The art of the diss track

Nikita Rathod takes a closer look at the past and present of lyrical beef in hip hop, dissecting what creates the perfect diss and where some of the rap game's most intense rivalries have stemmed from.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 5th Sep 2018.
Originally published: 4th Sep 2018

Image: Jeremy Deputat (credit)

Diss tracks have always been part and parcel of hip-hop and largely unique to the genre. Rap fans have always relished in watching rappers go head-to-head with each other. Whilst hip-hop has navigated from its so-called golden age to current day, we’ve seen diss tracks continue to be a consistent fixture.

There are some rivalries in hip-hop that we can’t ever forget and have made the genre what it is today. One of the biggest feuds in hip-hop of course is that of Tupac and Biggie Smalls. “Who Shot Ya?” by the Notorious B.I.G. in 1995 is seen as a highly controversial track as the timing of its release was very close to an incident where Tupac was shot in 1994 at a studio. Biggie would categorically deny that the track was a diss track towards Tupac, but the 'California Love' rapper thought differently.

In retaliation, he would release 'Hit Em Up'. The track was be a direct diss towards Biggie, with lines such as, “Biggie, remember when I used to let you sleep on the couch?... Five shots couldn't drop me: I took it and smiled. Now I'm back to set the record straight. With my AK, I'm still the thug that you love to hate” among the onslaught of bile. Sadly this rivalry would end up contributing to the death of both of these rappers.

There are numerous others rivalries, that have created some impressive diss records. The Jay-Z and Nas feud produced the latters' 'Ether', sandwiched either side by Jay-Z's 'Takeover' and 'Supa Ugly'” the latter of which really did get ugly with Jay Z revealing he slept with the mother of Nas’ child.

'Takeover' famously featured Jay going in on Nas' discography - "That's a one hot album every ten-year average" - with Nas mocking his foe's predilection for copying the aforementioned Biggie's lyrics. Here, the rivalry produced music that kept hip-hop fans at the edge of their seats, however it hasn't always just stayed there.;t always been the case.

The rap beef between Ja Rule and 50 Cent for example, was a battle that took place both on the streets and in music with altercations in an Atlanta nightclub and New York's Hit Factory Studios, as well as on tracks from 50 such as 'Life's on the Line' and 'Wanksta'.

Luckily today, feuds in hip-hop have been less violent than they used to be. This is not to say that they have been light-hearted though. In 2015, Meek Mill accused Drake of using a ghostwriter in his music, and in response, Drizzy unleashed two huge songs, 'Charged Up' and 'Back to Back'.

With these tracks it became undeniable that Drake had won this feud. 'Back to Back' included some incredibly cutting lines belittling Meek in his relationship at the time with Nicki Minaj, “You love her, then you gotta give the world to her/Is that a world tour or your girl's tour?/I know that you gotta be a thug for her/This ain't what she meant when she told you to open up more.”

Though Drake dug deep in his remarks against Meek, perhaps no-one could have prepared us for his feud this year with Pusha T. The Clipse rapper would single-handedly bury Drizzy by revealing that he was father to a child with porn star Sophia Brussaux on 'The Story of Adidon', something that Drake went to address on his recent album Scorpion.

This was only after Drake had mentioned Pusha’s fiancée on his 'Duppy' freestyle. Many thought that Pusha had gone too far which can only make you wonder, is there a right way to make a diss track? Is there such as going “too far” or have we gone “soft” in the last decade?

A diss track always begins with a beat. Largely the beat isn’t something fans and critics are too concerned with when it comes to a diss, but it’s key to ensuring that it allows the rapper to spit bars in the most effective way. This said, beats such as that of Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya” has been sampled on numerous occasions by the likes of Mos Def, Jay Z and The Game.

It’s been praised throughout time for its production. But when turning around a diss track, time is of the essence so routinely, impressing with an incredible beat is not likely to be top priority to a rapper.

Staying true to the core with hip-hop, lyricism is one of the most important parts of a track when rappers take shots at each other. Diss tracks, you could say are eternally healthy for hip-hop as they can drive rappers back into the world of freestyles and cyphers, and ultimately, each artist is trying to out-rap each other.

Disses have produced some intense examples of lyricism, full of wit. Hip hop has thrown up numerous occasions this has been done very well. In 2010, Nicki Minaj took aim at veteran Lil Kim in 'Roman’s Revenge' featuring Eminem. Aggressive and ruthless, Minaj gave us verses on here full on clever wordplay, "Hey Nicki, hey Nicki," asthma/I got the pumps, it ain't got medicine/I got bars; sentencing.'”

Rappers certainly have to bring their best game when it comes to diss tracks and perhaps the MC with the biggest chance of winning is he or she who brings the best ammunition with them to the battle. We’ve seen how this fared for Pusha T on 'The Story of Adidon' fueling the fire by confirming rumours that Drake had become a father.

On 'Shether' Remy Ma touched on some topics very close to Minaj’s heart in their feud, which specifically addressed the rape charges that her brother has been facing. Getting personal can certainly mean the difference between coming out victorious or not.

Recently we have seen examples of tracks that continue to prove that hip-hop is not going soft anytime soon. We’ve seen rappers use songs to lay down the gauntlet on not only one rapper, but numerous rappers. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s 'Control' shows this clearly when he called out many rappers by name, including Pusha T, J. Cole and Big Sean himself.

More recently, Minaj used a whole track to say what was on her mind regarding a number of artists on 'Barbie Dreams' from her new album Queen and this has become an increasingly common trend. It’s a move that is bold, confident and moves away from the pettiness of a back and forth feud with one rapper.

Someone who has done this exceptionally well across a lengthy career is Eminem who dropped his new album Kamikaze just days ago. The record is almost a diss album which sees Slim unleash a lot of anger insulting everyone from Drake to US President Donald Trump, Machine Gun Kelly (who has fired back with a diss track of his own), Lil Yachty, the list goes on and on. Calling out a number of rappers at the same time shows a bravery that is only present in some of the biggest artists. 

But can rappers go too far? The truth is, once an artist engages in such a battle, they can only expect the worst and, really, history has shown that nothing and no-one is off limits in a good diss track. Hip-hop has never been a place for sensitivity and is innately rooted in competition, ego and bravado.

It has always been brazenly daring, with rappers being unafraid to call out others. As we’ve seen feuds change in nature throughout time, one thing is for sure, keeping the diss culture alive is highly important in keeping hip-hop thriving.