Rap is a game of contest. It’s always been, and in reality should always be. MCs are gladiators, the music is the arena, microphones are physical weapons while the lyrics are the invisible lethal ones. Engaging in the industry is signing into the battle of will and stamina (lyrically speaking) and of course it’s a competition. It has that Darwinian appeal to survival of the fittest. Nas typified this clearly in his track “Rule” featuring Amerie off that beef-spurred album “Stillmatic” thus: “Ain’t nothing without struggle, listen up, it’s critical/ We used to fear arms, now the weapons are chemical/ In Hip Hop, the weapons are lyrical/ To be the best you challenge the best, then the blessings are spiritual. Top of the world for the kids and unless/ Popping any rapper’s head off his shoulder’s no contest.” It’s as simple as that; enough said.
To rap used to be inspirational, engaging, educational and entertaining as well. But not today, and especially not in Nigeria. We will only mention but wouldn’t go into the nitty-gritty and origins of beef – disputes, culture in rap history. Beef has always spiced the dishes of rap. It has not only made it interesting and commercial, it has made it popular and bankable in terms of its panoramic audience and schizophrenic outreach. You only need to watch the popular Netflix series, The Get Down, to understand how hip-hop has always been about the ability to be better than the next guy, the next crew, the next borough, and city.
When we talk beef (and consequently battle rap), we are not talking about kindergarten insults. We are talking about poetic lines consciously put down whether written or freestyled on wax with consideration for figures of speech, expression and aesthetic prowess and relevance. We are talking about word-craft, word-play, skilful use of registers and all. History has shown that some of the greatest records lyrically have spurn out of disses and battles. From Tupac vs Notorious B.I.G, Jay Z vs Nas, to most recently Drake vs Meek Mills, and also Flocka vs Wiz Khalifa. We also have Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte and Antoinette, Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, TI vs Lil Flip and beef between establishments and groups like the one between Eminem and The Source Magazine (under Benzino’s watch), Ice Cube and N.W.A (Niggas With Attitude) among many others.
The Nigerian golden age of rap had once been turbulent. We are not taking about commercial success and we can still have another era. But then, the most heated was Ruggedman and Eedris Abdulkareem and again Ruggedman and Mode 9. It was about claiming the rap throne and beating off competition. Even social media effortlessly tried to blow up the Vector and Ycee beef. We have Ill Bliss vs Ikechukwu, likewise; Sauce Kid and Godwon; Vector & Reminisce. Salam Spicey and Terry G, then Kelly Handsome vs Terry G & Mo Hits, M.I vs Kelly Handsome & Iceberg Slim among other suya retailers. The list continues, both relevant and irrelevant ones continue to inspire and innovate new MCs and to strengthen the industry.
Regrettably, on the Nigerian rap scene today, everyone seems to have become every MC’s Yes Man! No one seems ready to upset the status quo… Fear of losing money perhaps? To accept everything both at face value, or its denotative sense is to deny the flaws inherent in either the MCs flow or his mastery of rapping techniques. But it is not so in a rap industry like Nigeria. An industry that is not only evolving but one can count the good rappers on the fingers. We can deceive ourselves and nod to a non-existence perfection, but the truth stands before us. If we are to argue that the Hip Hop industry, particularly the rap industry is losing its roots or creativity, we are not talking about distinctive sound (though that also shouldn’t be eroded), we are talking about the decline of competition, experiment, style and instant response to acclaimed greatness.
Everyone wants to adapt – (adopt if you like) a varied style that guarantees success as seen or demonstrated by certain A-List artists: Rappers. There are currently about a dozen (12) songs that sound(ed) like Vector’s Headies award winning “King Kong”. More are still emerging by the day. Maybe these fake MCs wish to “deface” the song, deconstruct it, “kill” it if possible, till it ceases to exist or have any relevance. Or till we forget who really sang it. We are not going to waste our precious time arguing for the rap-singing MCs copycatting successful rapper Olamnide and his protege; Lil Kesh. That isn’t the problem right now.
Beef is the protein in Hip Hop music in general whether between Soul singers or R & B artists and rappers could not be an exception. Beef whether we view it syntactically or semantically (metaphorically) has been lost on the Nigerian rap dish. It has made the rap industry less engaging – though commercially more successful than ever. The industry seems uninteresting when compared to periods of big juggernauts battling each other. It’s like the era of lazy MCs; Everyone writes crap and records knowing nobody would call him out – maybe the concentration is on the vixens and dance steps in those videos if ever there is or was one rather than a mastery of lyrical techniques. It is like playing basket ball with the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durrant, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Jordan, Marcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Vince Carter, Nate Robinson among others and not having a single slam dunk! Are you kidding me? That exactly is what is happening in the industry, if there are beefs, probably, the MCs are afraid to bring it on wax. Only a few of recent memory are (were) able to bring it home on that note. But they will be “forming gangsta onto party beat’ as said by Splash.
The creative response and energy that beef brings to the table is no longer what it used to be. There are no MCs bettering themselves and claiming to be the best with prove when looked at on their album. Only a few, the regular suspects like Mode 9, M.I Abaga, Jesse Jags among others. Nasir Jones in the track “We Will Survive” while addressing the late Notorious B.I.G in the “I Am” album asserts that: “It used to be fun, making records to see you respond/ But now competition is none, now that you’re gone/ And these niggas is wrong…using your name in vein” and “Ain’t too many real ones out here; I feel some/ But they’re not capable to take it to where you took it to”. Even in the height of competition there’s a degree of respect between two good MCs. What is wrong with ours?
Copycatting, bootlicking and a** kissing MCs killed the creative impulse of Nigerian Hip Hop Rap.
Put aside the commercial success which of course any credible MC with good management/ right buttons and necessary finances could attain; South African Hip Hop like ours is also evolving at an unprecedented rate. This is simply because it has variety to choose from and all its variations are considered relevant. From their top rap artists, even beefing partners; you can hardly tie them together as sounding the same. AKA is different from Casper Nyovest: while the first focuses on the smoothness of his flow and musicality – that should be appealing, the former is interested in punch-lines and food for thought and are both good in their own right(s). Nasty C, Kwesta, L-Tido and K.O among others have different styles but they seem not afraid to rise to the occasion when beef is served. I think they will surely be at the table. To chip in the Ghanian side of things; we are well aware of the Manifest, Sarkodie and EL beef that is still on fire! Happy cooking.
When will the creative energy be put back in the game? When will we witness the rise of a fearless generation of MCs again and we are not talking about just battle rappers, but a variety of styles and methods> Not everyone should come to the game with the same skill set right?? Until that time, I doff my cap to all MCs in the game doing their ‘thangz’, making us proud and propelling the engines of the industry. Salaam!