There are some things that I think our generation is going to take great pride in telling our children about. The first Barack Obama inauguration. The on-the-ground work of black-led activism, the night Meek Mill hopped on Twitter and told the world that Drake doesn’t write his own rhymes.
I’m probably not going to have children, so I’ll tell these things to the children of one of my close friends.
There are a few things that have to be understood in order to understand the gravity of such an attack. For writers of any stripe, craft is sacrosanct. To attack that at such a base level is to declare a firm and unshakable level of disrespect, similar to someone showing up to your home uninvited and going directly to your kitchen, opening your refrigerator and emptying all of its contents into a trashcan.
Given this, when I caught wind of Drake’s (so-called) response record, the sparse and airy “Charged Up,” I was excited to hear a fierce track, a total evisceration, something that would grab Meek Mill by the collar and drag him out of his kitchen, a half-full trash can of organic olives and raisins left behind.
What I got was a good song, but a song that I couldn’t really separate from any other Drake song. Sure, given the timing we can connect the dots. But was this song really THAT much different from the often confident and always generalizing Drake that we’re used to?
Most of us are from a generation where rappers named the beast that they were showing up to slay. In his beef with LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee used LL’s name to level a series of vicious insults in the final verse of “Death Blow.” What we get with Drake is kind of just more Drake. I do want to reiterate that I like this song. I also want to reiterate that if this song came out at any other time, independent of Meek Mill’s attacks, this would just be another good Drake song. Which would still be fine.
In watching the reactions to this song, I realized that perhaps the stakes for the great musical diss moment have become so low that there’s no real context or understanding anymore for the proper approach to a diss track, even one done subtly. This is where I come in. Here, we’re going to take a look at five great diss moments in music history. Ones that best outline how to approach someone who has shown you the slightest bit of disrespect in your home, at your job, at the gym (ESPECIALLY at the gym) or in the grocery store. Please take the following notes as literally as possible when approached with any perceived slight in your day-to-day life.
5.) That time Patti LaBelle hopped on the mic and ethered Diana Ross during the Apollo Theater’s 50th anniversary show in 1985
Directed at: Diana Ross, obviously.
In response to: DECADES of blatant and unchecked disrespect that would put an average person in the unfortunate position of having to catch the hands.
Where to begin? In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Diana Ross guy. We’re faced with decisions early in life. Either you’re a Diana Ross person, or you’re a person who will, without question, be granted access into the kingdom of heaven one day to be reunited with your long-lost loved ones while Diana Ross wanders around as the last person on a scorched and empty earth — not quite hell, but far from heaven.
In 1967, Cindy Birdsong left the LaBelles to team up with Diana Ross in the Supremes. When I say “team up,” I mean she left the LaBelles to be a rarely heard or seen background singer. Patti Labelle didn’t forgive her until the late ’90s or something. Point being, by 1985 Miss Patti had nearly two decades of being fed up under her belt. Let’s be clear about one thing here: this was Diana Ross’ moment. She was supposed to front this thing and carry it all the way home, despite her voice being fairly below average on this particular evening (and her whole career in my opinion, but who am I to judge?) Patti had different ideas. At about the 2:19 mark, you can see her, decked out in a black fur coat, making her way to the front. At 2:22, you can see Ross motioning to Patti to join her at the front. A sure mistake that she would later regret. At 2:28, she reluctantly hands the mic off to Patti, a somewhat sour look on her face as she passes it with a limp wrist. The next 20 seconds are the only part of the video worth watching, largely due to Miss Patti taking us directly to the front steps of the church and dropping us off while Diana Ross watches from afar, not quite being able to get across the street to join us. These 20 seconds do almost as much work as any full-length diss track. If the ethos of the diss is showing your opponent that you are more skilled than they are at the artistic medium that you share, this is how to make the most of that in as little time as possible.
4.) Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado – “Give It To Me”
Directed at: Scott Storch, Prince, probably Fergie, the teeming yet nameless and faceless masses.
In response to: Prince saying “sexy never left” somewhere in 2007 and Justin Timberlake’s feelings being hurt. To capitalize on the emotion, Timbaland and Nelly Furtado decided to take advantage of the situation by airing some unprovoked grievances.
We’re not going to beat around the bush here. This song is mediocre, at best. But let’s take a moment to unpack the absolute audacity here. To understand that there was a time in Justin Timberlake’s life and career where he thought: “You know who I really need to hop on a track and get at? Prince Rogers Nelson.” And (not to be outdone) Timbaland, largely out of nowhere, decides “You know who I kind of hate? Scott Storch.” Nelly Furtado is the most interesting element of this, though. You got the vibe that she’s just along for the drive-by, but she didn’t really want to be there. She’s like Tre in Boyz N The Hood, except Doughboy (in this case, Timbaland) didn’t let her out of the car. Instead, he said “Just talk reckless at the beginning of this thing about someone you vaguely dislike, and then also sing the hook that is almost entirely unrelated to the rest of the song.”
The lesson here is simple. You can’t respond to direct attacks by vague shit-talking. EXCEPT for when the person directly attacking you is a legend who you know won’t respond and you can bring your friends along for some random shit-talking in the process. It’s the playground rule.
3.) Destiny’s Child – “Survivor”
Directed at: All of the ex-Destiny’s Child members that Beyonce probably got kicked out of the group.
In response to: The fact that sometimes you just gotta let your ex know that things are still just as lit, if not more so.
I mostly rooted for LeToya Luckett because she looked like a girl in my 8th grade class who I had a crush on. So you can only imagine how devastated I was to find out that she had been removed from Destiny’s Child (along with LaTavia Roberson, a name I definitely had to find by typing “ex-Destiny’s Child members” into Google.)
I say this to say that “Survivor” marks the start of my favorite Destiny’s Child era. The one where we got to watch Beyonce and Kelly function as Jordan and Pippen and Michelle Williams function as one of those slightly-less-than-average Bulls centers from the late ’90s who mostly took up space, but would surprise you with a good game every now and then.
I don’t look up ex-girlfriends on the internet. I learned that lesson the hard way during the dawn of Facebook, when I looked up an ex on the social network, only to find out that she was happily married to someone far more attractive than I was, even in my prime (“my prime” was between 2002 and 2006, for those wondering). They had pictures in Paris, in Greece and in a slightly-less-gentrified Brooklyn. In all of said pictures, it was like she was smiling past the camera and deep into the wreckage of my life, as I ate cereal out of a giant Tupperware container with a Power Rangers spoon.
I think of how jarring that initial moment was, finding out that someone you once loved and fought with is FLOURISHING without you. And then I think of living that moment about 12 to 15 million times, and never being able to escape it. “Survivor” works because it burrows. It is the ultimate diss, the ultimate dismissal. It is the gift that keeps on taking.
(Although, for my money, LeToya Luckett made out at least pretty alright.)
2.) Nas – “Ether”
Directed at: Jay-Z, before Jay-Z got old and boring.
Before anything else, can you imagine if Ether dropped during the era of Twitter? Would the site even work? When I first heard this song, I ran through the halls of my college dorm while my classmates were packing to go on Christmas break, screaming. Literally just screaming. Thankfully, now we can do that in 140 character bursts without ever having to leave the bed.
“Ether” is the essential diss track. I’m not going to debate this in any imaginable way. First off, Ether is actually a good song. The people who love “Hit ‘Em Up” as a diss song have no idea what comes after the first four lines. It’s a terrible song with a lot of terrible rapping and middle school insults. What makes this song excellent is how it’s crafted. Few MCs can build momentum through three verses like Nas. Even for an MC with a wide skill set, that is maybe his sharpest skill. “Ether” first looks inward at Nas’ own greatness, while still taking a few light jabs at Jay-Z, leading up to the third and final verse, which is a flurry. An absolute storm. You have to have nuanced insults. You have to make them personal. And you have to do it while also maintaining a quality flow. Nas checked all three boxes here, namely in the final verse. Insults that might not even be true, but are believable. Sure, Jay-Z isn’t wack when compared to Beanie Sigel. But when Nas said it, I believed it. That is the great work of the best diss tracks, or the best tricks the devil plays, or the best ways to leave someone gasping and furious. Make your audience believe anything about your enemy that you want them to. This is still America. You control the narrative, you control everything.
1.) This video of Ghostface threatening Action Bronson for six minutes over Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Be For Real”
Directed at: Action Bronson, Chicago Cubs fans.
In response to: Action Bronson getting a little too gassed up on ESPN’s SportsNation and swerving ever so gently out of his lane.
Here is how I imagine it:
Ghostface rolls out of bed and looks at his phone. He sees an overwhelming number of notifications, alerting him of Action Bronson’s comments. Puts on his lucky gray sweatpants. Thinks “what shirt should I wear during the filming of this home video to truly get my point across?”
Finds the St. Louis Cardinals pullover that I’m 100% sure was stolen off the back of a lesser St. Louis rapper, perhaps one of the St. Lunatics.
Puts on the first Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes album to clear his head and think of his next steps.
Arrives on “Be For Real,” a song that is over seven minutes long with NUMEROUS spoken interviews, many of them by the legendary Teddy Pendergrass.
Has a brilliant idea.
Takes 20-30 minutes to set up his phone at the appropriate angle and presses record.
Listen, this is the greatest video in the world. I watched this for an hour straight, and the only reason I stopped was because I made myself weak due to so much laughter, and I had to find nourishment. You might be thinking “Well this isn’t a diss SONG?”
To which I will say:
You are wrong. This is the only diss song that matters.
Before we even hit 30 seconds, Ghostface is informing Bronson that he was given a grace period. A minute later, Ghostface is referencing one of the many spoken word interludes in the song that is providing a steady, yet haunting backdrop for this potent address, something he does at least one other time. And for a moment, you might think this will turn into a fatherly lecture. You might think, “Oh, Ghostface is just going to remind him to watch what he says in front of a mic! Well, that’s refreshing!”
But then a plot twist is revealed as Ghostface informs Bronson that he knows some gentlemen who are both willing and able to shoot him. In an overlooked, yet iconic moment, Ghostface tells Bronson (but also the world) that he “knows the tour schedule” (making arm motions like he’s unscrolling the declaration of independence).
Shortly after this he calls out a random handful of ESPN employees, starting with the SportsNation hosts, but then detouring into Stephen A. Smith, Jemele Hill, Mike and Mike.
All of this builds to the end, when Ghostface pulls up his often-falling sweatpants, leans in and says “Get your shit together, bruh. I want you to enjoy your summer.”
and I think “Oh, how kind!”
Until after a small pause, Ghostface follows up with “Because you know a lot of people don’t make it through summer…”
and shortly after, he fades away.
This is the greatest six minutes ever recorded. This could win an Oscar for best short film. This is the new bar. I need Drake to record a video of himself in a random Major League Baseball pullover jacket, listening to one of those weird Temptations songs from their psychedelic era, outlining all of the ways that Meek Mill could meet his end at the hands of a new Canadian Scarface. It doesn’t matter if it’s even real. The secret is that the greatest diss records and the greatest diss moments aren’t about what you can prove is real.
They’re about what you can make me believe is real.
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