The 20 best hip hop diss tracks of the '90s
These are the 20 rawest cuts of beef in '90s hip hop diss track history
Hip hop beef ain’t nothing new. Rappers have been battling with braggadocious lyrical warfare on and off wax since the birth of boom bap. Shit, even before the dawn of the golden era back in ‘79, Sugar Hill Gang were making shady moves, biting Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics for ‘Rapper's Delight’ then dropping the monumental hit with no credit to be found.
What initially started as a vocal alternative to violence for New York gangs, crews and neighbourhood’s to settle their differences on the mic, escalated into a verbal contact sport where no one was safe. Moms, wives, girlfriends, brothers, children, even MC Hammer! Blocks were divided, nations torn, relationships broken, gunfire opened, jail time served, and tragically lives of some of the greatest icons of the genre lost.
Legacies have been carved, as quickly as careers have been put to a halt off the back of one lethal diss. Where 80’s legends like KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions might have laid the foundations with their anthemic ‘The Bridge is Over’, the raucous levels raised by the rappers of the '90s undoubtedly ignited some of the most notoriously hard-hitting in hip-hop to date.
Pusha T’s merciless ‘The Story of Adiddon’ penned for Drake, Remy Ma’s prolifically venomous ‘ShETHER’ aimed at Nicki Minaj, and even Jay-Z's infamous ‘Takeover’ which set off a decade worthy beef with rap titan Nas (as well as featuring a brutal dig at Mobb Deep’s Prodigy who was unforgettably projected sky high in a ballerina costume at a 2001 Jay-Z performance) might never been imagined without the fearless emcee’s who flexed their cohones on bars first.
With rappers like Roxanne Shanté laying out a vendetta of diss tracks on near enough everyone in the game, to the full frontal eviscerating punchlines delivered by hip hop heavyweights like 50 Cent and the late Big L, all the way to the pummelling lexical prowess of Lauryn Hill, 2Pac and Biggie. Regardless of the chosen approach, the list for where and who sizeable credit is owed to for the art of the diss is lengthy, to say the least.
With February’s dire winter blues already overdue to fuck off, there seemed like no better time like the present to work through the history and take some advice from our beloved emcees of yesteryear on how to heat things up; by breaking down their 20 hard as hell, pure fire diss tracks you can’t afford to not bump on your playlists.
In no particular order….
ICE CUBE ‘No Vaseline’
When Ice Cube famously left N.W.A over money matters , his ex bandmates fired insults calling him a traitor over a series of blows and voice message samples from fans on their follow up albums '100 Miles & Runnin'' and 'Efil4zaggin'. A move that propelled Cube to clap back with a controversial “no lube” diss track that’s yet to be rivalled.
Going out with a bang, Cube took down N.W.A’s weak attempts to shake him, unveiled Heller’s menacing business tactics while throwing in a heady portion of racial and homophobic slurs that questioned Eazy-E’s sexuality, N.W.A’s authenticity and street cred, Dre’s talents and literally all else he could think of.
N.W.A never came back on the diss, but Dr. Dre left the group and Ruthless Records not long after. Despite a shitload of civil rights activists and critics coming at Cube for the track, he turned out having a pretty good day as a result. Numerous acting gigs poured in like Boyz n the Hood, his debut EP 'Kill At Will' was the first in hip hop history to go platinum, and ‘No Vaseline’ has clocked up nearly 58 million streams on YouTube and counting a decade on.
THREE 6 MAFIA ‘Live By Yo Rep’
Winning a beef sometimes simply comes down to old skool playground tactics, and Three 6 Mafia’s ‘Live by Yo Rep’ is a classic example of the age old: “lesser known group disses fresh on the scene, hype group to get credibility” schtick.
Vexed by the thought Bone Thugs-N-Harmony had copied their tongue twisting cadence and affinity for the occult from videotapes dated a lot earlier than Bones breakthrough, demonic Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia put out diss record ‘Live by Yo Rep’ starting a feud that catapulted them briefly into hip hop's limelight.
Pulling out all the stops, Three 6 Mafia opens with a fake broadcaster asking what they would do if someone tried to duplicate their sound before they lay into a gruesome account with lines like "Take my pitchfork out the fire, soak it in their chest / Through the ribs, spines, charcoal the muscle tissue / And send what's left back to yo mammy / 'Cause that bitch might miss you”.
ROXANNE SHANTÉ ‘Big Mama’
Queens rapper Roxanne Shanté not only squared up to every rapper on the scene, but was instrumental in pioneering rap beef. Aged just 15, baby Shanté wrote and recorded 1984 diss track ‘Roxanne’s Revenge’ in a single take. Inspired by a diss record ‘Roxanne, Roxanne’ by trio U.T.F.O. Shantés lyrical assault was so fierce it sparked the venomous “Roxanne Wars” and sent dozens of diss records flying her way. One of which included BDP’s infamously crude ‘Bridge is Over’ that had lines so harsh for Shanté even KRS-One himself admits to regretting a few.
Showing the rap world who was boss, Shanté dropped ‘Have a Nice Day’ blasting everyone from Run-DMC, LL Cool J and KRS-One - but she wasn’t finished. Just so the female emcee’s knew they weren’t off limits either she dropped ‘Big Mama’ dedicating daring punchlines to MC Lyte, Monie Love, Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah like “First up is Latifah / You roll up, and I’mma smoke that ass like reefer / Cause you ain't never in life been a star to me / Sold the fuck out trying to go r'n'b / Now that shit is shady / You say ladies first, well I'm the first lady and all y'all hoes are phoney."
MC LYTE ‘Steady Fucking’
Brooklyn’s MC Lyte had a slew of strong diss tracks including a trilogy that started with ‘10% Dis’ aimed at newcomer Antoinette, who retaliated her with ‘Lights Out, Party Over' before MC Lyte killed her with the ridiculously good ‘Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe)’ after which Antoinette effectively did, never releasing another record.
However MC Lyte barred teeth and cemented her status as one of most feared women to go up against with her nasty as hell/BDP-sampling ‘Steady Fucking’. A firing take down that saw Lyte dish out hilariously low blows at Roxanne Shanté verse upon verse like “So what's up, Big Bahama Mama? / You know where to find me / You could never climb me / So why do you persist / To be placed upon my fuckin' hit list / You a low-down dirty loser / Next time I see you, I'mma hit you with my Land Cruiser”.
50 CENT ‘How to Rob’
After paying his respect with R.I.P. shoutouts to Notorious B.I.G and Tupac, 50 Cent then flexed his gangster prowess and razor sharp verbal dexterity by outlining how exactly “he’d rob” (as the title suggests) over 40 rappers one by one on his blistering debut single.
The clever diss rumoured to have been written by 50 Cent in his car in thirty minutes blew up and put the rapper on the map. Although 50 insisted it was all meant in fun, some failed to see the humour - including a riled up Mariah Carey who threatened to leave her label if her verse with lyrics "I'll man handle Mariah like 'Bitch, get on the ground' / You ain't with Tommy no more, who gon' protect you now?" wasn’t removed and replaced with one about a much more forgiving Mary J. Blide that went "I'll man handle Case like 'Duke, get on the ground' / You ain't with Mary no more, where you gettin' chips from now?".
THA DOGG POUND FEAT. SNOOP DOGGY DOGG ‘New York, New York’
What was meant to be a record paying homage to Grandmaster Flash and the birthplace of hip hop culture took an unexpected turn when shots were fired at the set of the ‘New York, New York’ music video in a drive by. While Tha Dogg Pound rapper Kurupt maintains the widely regarded diss wasn’t intentionally meant to bring bad blood, the additional footage post-gunfire that showed Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound hanging out around sky scrapers before kicking them down definitely sent a certain kind of message. One that provoked Capone-N-Noreaga and Mobb Deep’s follow up diss ‘L.A, L.A’ and added fuel to the already explosive East Coast vs. West Coast war.
LAURYN HILL ‘Lost Ones’
When Lauryn Hill went solo with her album 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' there felt like no better time for the talented emcee to get shit off her chest, air her difference in opinion about financial clout and drop the knowledge unbeknownst to her group that the love affair between Wyclef, the Fugees and L-Boogie was over for good. Penning her deep cut diss ‘Lost Ones’, she squashed any hopes of a reconciliation with opening line “It's funny how money change a situation / Miscommunication lead to complication / My emancipation don't fit your equation" before stomping out any leftover hope for forgiveness on the chorus “You might win some, but you just lost one”.
BIG DADDY KANE ‘Set It Off’
Big Daddy Kane’s is indisputably one of the most wickedly skilled wordsmiths out there. Throughout the course of his career he’s inked a multitude of punchlines for some of the best in the industry, bagged a Grammy, posed buck naked in photos with Madonna and Naomi Campbell, and landed his single ‘Ain’t No Steppin’ on Rolling Stone's list of ‘Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time’. A true G by all means, BDK showed off his fast mouth on thumping cuts ‘The Beef Is On’ and ‘Wrath of Kane’. While both tracks might have positioned Kane threats as more graphic and lacerating, BDK squashed any idea his rivals might have that he could be matched on and off the mic when he sped up a beat that was too slow for label mate Biz Markie and dissed Rakin at the same time on single ‘Set It Off'.
MOBB DEEP FEAT. LIL' KIM ‘QUIET STORM’
It’s hard to believe Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown were once friends. Beyond appearing side by side on the cover of The Source, they nearly recorded an album together! All before a war of words, and the industry's constant comparison of each other, set off one of the most savage rap beefs to date.
Between hip hop heads far and wide, no one seems to know the exact starting point. There’s speculation it happened when Lil Kim put out ‘Queen B@#$H’ off her prolifically raunchy album ‘Hard Core’ then followed up with the unapologetic ‘Notorious K.I.M’. True of false, what’s 100% certain is that Foxy was pissed off when Kim’s verse on Mobb Deep’s ‘Quiet Storm’ came out.
Provoking Foxy into fight mode, the emcee spit out an audio attack on Capone-N-Norega’s ‘Bang Bang’, opening fire about Lil Kim’s affair and grief over the recently slain Biggie Smalls with lines “Let the n—a rest in peace, and hop off his dick, bitch do you.” bringing the feud to reach a fever pitch. It escalated to 20 shots fired days later at New York’s Hot 97 radio station, and continuing with Lil Kim doing jail time. The beef goes on…..
LL COOL J ‘To The Break Of Dawn’
While 2019 LL Cool J might be far removed from a reputation as a not-to-be-messed-with thug, back in the day he regularly buryed rappers in the ring. Amid his handful of noxious diss tracks was "To Da Break of Dawn", where LL took aim at Kool Moe Dee and Ice-T, and one seemingly innocent bystander...MC Hammer! Taking down all three with verses that mocked Kool Moe Dee for wearing "Star Trek shades", called MC Hammer a gym teacher, and cussed Ice-T for being a parking-lot employee with a perm.
CANIBUS ‘2nd Round KO’
Where LL Cool J might have talked a tough game in formative records ‘Jack the Ripper’, and ‘I Shot Ya’ he looked like a weak little punk after Canibus tore him apart in ‘2nd Round KO’ with lines "Mad at me 'cause I kick that shit real niggas feel / While 99 per cent of your fans wear high heels".
After LL Cool J invited the freshest emcees to rap a verse on his record ‘4,2,3,1’, a sensitive LL caught feelings when talented newcomer Canibus wrote one that poked fun at LL’s microphone tattoo. Canibus edited the bars but when ‘4,3,2,1’ dropped...not only was he missing from the track but he’d been replaced with a verse from LL taking a shot at him.
Needless to say it didn’t sit well with Canibus who crafted an obliterating response, regarded as one of the best-written battle raps of all time. ‘2nd Round KO’ which even features boxer Mike Tyson should have ended LL, and is a historically underrated diss track that bangs hard still.
TIM DOG ‘Fuck Compton’
When South Bronx rapper Tim Dog put out ‘Fuck Compton’ it’s difficult to imagine he envisioned it would become the precursor to the East vs.West Coast war. Irritated by Compton rappers getting more attention then New York artists, and more respect then he felt the music they were putting out warranted, Tim Dog went for blood. He waged war against the west and particularly N.W.A with bars that bragged he’d "crush Ice Cube" and "chew Eazy like tobacco and spit him in shit", all packaged with a video that parioded their look.
DR DRE FEAT. SNOOP DOGG ‘Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')’
By the time Dre linked with Suge Knight and Death Row Records the beef game had long been around the block. But with a huge budget and a plethora of heated, pent-up bars he was able to propel the diss track format into brand new territory. The glossy video for ‘Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')’ is full of comedians portraying his most hated enemies and raked up crazy levels of airtime on MTV and BET, while the feature from then-protégé Snoop took a shot at Eazy-E and knocked Tim Dog into obscurity.
Eazy-E ‘Real Muthaphuckkin G's’
After Dre dropped 'The Chronic', and ‘Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')’ featuring a Richard James / Little Richie looking version of Eazy-E in the video, the Godfather of gangsta rap couldn't snap back quick enough. Unsatisfied with a retaliation record, Eazy-E put together an entire EP dedicated to the beef titled 'It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa' which slighted Dre as a studio gangster and included a picture insert of Dre in make-up and a sequin satin suit from his r'n'b days in World Class Wreckin' Cru, backing up the diss with bars saying "All of the sudden Dr. Dre is the G thang / But on his old album covers / he was the she-thang". He also managed to get the last laugh by pointing out he was still making money on Dr. Dre’s publishing which coined the phrase “Dre Day means payday”.
DJ QUIK ‘Dollaz + Sense’
The great war between Compton rappers DJ Quik and MC Eiht is one you tell the grandkids about. The rift that began in ‘91 found the emcees dropping clever disses towards each other album after album for close to a decade, like two old hood grumps both vying for the top spot on the block.
While Eiht was compiling material for his four-part beef magnum opus with Compton’s Most Wanted, the most clever and skilled of the saga came from DJ Quik.
Quik destroyed Eiht on ‘Dollaz + Sense’, claiming Eiht was soft with famed lines like "E-I-H-T, now should I continue / Yeah you left out the G, 'cause the G ain't in you" before insulting his below-average acting skills in Menace II Society. The track landing Quik a high profile spot on the tracklist for Death Row's 'Murder Was the Case' soundtrack.
The beef peaked years down the road and all hell broke loose at a concert in L.A. between Quik and Eiht's entourages. While both rappers deny any knowlegde or involvement in the events, their deeply-rooted rivalry lived on over various tracks to follow.
COMPTON’S MOST WANTED ‘DEF WISH (I-IV)’
DJ Quik might have won the battle but CMW rapper MC Eiht won the war, laying out a meticulous and hilarious 6 year diss masterpiece against Quik under the ‘Def Wish’ moniker. While each instalment in the four-part series holds powerful diss potential intertwined with blissful stoner rap instrumentals, 'Def Wish III', where Eiht teases Quik about being a perm-wearing, clucker in a Khaki bikini, is the goofiest of the lot, and a must-listen.
COMMON ‘The Bitch in Yoo’
When Ice Cube dissed Common on Mack 10’s ‘Westside Slaughterhouse’ and called Common a "pussy-whipped bitch" for insinuating gangster rap was getting in the way of his craft on 'I Used To Love H.E.R’, skilled Chicago lyricist Common retaliated with a much more aggressive reminder that he wasn’t down to be clowned with, spitting “A bitch nigga with an attitude named Cube / stepped to the Com with a feud / now what the fuck I look like dissing a whole coast? / You ain't made shit dope since AmeriKKKa's Most” while labelling Cube as a washed up has-been in the process. It prompted Minister Louis Farrakhan to step in, organising a peace summit and force a truce between the two.
MOBB DEEP ‘Drop a Gem On Em’
Biggie might have been 2Pac’s most frequented opponent but after he found out Mobb Deep shouted “Thug Life we still living it” in the middle of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ while he was behind bars, Pac took every opportunity to slam the NYC duo.
The majority of rappers would have been crippled in the wake of 2Pac’s barbarous Makaveli diss trilogy ‘Bomb First’, ‘Hit Em Up’ and ‘Against All Odds’ - but Mobb Deep were not.
In fact when Mobb Deep came out with a joint as raw and diabolical as 'Drop a Gem on Em', even the hardest hip hop heads weren’t ready. Laced with subliminal clues relating to Pac's NYC robbery, shooting and even accusations that he was raped on Rikers Island, the track was viewed in some circles as tasteless and too soon when it was released 2 months after Pac’s death.
NOTORIOUS B.I.G. 'Who Shot Ya?'
Iconic rappers with the musical output of Biggie and Pac warrant diss track lists, coffee table books, doctorates and entire weekend's worth of discussion on their own, so it’s never easy to choose the one from each that had the biggest balls. Sure Biggie’s ‘Kick in the Door’ is up there, blasting Nas, Raekwon, Jeru the Damaja, Ghostface Killah, haters, other rappers, and even you! But 'Who Shot Ya?' went for Pac and only Pac with sinister, subliminal cuts that hit just as hard as straight to the face blows. “Who shot ya? / Separate the weak from the obsolete / Hard to creep them Brooklyn streets / It's on nigga, fuck all that bickering beef / I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek / Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet / Thundering, shaking the concrete” is theorised to confirm Puff Daddy and Biggie set up Pac’s shooting at the New York studio. An idea the LA Times even followed up on before they had to revoke the piece due to false allegations. Described by critics as "using the art of music to make the art of war sound beautiful", Pac never trusted the diss wasn’t aimed at him, and regardless of it’s intended purpose no other diss track penned for Pac would have the repercussions ‘Who Shot Ya?’ did.
2PAC ‘Hit ‘Em Up’
Opening with the lines “I ain't got no motherfuckin' friends / That's why I fucked yo' bitch, you fat motherfucker!”, there's not much more needing to be said about what was to come of Tupac Shakur’s,hard AF, definitive and calculated lyrical assassination.
Stinging after Biggie’s ‘Who Shot Ya?', 2Pac quickly got to work. Flipping Biggie’s beat, calling in as many gangster homies as he could fit in the studio and shooting a dope video that parodies Smalls, 2Pac delivered a caustic and brilliant savage diss with ‘Hit Em Up’. It still holds a spot in the books as one of the most critically acclaimed and widely hyped tracks ever written.
2Pac changed the face of hip hop forever with ‘Hit Em Up’, perfecting the diss whilst tragically propelling it to unthinkable levels. Ending in a battle that’s a constant reminder of the dire consequences real beef holds, out of the booth and off the record.
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance music and culture writer, follow her on Twitter