Scene’s Selections: Diss Tracks
“Control (ft. Kendrick Lamar)” by Big Sean — Adam Ramos
Though technically not a diss track per se, Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control” cemented Compton California’s greatest Kung Fu enthusiast a spot in the spitting fire hall of fame. After comparing himself to both Paul McCartney and Bob Marley, Kendrick begins an industry-wide evisceration. “I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you n—-s/ Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n—-s” Lamar sneers, his aggression never before as tangible. Not only does Kendrick name drop over 14 of his rapper peers on the track, but he also takes aim at many of the industry trends he sees as weakening the game. While Lamar rarely wears his heart on his sleeve, on “Control” he holds nothing back and the result is chillingly glorious.
Interestingly, the biggest diss Lamar offers on his verse comes at the expense of all the rappers he doesn’t mention. Time and time again, Lamar has proven his almost untouchable dominance in the rap game. His vision, particularly regarding his adversaries in the rap game, is an extremely precise reflection on the genre at large. Just to be mentioned by Lamar, even if it’s technically a diss, is an honor.
“Hit ’Em Up” by Tupac — Mike Donovan
The vociferous feud between Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. was, needless to say, the most notorious in the hip-hop canon. Their Shakespearean grudge manifested itself as a pitched lyrical battle. Tupac took charge for the West, immortalizing the L.A. streets with unprecedented wit and flow. Biggie fought for the East, documenting the Brooklyn nights with a dark panache. Their goal? Hip-hop hegemony.
The hostile atmosphere made the eventual release of the ultimate diss track inevitable, so, when Tupac dropped “Hit ’Em Up” in June of 1996, nobody was surprised. They were, however, blown away.
Tupac, in the manner of the day, pulled no punches. His opening statement lets out a fiery call for the “West Side, Bad Boy Killers,” who are, unequivocally, the realest on the national scene. He then proceeds to slow roast Biggie and his East-side crowd in the language of the streets. His unnerving choral recitation — “See, grab your Glocks when you see Tupac / Call the cops when you see Tupac” bitterly defines his “wrath of menace.”
“Hit ’Em Up” makes the stakes of the coastal war abundantly clear. The loser will give up far more than his pride.
“Takeover” by JAY Z — Matthew Munhall
It’s easy to forget — now that JAY Z has become a billionaire streaming service mogul — that most rap heads thought he lost his feud to Nas in 2001. Bar for bar, “Ether,” Nas’ response, is more ruthless (and more offensive). “Takeover,” however, is one of the great rap songs of this young century, period.
“Takeover” oozes swagger, thanks to a young producer named Kanye West, who sampled the riff from “Five to One” by the Doors. With the ghost of Jim Morrison in his corner, JAY Z proceeds to dissect Nas’ entire career with seeming ease. The song’s zenith is when JAY Z becomes a music critic, taking stock of Nas’ discography: “Four albums in 10 years, n—a? I could divide / That’s one every… let’s say two, two of them s–t’s was due / One was ‘nah,’ the other was ‘Illmatic’ / That’s a one-hot-album-every-10-year average.” You can’t argue with facts.
“Back to Back” by Drake — Brian Boylen
As someone who doesn’t follow rap super closely, not many recent diss tracks come to mind other than Drake’s “Back to Back.” The song was created in response to Meek Mill’s claim that Drake uses ghostwriters to write his lyrics.
My frame of reference for what constitutes a diss track is rooted in old rap feuds that spawned songs such as Nas’ “Ether” and Tupac’s “Hit ’Em Up.” The stylistic differences between these artists and Drake is pretty immense; Nas and Tupac are gangsta rappers, while Drake is a self-proclaimed “singin’ n—a.” Some doubted that a “soft” rapper like Drake would be able to put out a piercing diss track. “Back to Back” firmly proves these doubters wrong – in fact I prefer it to the older ones. Drake hits Meek with some stinging blows such as, “Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?” and “I don’t wanna hear about this ever again / Even when she tell him that they better as friends,” referring to Meek’s relationship with fellow rapper Nicki Minaj. These attacks feel much more personal and accurate compared to many of Nas’ insults on “Ether,” which were primarily gay slurs targeted at JAY Z.
Drake may not be the hardest rapper out there, but he knows how to put out a quality diss track when he needs to. “Back to Back” shows that if you are going to come after one of the biggest names in the game, you better be ready.
“Dre Day (ft. Snoop Dogg)” by Dr. Dre — Owen Lane
“Dre Day” is a defining diss track in rap history. NWA had taken the hip-hop community by storm only four years earlier with their culture-shifting album “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Dre Day” was left in the group’s wake. “The Chronic” was Dre’s solo smash and on “Dre Day,” he flexes all his newly successful muscle on his former friend Eazy-E. The songs checks off every dramatic prerequisite: they beefers were former friends, it was the artist vs. the businessman, and Dre’s triumphantly threw down his gauntlet as a rapper.
While Dre lays down some brutal bars on Eazy-E here, the song is truly unforgettable because of a young rapper named Calvin Broadus. Snoop Dogg’s “Bow-wow-wow/yipee yo yipee yay” entrance marked the start of one of rap’s most colorful careers. Snoop and Dre attacked Eazy’s mom, his gapped teeth, and his masculinity. As a male with a mother and gapped teeth, I can say that even the unsophisticated and immature disses tossed out by the Death Row crew still probably stung for the already struggling Eazy-E.
The production on “Dre Day” is so iconic that just hearing the phrase “diss track” makes me immediately think of the smooth, high pitched g-funk synths on “Dre Day.” The low, sputtering synths that accompany the percussion announce that this song does not pull any punches. “Dre Day” is representative of basically all of diss rap: It’s fundamentally stupid, artistically lazy and yet morbidly captivating and addicting.