Although mainstream hip hop artists do not usually overtly diss their fellow rappers, the same competitive edge found in underground battle rap is present in the mainstream. In fact, for me the only difference is the way the attacks are packaged. While underground artists are down for jabs, hooks, and uppercuts, mainstream artists prefer slaps, shoves at most.
If you’ve ever seen a battle up close, or even watched one on the internet, you will notice that battle rappers look intense, serious, angry at times, their lyrics matching these looks as they talk about physically hurting or killing and psychologically scarring their opponent, or even targeting their rage at that opponent’s family, friends, lovers.
But the violence does not always stop at the lyrics. Battle raps can turn ugly with people reacting out of anger because one of the rappers got carried away by the other’s lyrics and was way too close for comfort. In these cases, literal jabs, hooks, uppercuts are thrown and entire squads, or those who came to hype up the rappers, can be involved in a brawl.
It’s not just battle rap, though. True, in the mainstream hip hop world, we witness tension primarily as “beef” between two artists, something slightly covert and usually harmless. For example, maybe one artist says something about another’s girl one day and the other artist responds with a diss track the next. The two artists might even exchange angry looks from across a night or strip club before leaving and complaining about hurt feelings on Twitter.
But as the 2012 melee between Drake’s and Chris Brown’s crews or even the more extreme ‘90s murders of Biggie and Pac show us, physical violence can seep into the mainstream as well. Bottles can be broken over heads, chairs can be thrown, people can wind up in hospitals, or dead. All of this, the result of lyrics, words, meant to stir something up in listeners, whether fans or foes.
It seems that the microphone can be used as a weapon of sorts, a way of inciting violence while hiding in relative safety. Mainstream artists can spit their lyrics without confronting their opponents in “real time,” a luxury battle rappers do not have. And just like the physical distance mainstream artists have from their opponents while rapping, they tend to be abstract in their lyrics. For example, rather than calling someone out directly by name, mainstream artists will put out an umbrella term like, “ya’ll niggas,” or “ya’ll bitches,” or some other kind of derogatory label. These labels are usually followed up with “ain’t shit,” or another way of saying the opponent is worthless.
As is the case in battle rap, mainstream artists use these lyrics as attempts to compete and establish themselves as better than anyone else in the game. Judging from the current state of affairs, it seems that mainstream artists feel that the only way they can make names and images for themselves is if they slaughter the names and images of other artists, creating opponents that they must battle. Definitely not overt in their attacks, mainstream hip hop is a classier, more refined—if you will—form of battle rapping.
But what is the prize? So an artist makes it to the top, is crowned the best, etc. That artist will be challenged and so the cycle continues. Mainstream hip hop remains a battle for greatness, which means a battle among everyone in the game.
Personally, I’d like to see artists battle the game itself as an opponent