It's possible that hip-hop and the US government have been engaged in the longest running beef of all, from the infamous FBI letter sent to NWA in 1998 to the Congressional Hearings in 2007 seeking to investigate hip-hop lyrics.
"What's beef? Beef is when you make your enemies start your Jeep
Beef is when you roll no less than thirty deep
Beef is when I see you
Guaranteed to be an ICU"
-- Notorious B.I.G., "What's Beef"
For better or worse, "beefs" are part of the lore and history of hip-hop. Simply put, a "beef" is a dispute between rappers and/or rap crews. Some of these disputes are so minor they quickly level out. Others, heightened by personal animus and competitive spirits, become major flare-ups that lead to physical exchanges and public squabbling.
Know what else happens when rappers have beef? Yep, you get "diss" records, those lovely little musical byproducts produced when rappers have disagreements. Some of these diss records are legendary because they mark turning points in the genre's development, like Kool Moe Dee's live battle defeat of Busy Bee in 1981, or when KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions traded barbs with Marley Marl, MC Shan, and the Juice Crew.
There is one facet of "dissing" that we sometimes overlook in the "beef" discussion. Alongside hip-hop's famous showdowns between Ice Cube and NWA, LL Cool J and Canibus, and 50 Cent versus a-whole-lot-of-people, we tend to forget the beef between hip-hop and the United States government.
In his 2004 HBO comedy special, Never Scared, Chris Rock declared, "The government hates rap", going on to explain why murders involving rappers never get solved. "If you wanna get away with murder, all you gotta do is shoot somebody in the head and put a demo tape in their pocket!" Rock used humor to interpret the pain and confusion associated with hip-hop's tragic losses.
After all, a politician isn't much different than a rapper, right? Check the similarities. One, they both thrive in professions in which they are often judged by their use of language. Two, they both roll in groups: rappers call them "posses" and "crews", politicians call them "parties" and "caucuses". Three, the public generally considers both to be untrustworthy, but maybe not as untrustworthy as lawyers. Fourth, rappers and politicians represent their hometowns and "hoods", only in politics these locales are called "districts". Lastly, they exchange insults with their colleagues. Rappers do it on diss tracks. Politicians insult each other's track records in "negative campaigns".
Speaking of diss tracks, politicians are familiar with the strategy. In the presidential election of 1864, ex-general George McClellan ran against Abraham Lincoln. During the campaign, musician and songwriter Stephen Foster came up with a neat little tune called "Little Mac! Little Mac! (You're the Very Man)". The chorus went, "Sound the rally through the whole United States / Little Mac and Pendleton are our candidates", before launching into the second verse, "Democrats, Democrats, do it up brown / Lincoln and his Nigger-heads won't go down". For obvious reasons, I'm not really feelin' that.
With the emergence of hip-hop, it makes sense that people who enjoy trading insults would eventually go after each other. The beef between hip-hop and the government, then, is all the more intriguing when we consider the various personalities involved, the music produced by the word wars, and, finally, what I consider to be an intriguing ideological shift regarding the beef in the midst of the 2008 US Presidential Race.
Gil Scott-Heron vs. Ronald Reagan
As Ronald Reagan opened the decade with a sizable win over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential Election, Gil Scott-Heron sharpened his wit and his pen in critique of the newly elected president. Scott-Heron, often referred to as the Godfather or Grandfather of Hip-Hop, is widely known for his spoken word record "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", but it was his "B Movie" that sought to straighten the party line on Reagan and his cohorts. From Reagan's acting career to his term as Governor of California, Scott-Heron set his criticism of Ronald "the Ray Gun" to a funky, jazzy rhythm, opening with a subdued bass groove before blossoming into a full ensemble.
Despite the song's clever analogizing of Reagan and his posse to a captain leading a "new ship of fools", the song's brilliance is in Scott-Heron's insight that the American public viewed Reagan as more than a politician or president. "This country wants nostalgia," Scott-Heron explained. "We want to go back as far as we can even if it's only as far as last week." Reagan represented a return to the belief that life was simply a matter of "supply and demand", and social norms could be established through straightforward ideals wholly uncomplicated by moralistic gradations. He said, "Movies were in black and white, and so was everything else".
America's thirst for "the good ol' days" naturally led the nation to find comfort in symbolism. Scott-Heron suggested the public wanted someone like John Wayne, a symbol of rugged individualism and machismo. "But since John Wayne was no longer available," said Scott-Heron, "[the American people] settled for Ronald the Ray Gun". In his view, the election of the affable, grandfatherly, and sometimes absentminded actor was like living through a "B movie", with a full cast of incompetent characters and a fabulous production crew.
In 1984, the Republican ticket of Reagan-Bush triumphed again, this time over democratic hopefuls Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Anticipating an extension in the Ray Gun's term, Scott-Heron dropped another gem on 'em called "Re-Ron". This time, he went into digital rap mode with production from none other than Bill Laswell, who also worked with Herbie Hancock on the futuristic jam "Rockit". "We don't need no Re-Ron," went the chorus, linking the B movie conceit of his earlier tune to Reagan's re-running along the campaign trail.
As we know now, neither Mondale nor Scott-Heron could halt the Reagan Administration. I've been thinking the Democrats of 1984 should have tried Ferraro as president and Mondale as VP, but I suppose it's too late for that now. As for the musical disses, Reagan didn't even need to respond. The Reagan legacy was already headed for syndication.
Score: one for the Gipper (Reagan) and the government; zero for hip-hop.
Dan Quayle vs. Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur's music was multifaceted. At times passionate and thoughtful, at other times aggressive and flat-out mean, Tupac was never shy about calling people out. The list of artists referenced in his rhymes and interviews could be a Who's-Who of hip-hop, including the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas, Mobb Deep, Chino XL, the Fugees, Da Brat, P. Diddy (or "Puff Daddy" at the time), Lil' Kim, and Dr. Dre.
Given this, you might think Tupac would have been the one to initiate a war of words between a rapper and a vice-president. That, however, would be incorrect. George Bush the First's vice-president, Dan Quayle, actually fired the opening salvo.
Rewind to the year 1992, and you'll find a cool little sitcom, starring Candice Bergen called Murphy Brown. Murphy Brown, the character, was a tough-as-bone, rugged-as-a-lion's-jaw news journalist. Highly intelligent and competitive, Brown almost always got the scoop, unraveled the mysteries of the big news stories, and made difficult decisions. She was, however, unlucky in the romance department.
In an interesting plot twist, Murphy Brown learned that she was pregnant. Knowing that the father would not be around to contribute more than DNA, she declined to have an abortion and decided to go it alone as a single mother. The decision was a big deal at the time, with critiques ranging from "This is brilliant" to "Stop glamorizing single motherhood". As you can tell, this is years before the ABC Family Channel started airing reruns of Gilmore Girls alongside 7th Heaven and The 700 Club. Imagine the pandemonium if the folks of 1992 had witnessed Dr. Gregory House on the loose!
That same year, a Texas state trooper stopped a driver for a possible traffic violation. As it turned out, the car had been stolen. In the course of the stop, the driver shot the state trooper with a nine millimeter Glock handgun, killing him. The driver went to trial and, facing the death penalty, raised an intriguing defense. Not only did he claim that he was listening to a bootleg copy of a rap album at the time of the shooting, but the rap album caused him to shoot and kill the trooper. Since the defendant driver was sentenced to death, we can assume the jury rejected the Rap Made Me Do It defense.
For our purposes, the legal arguments aren't important. Instead, you'll want to know the name of that rap album. Chances are, you already do. It was 2pacalypse Now, Shakur's solo debut.
What do Murphy Brown and 2pacalypse Now have in common? Not much, except for comments from Vice-President Quayle.
In a speech emphasizing the importance of "family values", Quayle said, "Murphy Brown -- a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman -- mocked the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice" ("Dan Quayle Was As Right As Television's Murphy Brown Is Real", by Ellen Goodman, The Sunday Oregonian, 2 June1996). Quayle should have had a phat beat playing behind him because he quickly experienced a dilemma commonly experienced by rap artists. Only a small portion of his speech pertained to Murphy Brown, but that's the line everyone remembered.
Critics of the day claimed he attacked "women" and "families"; others supported his stance against the entertainment industry. Part of the problem, though, was his admission to Larry King that he didn't even watch the program. "I have not watched the 'Murphy Brown' show, although I know all about it," he said ("The Conversation That Didn't Happen", by Bob Greene Chicago Tribune, Tempo, 26 July 1992).
Tte Murphy Brown crew had no problem striking back. Upon accepting the Emmy for Best Comedy Series, Murphy Brown producer Diane English said, "I would also like to thank in particular all the single parents out there who, either by choice or by necessity, are raising their kids alone. Don't let anybody tell you you're not a family" ("Murphy Brown Wins Emmys; Quayle Chided", by Rick DuBrow, Los Angeles Times 31 August 1992).
About 2pacalypse Now, Quayle said, "Once again we're faced with an irresponsible corporate act. There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation." Requesting that Time Warner pull the plug on the album, Quayle added, "It has no place in our society" ("For Quayle, Another Hollywood Target", by Janet Cawley, Chicago Tribune 23 September 1992).
Thus began the beef. Tupac refused to let the vice-president's remarks go unanswered. His second album, Strictly 4 My N*ggaz, directly confronted the difficulties of living in the limelight ("Point the Finga"). For one of his interludes, Tupac added his own sound bytes ("I was raised in this society, so you can't expect me to be a perfect person") to samples of Quayle's aforementioned comments.
There was also a less eloquent, but no less potent, response in the song "Peep Game": "Vice-President Dan Quayle, eat a d*ck up". On the theory that sometimes the male anatomy is just the male anatomy and not symbolic of an axe, I won't analyze that specific diss. However, the album as a whole otherwise presented powerful, thought-provoking rhymes about society and black male identity.
During the Bush-Quayle Administration, political barbs from hip-hoppers weren't limited to the Vice-President. In "F*ck a War", the Geto Boys expressed their disdain for military action by the US in Iraq: "I ain't gettin' my leg shot off / While Bush old ass on TV playin' golf". Meanwhile, rapper Paris was calling himself the "Bush Killa" on his Sleeping with the Enemy LP.
Even if Quayle hadn't been bested by a fictional TV character and then gotten ethered by Tupac, it's difficult to give the round to Bush and Quayle. Instead, the score is tied at one for the government, and one for hip-hop.
And then there was Bill…
In 1992, Reverend Jesse Jackson invited William Jefferson Clinton, the Democratic Presidential nominee, to speak to the Rainbow Coalition. Clinton arrived as scheduled, spoke to the group as promised, later recalling that he "bragged on the Rainbow Coalition and its programs" ("The 1992 Campaign: Democrats; Clinton Won't Back Down in Tiff With Jackson Over a Rap Singer", by Gwen Ifill, New York Times 1 June 1992).
He also shared his opinion of remarks made to the Washington Post by Lisa Williamson, an activist and performer known as Sistah Souljah. She had been interviewed about the Los Angeles, California riots that followed the 1991 Rodney King beating and the acquittal of the police officers that beat him. Before the Coalition, and to Jesse Jackson's dismay, Clinton announced his position:
You had a rap singer here last night [on a panel] named Sister Souljah. . . . Her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight…She told the Washington Post about a month ago, and I quote, 'If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? . . . So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?'… If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech" ("Clinton Stuns Rainbow Coalition; Candidate Criticizes Rap Singer's Message", by Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post 14 June 1992).
Here's an important fact: minutes before Clinton made these comments, Jackson had just enthusiastically told the group about Sistah Souljah's appearance on the panel. Oops. Jesse and Bill got their signals crossed.
The immediate fallout was between Jackson and Clinton, with Jackson essentially accusing Clinton of ambushing him for political gain. Cue up that phat beat and add actual vocals from Jesse the M.C., "The attempt to align me with her [Souljah] is an attempt to malign me with her" (ibid). Clinton, for his part, said Jackson was rewriting history, and if he was upset with Clinton, it didn't show because, after the meeting, Jackson had suggested that Clinton play his saxophone on a return visit to the Coalition (ibid).
The long-term consequence was the subsequent examination of rap lyrics in the wake of Clinton's speech. Sistah Souljah, a Public Enemy affiliate, garnered some attention, maybe even saw a slight boost in CD sales, but everyone forgot one thing: the controversial comments weren't part of any rap lyrics. What she said in the interview might have been taken out of context, or explained as coming from the perspective of a gang member, but they were still part of an interview, not a rap song.
Admittedly, if the remarks weren't misquoted, then the idea probably could have been phrased better. A similar firestorm erupted that year when Ice-T's rock group, Body Count, released the song "Cop Killer". More "rock" than "rap", and actually a rather mediocre song, "Cop Killer" generated tremendous debate about music and "family values". It also moved units.
Sistah Souljah tried to respond to Clinton by specifically bringing up his philandering and other transgressions, but controversies don't really hurt Bill, do they? In fact, Clinton has gone on to be considered "The Black President", as black comedians have jokingly explained how he fits the profile of the "average black male": he smokes pot, fools around with the ladies, and plays the sax. Honestly, that "Bill as black president" thing really ticks me off. Maybe the saxophone part isn't insulting (Kenny G. might not laugh at it, though) but I don't find the rest of it funny, thank you very much.
While Clinton might be made of Teflon, that doesn't mean rappers haven't taken a few shots. KRS-One's "I Can't Wake Up" (1993) finds the emcee dreaming that he's a marijuana joint that's being passed around by celebrities, one of which is Clinton who gets smacked because he'll smoke but he won't inhale. Ice Cube, pairing up with Scarface in "Hand of the Dead Body" (1994) on an anti-censorship theme, dropped the lines, "And I can't stop, won't stop / So f*ck Bill and Hillary / Ice Cube, there ain't no killin' me".
One of my favorite presidential disses comes from another Clinton. George Clinton, to be exact. In "Paint the White House Black" (1993), the legendary funk master enlisted an array of rappers to help him change the complexion of the political landscape. They pledge to use "everything from spray cans to charcoal". On a more lighthearted note, the song begins with Dr. Dre calling to speak to the president, only to realize he's reached a different "Clinton" than he expected, "Can I speak to the president? Just tell him he was smokin' last night at the club, know what I'm sayin'? What? He don't inhale? Then I know I got the wrong mothaf*cka then."
Random disses weren't enough to defeat Big Bill. Besides the fact that people seem to really like Bill, it's been suggested that, overall, the economy during the Clinton years was pretty good. Consequently, it was more difficult for politically minded rappers to poke holes at the "system" or maintain interest in "social issues". If people are "doing well", the argument goes, there's less reason to complain and even less reason to find comfort or validity in such complaints. It follows, then, that complacency with the status quo would explain the rise of "playas", "bling", and "Bad Boy" in the '90s.
Maybe, maybe not. But in any event, the score is: two for the government, one for hip-hop. Thank goodness for Lil' Bush…
The theory that hip-hop music gets edgier during Republican administrations sounds more plausible when applied to the years between 2000 and 2008. Kanye West's post-Katrina remark, "George Bush doesn't care about black people", is most likely the most famous Bush diss outside of the Dixie Chicks, and probably sums up this section of my article quite nicely, but that wasn't a line in a song.
Lyrically, we've got more than enough examples, and biting ones, to boot. Public Enemy's song "Son of a Bush" sought to link the two Bush presidencies, while Paris, the former self-described "Bush Killa", transferred his criticism and conspiracy theories from Bush I to Bush II, as in "What Would You Do" from his Sonic Jihad (2003) disc: "Another Bush season mean another war for profit / All in secret so the public never think to stop it". He also hosted the Hard Truth Soldiers (2006) compilation, containing the posse track "Down with Us" and its disapproval for US intervention in Iraq, the motivations for such intervention ("What is Bush focused on? / Must be his father's old grudges"), and war in general ("War don't decide who's right but who's left").
Political rhymes about presidents wouldn't be nearly as much fun without selections from the Coup's 2006 LP Pick a Bigger Weapon. One song can be summarized by its title, "Baby Let's Have a Baby Before Bush Do Something Crazy". Another, "Head of State", spins a geopolitical tale of collusion between the Bushes and Hussein (Saddam, that is) around a unique metaphor, "Bush and Hussein together in bed / giving H-E-A-D, head".
Apparently, Ivy League professors and intellectuals have gotten into the act. Dr. Cornel West's Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations featured two Bush-related songs. One is "Bushanomics", featuring Talib Kweli, flashing the line, "Fixin' elections like it's not a thing", while "Mr. President", featuring M-1 of Dead Prez and KRS-One, led with Dr. West's query, "Dear Mr. President, why did you lie about the war?"
Perhaps the most original presidential diss record comes from Dutch composer Frenz's "Don't Mess with Bush", a minimalist electronic beat with painstakingly assembled bits from George W. Bush's actual speeches. The seamless presentation creates the illusion that Bush is saying things like, "George W. Bush can destroy you", and "A hundred years from now, we'll reduce taxes."
Yet, while I generally think it's a gutsy move to diss a president, I'm ambivalent about the records that target Bush. I've always applauded hip-hop's ability to push the limits of conventional wisdom, its fearlessness in speaking from the heart even when it might be distasteful or unpopular to do so. My ambivalence rears its head, however, when it becomes popular to discuss a particular issue. When this happens, I wonder if the issue still has boundaries left to push. It seems too easy if there's nothing at stake, although, admittedly, it's easy for me to advocate gambling someone else's career for the sake of a platform.
More specifically, if people can diss Bush without feeling the sting that the Dixie Chicks felt, what is the function of an artist? Is it enough to voice a popular opinion in order to be a spokesperson (or mouthpiece) for the people, or should the artist search for the perspective that "goes against the grain"? Probably, navigation of this fine line is a balancing act between giving the people what they want, giving them what you (the artists) want them to have, and trying to figure out what's needed (for the artists and the people).
The sheer volume of criticism against Bush makes me declare hip-hop as the winner of this round of beef, but it's a lot closer than you might think. Remember, there were quite a lot of "red" states in the 2004 election. Score is tied at two points apiece.
After more than 25 years of beef, could it be that the 2008 US presidential election marks an ideological and paradigmatic shift in the relationship between hip-hop and the government? In terms of social and political engagement, the hip-hop community has previously made its presence felt through song lyrics, through organizational support (like 2004's Hip-Hop Convention and Hip-Hop Summit), through voter registration initiatives (like P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" slogan), and peaceful demonstrations (like the one in Jena, Louisiana in 2007).
The difference in 2008 is one of perspective. Back in the '80s, rap pioneer Melle Melle released "Jesse", in support of Jesse Jackson's bid for commander-in-chief ("Brothers stand together and let the whole world see / Our brother Jesse Jackson go down in history"). But that type of song hasn't been a staple. Rather, these lines from KRS-One's "Higher Level" (1993) provide a different view of presidential races: "You either vote for the mumps or the measles / Whether you vote for the lesser of two evils, you vote for evil". That's not happiness to hear from the political system. And then there's Tupac in "I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto", "Although it seems heaven sent / we ain't ready to have a black president".
That "reality check" attitude, which might also be called "cynicism", has subsided with the candidacies of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama, or "B-Rock" as he was nicknamed by Vibe magazine, is America's fifth black senator (following Hiram Revels, Blanche K. Bruce, Edward W. Brooke III, and Carol Mosley Braun), and one of the few politicians to get lyrical props in hip-hop songs.
In 2007, rappers Common and Talib Kweli dished lyrics in which they spoke to "the people" like Obama. In 2008, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas enlisted a cross-section of celebrities for his "Yes We Can" song and video. With assistance from John Legend, Scarlett Johansson, Herbie Hancock, and Kate Walsh, among others (I would have called them "the Barack Eyed Peas"), Will built the song around a speech by Obama and some plucky guitar work.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton hasn't gone unnoticed in hip-hop circles. Artists like Timbaland and Lupe Fiasco have publicly expressed support for the Clinton campaign, with Timbaland hosting a 2007 fundraiser for Senator Clinton while Lupe Fiasco engaged in a gentlemanly online dialogue with Rhymefest concerning Fiasco's pro-Clinton stance and Rhymefest's pro-Obama position. Soulful crooner Raheem DeVaughn has a song called "Energy", on his 2008 effort Love Behind the Melody, in which rapper Big Boi quips that he and his boo have "energy like Bill and Hillary".
And so we have hip-hop artists who have moved beyond the rejection of the political process or viewing said process as a choice between the "lesser of two evils". Hip-hop artists are endorsing candidates and debating about them. The importance of this, besides the usual cliché of influencing young voters, is that hip-hoppers are speaking about politics with the confidence of "insiders" rather than with the wariness of "outsiders". Rappers are functioning as "stakeholders" instead of merely voicing the concerns of the disenfranchised.
The question is whether this is good for the music or not. If it leads to an expansion of themes and points of view, then it's great. On the other hand, if "insider" status foreshadows fewer critiques and "safer" subject matter, then the proposition is less attractive. Regardless of the political outcome, my feeling is that the beef isn't over yet. Far from it.