You need a nemesis: The history of diss tracks shows enemies can improve you

… but hey, whatever gets you through the night.

Elton John and John Lennon during the recording of Whatever Gets You Through The Night.

When the history of diss tracks — songs explicitly written to attack a fellow artist — is presented, it usually begins with the battle raps of hip-hop. But diss tracks started much earlier:

‘You Keep Her’ by Joe Tex, released in 1962 is effectively a diss track in which Tex goes for James Brown after the Godfather of Soul took up with his wife, dumped her, and sent a letter saying “you can have her back”. Tex refused Brown’s offer and slammed him in song.

In reggae, which formed the foundation for hip-hop through soundsystems and clashing, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry broke ties with the producer Coxsone Dodd and put out the track ‘Run for Cover’ in 1967 to mock him.

Perry went on to put out a string of diss tracks including People Funny Boy (1968) designed to get back at label boss Joe Gibbs, who shot back with a response song called People Grudgeful (also 1968). Perry put himself at odds with another label boss on Judgement Inna Babylon (1984) and Satan Kicked the Bucket (1988) which were both designed to hurt Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Unsurprisingly, Blackwell did not commit his response on wax.

The Beatles, who were adept at learning from and lifting from black music, got in on diss tracks early. Lennon wrote ‘Sexy Sadie’ on 1968’s The Beatles (better known as The White Album) to drag the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His original lyrics were explicit but George Harrison, who was increasingly interested and touched by Indian spiritual traditions, asked him to obscure the subject a little more.

When The Beatles split, the diss track tendency really took off, with Lennon and McCartney, both inclined to passive aggression, writing songs to spite their old songwriting partner.

McCartney shot first on Ram (1971) which included the sarcastic and cruel Too Many People. Lennon, feelings hurt and hearing the message clearly despite McCartney’s initial denials — he later admitted the song was about Lennon — shot back with How Do You Sleep? on Imagine (1971). Other tracks on Imagine, including 3 Legs were also designed to get a McCartney.

Presaging what would come to be known in hip-hop as “subliminal hits” — disses that relied on personal information or insider knowledge that require the listener to be clued up — Lennon did not explicitly mention McCartney in any of his songs. On How Do You Sleep? there are numerous references that make it clear that Lennon is going for his old friend but it’s deliberately squirrelly:

So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise
You better see right through that mother’s eyes
Those freaks was right when they said you was dead
The one mistake you made was in your head

You live with straights who tell you you was king
Jump when your momma tell you anything
The only thing you done was yesterday
And since you’re gone you’re just another day

That same idea of having lost authenticity and taken the advice and adoration of people who were once your enemies turns up a lot the diss tracks that came much later in the fracturing of the original NWA when Ice Cube went solo. He raps on No Vaseline:

Lookin’ like straight Bozos
I saw it comin’ that’s why I went solo
And kept on stompin’
When y’all motherfuckers moved straight outta Compton
Livin’ with the whites, one big house

While the diss track back and forth — implied and explicit — between the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac is often discussed, I’m more interested in the later clash between Nas and Jay-Z, which produced two classics of the genre — Takeover (2001) and Ether (2001) — which pushed both men to produce some of their best rhymes. And, unlike other hip-hop feuds — Jay vs Nas remained entirely on wax and ended with the men publicly squashing the beef.

I think it’s worth having a rival whatever business you’re in and, in fact, I go further than that. I think it’s useful having a nemesis — someone whose every utterance and act makes you livid. If they happen to be in the same trade as you, even better. The fire of frustration and anger can be useful. As Public Image Limited put it on Rise (1986) — “Anger is an energy.” — and if you can harness it, you can push yourself to new levels. The tricky part is not letting it consume you and not letting any nemesis you gain live rent-free in your head.

In the end, Lennon and McCartney made friends again, just as Nas and Jay-Z dropped the feud. Be like them. Don’t be Pac and Biggie.

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Writer, editor and internet arguer.

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