On Saturday, Remy Ma set Twitter on fire with the release of her diss track “ShEther.” In what is undoubtedly a violation of her probation, the Bronx-native goes on an almost seven minute rampage dissecting and deflating Nicki MInaj’s status as the self-proclaimed Queen Of Rap. What’s more, she goes personal, digging into industry gossip, threatening the release of incriminating videos and leaving no stone unturned. Minaj’s response? Posting two Instagrams, one endorsement from Beyonce and another, that’s now deleted, which nods at Remy’s poor sales for her latest project. Historically, that’s not really how this works.
A Brief Rundown Of The Cypher
With the launch of “ShETHER,” Remy Ma looked back at an age old institution in the world of hip-hop: The cypher. “[This is] part of what hip hop started as,” WillPower, a master producer who has worked with everyone from Eminem and The Game to Yelawolf and Wiz Khalifa, told me Sunday. “Hip-hop in the beginning was based off of [battling], not only in the rap part of it, but there were also battles in the art world where they were doing graffiti, there were battles in the dance side of it with the break dancing, so it’s part of what the culture is.”
Hip-hop culture began with the concept of individuals going back and forth, whether it was DJs spinning on turntables or emcees going in on the mic. That tradition is held up in shows like The Get Down as well as movies like Juice. In a culture predicated on ego and how braggadocios one could be, one-upping each other was, and still is, an integral component.
That back and forth exchanged surfaced most clearly in cyphers. Cracking jokes as a part of rhymes about your opponent in a cypher could, in a sense, goad them out of the ring. Kids could gather on corners in Dyckman, or around lampposts in the South Bronx, as young emcees spit a few bars. And even when rap started to go mainstream, picking up sales and glamor, cyphers remained a part of the game and composed a significant part of the industry.
Battle Rap Was Built Into Hip-Hop’s Foundations
“When hip-hop was an underdog it was important to define who we were and who we weren’t,” Atlanta-based DJ Speakerfoxx who has worked with the likes of Mike Will Made It and Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo told me. “Cam’ron would be like ‘Oh you see Jay Z over there acting like he’s young? Well he’s old, the way he sounds is old and I’m brand new. I’m hip-hop.’” Battles within the art form itself were what separated the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
One of the most infamous rap diss tracks of all time was “Ether.” In case you didn’t catch the reference, when Remy released her diss track, she did so as a direct ode an homage to work that came before her. The original track was one with the same beat of this new, female counterpart, and was released by Nas as a part of a back and forth with Jay Z. You’ll find few true hip-hop heads who will contend that Jay won that battle, though in the history books, he has clearly become the more successful artist of the two.
These days though, beefs has begun to have a secondary agenda. Because of the commercialized nature of the industry, sometimes these tiffs are just smoke and mirrors to up the hype factor around an artist. “A lot of times you’ll notice that a good rap battle will happen right before an album is about to drop or something big in a career; people just looking for a spike in attention,” Power noted.
‘ShETHER’ Works Because It Got So Personal
A rap battle is just that, a battle; it’s a back and forth of bars. Once two artists engage with one another, in the traditional sense of a rap battle, nothing matters except what’s actually said in the rhymes. Prior sales, outside notoriety, and even co-signs from deities like Beyonce are irrelevant unless you can inject that into the conversation via your verse. In the traditional sense, Instagrams about sales mean nothing until you can put it on wax.
“I thought [“ShETHER”] was really personal which put me in the mindframe of just a regular rap battle,” Power explained. “The whole goal is to be as personal and dismantle the person you’re battling to get in their head and make them mess up.” Again, goading the person until they get laughed out of the ring. Speakerfoxx agreed — battles are about getting personal and breaking down your opponent in the eyes of the audience. The winner of a battle is ultimately whomever can verbally trump the other.
The winner is whoever can get in enough drags, enough cracks — and enough reads, as our queer friends and Dorian Corey from Paris Is Burning would say — that it’s clear one rapper bested the other. That requires not only ammo but an excellence at verbal wordplay; it’s an art form.
Battle Rap Is Fading In The Commercial Era
To be clear, winning a rap battle doesn’t necessarily change anything in the industry at large. “Just because Remy wins doesn’t mean they are going to pick up Nicki and replace her with Remy,” Power explained. “For that to happen she would have to battle Nicki then everybody else who comes up and have some extremely smart business moves in place.”
After all, Nicki Minaj’s core audience is not mainly composed of hip-hop heads. We know this. Nicki prophetically spoke to that years ago when she was still going hard with her bars saying “Nicki ain’t a rapper, Nicki is a brander.” Over the scope of her career, Nicki has transcended rap and made her way into the pop world, similar to the way that Taylor Swift transcended country and exalted herself into the pop world. This means that her fans don’t necessarily care who is the best artist lyrically — they’re more interested in buying a package.
Look back to the original “Ether” track. Though Nas won the battle, proving himself to be the superior lyricist, Jay Z proved himself a more marketable and successful businessman, maneuvering his way into multiple pages of history. Even Jay has gone on record to state how he can make more money making wack rhymes than putting effort into his bars. So the winning of a rap battle amounts to nothing more than bragging points; a gold star and the respect of fellow hip-hop heads.
We Probably Won’t Get A ‘ShETHER’ Response From Nicki
Well first off, it’s not likely Nicki MInaj will ever respond in a song in as direct a way to Remy Ma as Remy came for Nicki. After all, how much more direct can you get than “F*ck Nicki Minaj.” The evidence? In 2010 a female Baltimore rapper by the name of Keys flipped Minaj’s infamous “Itty Bitty Piggy” track on its head in a blistering diss that racked up over three million views. Nicki’s response mainly was to state on a USTREAM video with her fans “I’ll never say your name, you’ll just keep barking up that tree and I’ll keep doing what I do.” Many posit though that quite a few of her rhymes from the following few months were about her new contender.
And it’s a smart play; should Minaj actually mention Remy Ma’s name, Remy automatically wins in a sense. As Minaj has brought in a new non-hip hop audience, any mention by her, shifts their attention. “I think the person from this entire thing that’s going to benefit the most — unless Nicki comes back in a phenomenal way with a better verse — is Remy,” Power said. “I think Remy Ma is going to come out better because of her profile in this.” But Ma won’t be the only winner according to the producer.
“The biggest part of this is this is the first time on this large a scale that we are seeing female hip-hop artists go for this moment,” he went on to say. This is an amazing time for the culture. We are starting to see female artist get the shine and respect they deserve because people are talking about this like Nas and Jay Z.”
Looks like we’re all winning.
Follow Mikelle Street is a fashion and hip-hop writer living in New York. Follow Street on Twitter here.