered a cartoon titled "Gay-Unit Workouts" and his own 50-mocking site, thisiscurly.com. But in other ways, Ross made himself an easy mark for such back-channel tactics. For months, he refused to acknowledge his corrections officer past, even after thesmokinggun.com posted official documents and photos. Soon, he was lambasted as "Officer Ricky," and in hip-hop, being a cop is barely more desirable than being gay.
"With that whole Officer Ricky shit, 50 turned him from a CO into a cop," Saigon notes with a chuckle. (Though he was once at odds with 50 Cent, the rapper is not taking sides in this battle.) "It's entertaining, but you gotta draw a line somewhere, because shit can go too far. If I was to get into a rap battle with somebody, and they dug up dirt, and it started to affect my lifestyle—like 50 did to Ja Rule—I'd be looking for that nigga to this day."
But 50 wasn't done, and many onlookers feared that his next move crossed that line. He somehow acquired a homemade sex tape starring Ross's second baby's mother, narrating in his high-pitch Pimpin' Curly voice: "I want you to watch this on your tour bus, Ricky," etc. But his most controversial act was a spooky video called "A Psychic Told Me," wherein 50 seems to stalk the mother of Rick Ross collaborator DJ Khaled. The camera lingers on what's alleged to be her house, and then captures footage of the woman herself sleeping behind a desk at her job, slowly panning over to the video crew sporting thisis50.com T-shirts.
In an interview with Miss Info, 50 said he resorted to stalking Khaled's mother because Ross's camp posted a barely seen Photoshopped image of his son Marquis's face pasted onto a monkey's body. (Both the image and video have since been removed.) "After I talked to 50, I understood why he did it," she says. "His son was being lampooned. To me, that still didn't excuse the extreme nature of his reaction. I said it created a real-life danger for Khaled's mom—I heard she had to be moved because her house was included in the video. But I no longer felt like 50 was just going from comic-lampooning level to Sicilian-vendetta level without a reason."
Reached by the Voice, Ross maintains that he's unfazed by all these Internet shenanigans: "That's stuff we would have done in middle school. When you're dealing with degenerates on this level, it's something you have to deal with. Did we think it was a threat to Khaled's mother? Of course not." He pauses, and then the man dubbed Officer Ricky attempts his own counter-punch. "That's what these dudes do: They put on wigs, they buy dildos, they put it in they mouth, they do stuff like that. We all moving forward. We all got projects, and our careers are soaring. It's a difference."
It's not hard to figure out 50's motive for taking every battle to extreme proportions. Like Ross, he's got his own upcoming album, Before I Self Destruct, to promote. But his last feud tied to a record release—2007's far less volatile conflict with Kanye West—led to Kanye's Graduation outselling 50's Curtis by 200,000 units. And while this new psychodrama has kept rap fans rapt, many are asking if the use of new technology is moving the culture forward or degrading its tradition of lyrical jousting. "There was a whole lot of music in there, too," Broadway says, in defense of 50's attacks. True, a handful of actual songs passed between them, but none created the excitement generated by the diabolical Tia Kemp interview. "If you listened to what 50 said, he said, 'I'm gonna fuck your life up,' " Broadway adds. "He didn't say, 'I'm going to lyrically battle you.' "
So the war rages on—most recently, Ross lined up 50 foes Ja Rule, Fat Joe, and the Game for a "Mafia Music" remix. Surely 50 will fire up his rapid-response team to retaliate. Meanwhile, Ross chalks the whole debacle up to divergent tastes. "Some things that entertain other people, I couldn't care less about," he says. "Different people do different things. That's why you see such a large variety of frivolous stunts." Ask him if the future of rap battles has been shaped by his back-and-forth with 50, and he stays on message. "You'll have to see that in the future. As far as myself, I'm making music. That's where my priority is. Just music." If this latest campaign is any indication of what's to come, though, that might no longer be enough.