Rap as Warfare: How the first beef changed the course of rap

When Eminem ripped into Trump, the world seemed to stand still. The world of rap at least. While Eminem was not the first rap rapper to do so (Chance the rapper, and even Kendrick Lamar were amongst those to have already dissed him), yet the echoes of his rhymes rang louder, and reverberated with more force than anyone else’s before his. Maybe because, like all true beef, he drew a line, asking listeners to either choose between him or Trump. Beef in rap music is a battle – fiercely competitive – with no middle ground, where respect isn’t part of the equation – the more the disrespect, the better even.

But more than a mere speaking of truth to power, or just another voice in a long chorus against the perceived missteps of the 45th President of the United States, Eminem’s fire rhyme is a cultural note and reminder – both for its audacity – and for it’s echoing of what rap really is – a rallying cry invented by the unheard, mainly inner-city youth, to voice their opinion, and expose the grittiness of their surroundings, and maybe even minds. Yet, rap wasn’t always a medium for such, but in going through many metamorphosis and eclectic innovations, especially palpable during Rap’s classical period in the East Coast, it moulded into what we know today – part of it at least.

If you haven’t seen or heard Eminem’s diatribe against President Trump, then you need to.

Hip Hop was invented in South Bronx in 1973 by DJ Kool Herc – an 18 year old immigrant from Jamaica who isolated and fused fragments of older records with popular dance songs to create a continuous flow of music which he interjected with spoken words. Together with other DJ’s, notably, Grand Wizard and Grandmaster Flash, they created what is now known as Rap. After discovering and perfecting new techniques for turntable manipulation, DJs played their latest invention at parties and Clubs, and from there, contests between Rappers and Break dancers developed.  It wont be until the late 80’s that Hip-Hop/Rap would become more of a Producer’s medium than a DJ’s.

In Busy Bee, who, stylistically modelled his performance and delivery after “Love Bug Starski,” the new genre had one of it’s best disciples. Known as Chief Rocker, Busy Bee as you could guess by his moniker, was all about getting the crowd worked up and having a good time in the club, which, truthfully, was what Hip-Hop/Rap was all about at the time. He was foremost an entertainer, with lyricism only an afterthought. He amassed a large following after winning many of the early rap competitions in and around New York, but also for his colourful personality.

Known to brag, Busy Bee rarely passed any opportunity to remind people – anyone – of his ability on the mic; or how he rocked the party like no one else could. Many people, Kool Moe D included, all said he had the confidence and fast oratory skill which Mohammed Ali made famous. It wasn’t unusual for Busy Bee to show up at a competition and immediately go to where the trophy was and say: “…I’m knocking out all buns…this is my trophy….No one can beat me…I’m coming back to get this,” in his iconic, rapid and breathless fashion.

Kool Moe D, a member of the rap group – The Treasurous Three, was more of a well known lyricist and a purist. Known as one of the finest lyricists of his generation, he was what many would describe as a “serious” rapper: he invented “the double time flow” and was also the first rapper to perform at the Grammys. In many ways, he was different from Busy Bee. But they had one thing in common they frequented Harlem World.

Harlem World , was, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, a sort of Mecca for the budding new genre of music called Rap.  Originally opened as a Disco Club, the owner, Fat Man – a Black entrepreneur, known around New York for his street smarts and people skill, used to own a record label in Detroit before he moved to New York. Harlem World, now a famous jewel in Hip-Hop history,  was really an anomaly at the time. Zoned in a wrong place – a community where people lived,  it wasn’t allowed to carry the tag “Club”, and instead was called “Harlem World Cultural and Entertainment Complex”. It was a loophole that fostered it’s rapid rise, but also cemented its demise.

Being in a neighbourhood teeming with teenagers and people in their early 20’s, who at that time were into the new cultural wave known as rap, Fat Man tapped into the new phenomenon, and swiftly shifted from disco to Hip-Hop, inadvertently turning Harlem World into a Hip-Hop haven for which it would later be famous for. It was a three-storey club with a lighted dance floor, mirrored walls, and a one of a kind hundred foot lightening bolt shaped bar. And more importantly, it could house between four to five thousand people at once. It was simply the perfect place in the East Coast to host rap competitions. Then, it wasn’t known as battles simply because it wasn’t about lyrical depth, or flow, but more about who could get the crowd going. They also gave out trophies. It was basically entertainment and fun. Before the Rap Attacks and the Ciphers, there were the Rap Competitions in Harlem World.  Until Kool Moe D and Busy Bee changed that.

In the Christmas day Competition in 1981, Kool Moe D was the MC and wasn’t listed as part of the competition while Busy Bee was the star of the show, expected to win the whole thing. As usual, Busy Bee arrived with his entourage, in his usual braggadocios manner, claiming to be the best in the “place to be.” bouncing around corridors and the stage.

Suddenly, an individual in the crowd screamed: “Can you beat Kool Moe D?”

Busy Bee replied “I can beat anybody!”

The same person shouted the same question a second time.

Busy Bee, not having anyone question his skills, made it own he could beat anyone, for the second time.

Meanwhile, Kool Moe D, as MC of the event was also on stage and he obviously took it personal enough to go an register his name, and asked to be allowed to perform immediately after Busy Bee. Not knowing what was going on, Busy Bee went on stage and rocked the party with his “ba-ditty-ba-da-dang-da-dang-dang” rhyme. The crowd enjoyed it.  He didn’t attack Kool Moe D, he just competed old school style – which were rhymes about his own skills. With the crowd still roaring, he left the stage and went backstage, obviously to pop some champagne and party with groupies.

Then Kool Moe D took the stage.

After the first couple of scratches from the DJ, Kool Moe D went in for the jugular, without preamble.

“Hold on, Busy Bee, I don’t mean to be bold
But put that “ba-ditty-ba” bullshit on hold
We gonna get right down to the nitty-grit
Gonna tell you little somethin’ why you ain’t shit
It ain’t a emcee’s jock that you don’t hug
You even bit your name from the Love Bug”

The crowd were stunned – and were probably thinking – why is he attacking him like that?

There was silence, but just for a brief moment, followed by a loud roar. They roared, screamed and egged him on.

And then he went even harder:

If you was money, man, you’d be counterfeit
I gotta give it you, though, you can rock
But everybody know you’re on the Furious’ jock
And I remember, Busy, from the olden-times
When my man, Spoonie G, used to sell you rhymes
Remember that rhyme called, “Ditty-Ba-Ditty”?
Man, goddamn, that shit was a pity!

The crowd screamed louder. That was the point rap changed. The moment the crowd cheered on Kool Moe D’s vicious take down of Busy Bee was the moment rap had a change of guard: it went competitive, personal, and the ability to rap/rhyme well was suddenly seen as important. That moment redefined the trajectory of rap, and divided it into two distinct periods: rap as party music as the first and rap as competitive sport as the second.

Like MC Shan once said “without Moe D, there would be no beef.”