World War of Words


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.”

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 easy—whoever 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.

According to a 2001 Justice Department report, blacks were six times more likely to be murdered than whites. Of the 7903 black victims of homicide in 1998, none were famed rappers—a fact that might help blame-seekers like O’Reilly search deeper before making oversimplified claims of “dangerous people.” When it comes to murder, to borrow from rap duo dead prez, it’s bigger than hip-hop.

The deaths of B.I.G. and Tupac have lost much of their initial sting, and the climate in rap is becoming more volatile. “It’s not any different than problems that happen in our community every day,” says Talib Kweli. “People get shot and violence is high, but I don’t think it’s the words in rap that are inciting beefs. It’s the conditions of the community.”

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Jam Master Jay, 1965–2002: Rhythmic Heart of the Kings of Rock” by Harry Allen