In hip hop, diss tracks and long running feuds have become a staple of the art form. As Rory Lynam discussed in a recent article, musical conflict no longer seems to be pushing artists into creating great music, but this was not always the case. The first full blown rap beef took place in the mid – eighties. It featured all of the elements that have become standard in rap: authenticity and credibility, bragging about talent and success, taking shots at the other side (both personal and musical) and sparking unexpected response tracks and collaborations.
Hip hop originated in New York. More specifically the actual birthplace is widely regarded to be 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Morris Heights neighbourhood of the Bronx. This unremarkable building was where DJ Kool Herc spun turntables and rapped over the beat at a house party on August 11 1973. However over a decade later this became the most hotly debated topic in hip hop. MC Shan released the track ‘The Bridge’, produced by Marley Marl. Released in 1986 it was a celebration of Queensbridge rap and included lines such as
“You love to hear the story, again and again,
Of how it all got started way back when,
The monument is right in your face,
Sit and listen for a while to the name of the place,
This is the place where stars are born
And we are the only ones that can’t be worn out.”
Although these lines seem somewhat innocuous, they triggered a long running feud. Bronx rapper KRS-One and his group Boogie Down Productions took exception to ‘The Bridge’. They felt that the song argued that hip hop originated in Queensbridge and not the Bronx. Still a young art form, rappers and MCs often tried to link themselves to the origins of hip hop. Location and ‘authenticity’ are still very important elements of rap and hip hop. Think of the ascendency of rappers such as Kendrick Lamar who root themselves and their music in the place they come from and the history that they carry with them.
Boogie Down Productions, a young up and coming rap group composed of KRS-One, D-Nice and DJ Scott La Rock decided to respond to this perceived slight – and while they were at it, establish themselves on the music scene. Their track ‘The Bridge is Over’ was a stinging rebuttal to ‘The Bridge’ and became one of the founding stones of the future of rap.
“Pickin’ up the mic, mon, dem don’t know what to say
Saying that hip-hop started out in Queensbridge
Saying lies like that, mon, you know dem can’t live
So I tell them again, me come to tell them again, gwan!”
Featured on the album Criminal Minded, ‘The Bridge Is Over’ proved to be the decisive blow in what had become known as The Bridge Wars. Although other rappers and crews had jumped into the fray none could top the lyricism and radio friendly beat of ‘The Bridge Is Over’. ‘The Bridge’ turned out to be less radio friendly. Running at 6.30 minutes it was slower, lyrically sparse and did not have a killer hook to reel the listener in. Before the internet revolutionised the music industry underground radio and select record stores played the track over and over. As people began to listen to the lyrics it became difficult to see how anyone could respond.
“MC Shan and Marley Marl is really only bluffing
Like Doug E. Fresh said “I tell you now, you ain’t nothing”
The reggae infused beat effectively ended the career of MC Shan and kickstarted the upward projectory of Boogie Down Productions.
“You’d better change what comes out your speaker
You’re better off talking bout your wack Puma sneaker
Cause Bronx created hip-hop, Queens will only get dropped
You’re still telling lies to me”
The track samples Billy Joel’s number one hit ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me’ which cynically records Joel’s manager begging him to try and be hip and appeal to a younger audience. Joel responds by claiming that his music will remain relevant despite his image. This pean to in authenticity made it the perfect base line for the Bronx rappers.
“Manhattan keeps on makin’ it
Brooklyn keeps on takin’ it
Bronx keeps creatin’ it
And Queens keeps on fakin’ it”
The Bridge Wars were far less violent than the name suggests: it was restricted entirely to music and the trading of diss records. It helped to spawn the idea of a feud that could begin and end through rhymes alone and although it led to the end of MC Shan’s rapping career it did not touch on the bloody depths of the east Coast West Coast beef of the nineties that saw two of raps greatest gunned down in their prime.
Behind the scenes were more personal motivations. This was also the era when rappers started to be able to make real money and careers from their music. In an interview with MTV KRS-One remarked that his real motivation behind ‘The Bridge is Over’ dated back to an early demo being dismissed and insulted by members of the Juice Crew, Marley Marl and Mr Magic’s group. This lead to the release of The South Bronx in 1986 by KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions in which they took shots at the Juice Crew under the guide of a Bronx – Queens rivalry.
“So you think that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge,
If you pop that junk in the Bronx you might not live”
In 1987 the Juice Crew responded with the track ‘Kill That Noise’ on MC Shan’s album Down by Law. It included the lyrics:
Marley Marl: “Yo Shan, I didn’t hear you say hip hop started in the Bridge on your record”
MC Shan: “I didn’t, they wanted to get on the bandwagon”.
It’s impact on the rap scene was limited and after this MC Shan, tired of the battle decided to take a step back. As a result of this ‘The Bridge Is Over’ has gone down in hip hop history as being the track that ended Shan’s career, making it one of the most influential and favoured diss track to come from New York. Alongside this KRS-One’s career began to flourish.