Hip-hop wouldn’t be hip-hop without a bit of competition, and from time to time, we need that one brave artist to step up and battle for the top spot. The genre is a competitive sport, and if you’re not eyeing up your competitors and looking over your shoulder at all times, you can go from a winner to a loser in a flash if you get caught in a rap beef.
However, snatching and securing the hip-hop crown is always challenging, especially when your opponent sees you coming. More often than not, there is a tussle that can be vicious and sometimes even deadly. However, irrespective of a feud’s outcome, rap music has seen some of its best material produced during battles. From ‘Takeover’ to ‘The Bridge Is Over’, feuds can create excellent music.
When an artist is at odds with another, it’s all about proof. One emcee has to prove they are better than the other, whether that’s concerning wittiness, the complexity of their rhyme schemes or other. It’s the fans who will ultimately decide who’s superior. Across the years, there have been many feuds and battles for the top spot. However, people don’t always agree on who’s the winner. In fact, sometimes they can be highly polarising, with hip-hop fanatics often taking sides.
However, battles rarely reach such a point, and most agree that competition in hip-hop is healthy. Some even promote them as they can help the participants develop their skills and hone their craft. This is especially the case if it is a David and Goliath predicament where one artist is lesser-known and an obvious underdog. Sometimes those artists can prevail, but even if they don’t, the mere fact they went toe to toe with a highly skilled emcee means they improve. In this article we look through the hip-hop history books to establish the true five greatest rap battles of all time.
The five greatest rap battles of all time:
5. Ice Cube vs N.W.A
This beef had to make it onto the list. As a former member of the Compton crew N.W.A himself, it must have been hard for Ice Cube to make the diss track he did. However, he was obviously frustrated with his former crew mates and their manager.
Ice Cube (real name O’Shea Jackson) grew frustrated with the fact that Dr Dre, Eazy-E and MC Ren were being happily subservient to Jerry Heller who was in fact, exploiting them and robbing them of a lot of money. This is where the tension originated. When he went solo, Dre didn’t appreciate his pursuit and bashed Cube on several of their tracks. On ‘Real N*ggaz’ Dre raps, “We started out with too much cargo / So I’m glad we got rid of Benedict Arnold!”
In 1991, Cube released ‘No Vaseline’, a diss track aimed at his former bandmates, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and their manager, Jerry Heller. In the track, he tells Dr. Dre to stop rapping and “stick to producing” and, on multiple occasions, accuses the crew members of sodomy. ‘No Vaseline’ is a ruthless and vicious diss track. This battle between the former crew mates was vicious. However, the remaining crew members have since reconciled but it is most definitely one for the history books.
4. BDP vs Juice Crew
Boogie Down Productions (commonly referred to as BDP) was a South Bronx crew consisting of two hip-hop legends, KRS-One and the late rapper Scott La Rock. Based in the New York borough of the Bronx, BDP brought a new, more conscious and lyrical style to hip-hop during the 1980s. The kind that had never been seen before, and they were revered for their talent.
During the same era, based in Queensbridge, you also had the Juice Crew. Comprised of Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan, Biz Markie and others. The two crews would co-exist peacefully for year until a misunderstanding led to a full on battle. Now known as ‘The Bridge Wars’, the battle began with a track by MC Shan called ‘The Bridge’ in which he talks about some older rap crews from Queensbridge. KRS-One misinterpreted this thinking that the rapper was trying to claim that hip-hop really started in Queensbridge and not the South Bronx.
In response BDP made a track entitled ‘South Bronx’ which was exactly the same a ‘The Bridge’ but refuted the idea that Queensbridge even had good MCs. From there things only escalated. It is most definitely considered one the best battles in hip-hop history.
3. G-Unit vs Murder Inc
The G-Unit versus Murder Inc war was a battle that initially included only two artists, 50 Cent and Ja Rule. However, as things began to heat up between the two, their crews eventually got involuntarily roped in making it a crew feud. Queens rapper Ja Rule (real name Jeffrey Atkins) initially had a feud with 50 Cent. However, the bad blood began to spill out, and the rappers were calling on their comrades to get involved.
Ja Rule and 50 Cent’s beef originated in the late 1990s when a robbery took place in Queens that saw Jackson lose his chains. Although there is much confusion and varying recollections about what actually happened it didn’t stop the two from developing a mutual resentment going into the 2000s. However, before long, due to simple affiliation, Ja decided to go after Eminem. On the track, ‘Loose Change’ the rapper went for the jugular by calling out Mathers’ family. Talking about Mathers’ mum, ex-girlfriend and daughter, Ja Rule proclaimed, “Em, you claim your mother’s a crackhead/ And Kim is a known slut/ So what’s Hailie gonna be when she grows up?”
With 50 Cent signed to Shady Records both Eminem and 50 Cent’s crew members in G-Unit went to war with Ja Rule and his collective Murder Inc. The war was short and sweet as both 50 Cent and Eminem superseded Ja Rule in every single way.
2. Jay-Z vs Nas
‘Ether’ by Nas is not only the most well-known diss track in hip hop but almost the most well-made. Aimed at Jay-Z, ‘Ether’ epitomises the perfect diss track. It is clear with the first three words being “F*ck Jay-Z”, so there is no ambiguity surrounding who the song is aimed at. It addresses Jay-Z’s come-up and dissects how he may have ridden the coattails of others to achieve his success.
It is also an underdog story. Nas was not as relevant as Jay-Z at the time, so most assumed he would never respond to Jay-Z’s diss track ‘The Takeover’. However, he did and was disrespectful but also comedic in reminding listeners that in Jay-Z’s first ever music video appearance, he wore a Hawaiian shirt, which ultimately undermined Jay-Z’s gangster image and was highly comical. He drew comparisons between the rapper and Notorious BIG highlighting how similar they were, making listeners question Jay-Z’s originality. Although many still say ‘The Takeover’ is better, Nas’ ‘Ether’ is truly the quintessential diss track.
1. Tupac Shakur vs Biggie Smalls
Tupac Shakur is considered a legend in hip-hop but was an agent of chaos, and his tracks fuelled the now infamous East Coast versus West Coast feud. The Notorious B.I.G. and Pac were once friends. However, that all changed when Shakur was the victim of attempted murder. The landscape of hip-hop looked vastly different in the 1990s than how it does today. When we’re looking at 1990s hip-hop, we’re looking (for the most part) at two feuding record labels, Death Row Records on the West Coast and Badboy Entertainment on the East Coast. Both companies had their own stars, with 2pac signed to Death Row and The Notorious B.I.G. signed to Bad Boy.
In 1994, to work on his album Me Against The World and collaborate with East Coast artists, Shakur took a trip to New York. According to several police reports, Shakur was invited by a man by the name of Ron G to record some tracks with two upcoming rappers named Booker and Lil Shawn. He had been told it was all to be recorded at Quad Studios, located on Seventh Avenue between 48th and 49th street near the famous Times Square.
Shakur turned up for the recording as arranged, and all went as planned; however, upon his exit from the building while in the lobby, the rapper was ambushed and shot. According to the rapper, the shooters were wearing labelled garments worn by gangs in Brooklyn. The attackers thieved his jewellery, then shot him, hitting him in the chest. Shakur was shot five times. Twice in the head, twice in the groin area, and once in his left hand. According to the rapper, he recognised two of the three men as associates of his friend, The Notorious B.I.G.
This was the beginning. Despite The Notorious B.I.G’s insistence that he had not ordered any sort of hit on Shakur and would never do so, Shakur was insistent it was orchestrated by the Bad Boy rapper, and he remained on 2pac’s hit list until the day he died ‘Hit em Up’ is perhaps, in the eyes of many, the reason why Tupac Shakur was shot dead in the same year as its release. His death would be followed a year later by his opponent’s. Despite the bloody beef that created ‘Hit em Up’, it is still one of the best diss tracks ever made and is their battle is the most infamous in hip-hop history without a doubt.