From Street Art to Tabloid-Filler: The Evolution of “Beef”

Jay Smooth Discusses the Legacy of Hip-Hop Feuds.


Question: Why is Beef such a Strong Force in Hip-Hop?

Jay Smooth: Beef has always been around, obviously it pre-dates hip-hop. Approaching your artistic expression in a competitive way has been around, specifically in the black community, for ages and ages with the dozens and with the competitive storytelling Zora Neale Hurston documented in “Mules and Men”. You can see a lot of precursors in the world of music: George Clinton calling out Kool and the Gang and Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown calling out the Average White Band, or even The Beatles and the Stones—lots of people are competitive. And hip-hop itself grew in the Seventies out of a scene in the South Bronx that was dominated by gangs like the Savage Skulls and the Black Spades, who had very real beef going on and hip-hop blossomed as an outlet for them to either have an oasis from that beef when they went to Kool Herc’s party, or as people like Bam – Afrika Bambaataa continued to develop it, they specifically shaped it into an alternative outlet for that beef and competition.

Starting even back in the early 60's, before people were calling anything hip-hop, you had those gangs in the Bronx steppin’ to each other with sort of ritualized dance moves—the top-rocking and up-rocking that was initial first version of break-dancing or B-boying. You saw that going back to the early 60's, according to heads that were there.

Hip-hop has always been a way to take that competitive spirit and pride on your block and competitiveness with the next block.  Hip-hop has always been an outlet for that energy. That's always been the thread, but I think as hip-hop became contrived, from the early 90's on, into this forum to live out this street life mythology, things got blurred to a point where people thought they had to act out that beef. People got caught up in the beef and forgot that they were just doing a competitive art form and felt they had to live it out another form.  So the beef has become -- the concept of beef has become something that is more toxic and more paralyze than it was for most of hip-hop's history.

Obviously, we had some major tragedies in hip-hop that no one knows in detail what happened, with the deaths of Biggie and Pac, but certainly there was beef that led up to that ultimate ending.  I think people have backed away from taking things that far and I think, beef nowadays, it's not even…the thing that's wrong with beef nowadays isn’t even that there is the threat of it becoming something that leads to real violence, it just becomes sort of inane and insipid, because the ‘beef’ is not even about making songs anymore. ‘Beef’ plays out in other multimedia forms where I make a YouTube video about you, then you make a YouTube video about me where you find my grade school teacher and interview her about how I use to wet the bed, then you go and find my ex-girlfriend and talk about how I was impotent. There’s so much other TMZ-style drama that goes on, instead of having the beef inspire us to make great music, which was always went on, even with Biggie and Pac, the ‘beefs’ that turned ugly. There was always at the core, we were trying to represent and show that we were the best musician, but now its sort of we're the best at creating tabloid gossip, is what the ‘beef’ is based on. Hip-hop ‘beef’ has become tiresome in that sense

Recorded on August 4, 2009

Jay Smooth discusses the legacy of hip-hop feuds.

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