The story of the first ever rap beef
Read our in-depth history of the diss track and its mysterious creator, teen rapper Roxanne Shanté.
Hey, did you know raps beefs were invented by accident?
We rewind the clock and uncover the source to discover that, just like your relationship, it's complicated.
From Meek Mill vs Drake to Jay-Z verbally jousting with Nas, beefs are a mainstay of the rap world on both sides of the Atlantic. Would Dizzee Rascal and Wiley’s notoriety have been the same had they not beefed with each other in song? Or what about the Nicki Minaj vs Lil Kim eternal feud?
The rap rivalry’s origin story, however, is just as fascinating as the Twitter storms that you scroll through today. It all dates back to one of the first female rappers, Roxanne Shanté. Her first song inspired an estimated 55 "response" tracks – and a cornerstone of hip-hop history, the Roxanne Wars.
1984: HIP-HOP BEEF IS BORN
In 1984, Lolita Shanté Gooden was an aspiring 15-year-old MC who loved to rap on street corners in her native Queens, battling anyone who challenged her. Hip-hop’s '80s golden era had more of a family house party vibe and songs like Rappers Delight focused on everyday issues, like your mates cooking you bad food: “Have you ever went over a friends house to eat and the food just ain't no good?”
If hip-hop wasn't just going to end up as a novelty fad, the genre needed someone to shake everything up.
Listen to the song that started it all, UTFO's Roxanne, Roxanne.
One day in 1984, Shanté’s neighbour Marlon Williams – a factory worker who moonlit as a hip-hop producer under the name Marley Marl (yes, the one Biggie shouts out in Juicy) – asked her to record him a verse. It was to go over an instrumental of the early hip-hop song Roxanne, Roxanne by UTFO, which he was making to play on Rap Attack, an early radio show run by the pioneering New York hip-hop DJ Mr Magic.
The original UTFO song was about a girl who meanly rejected the band’s collective romantic advances. Marl called his response song Roxanne's Revenge, and on it Shanté – adopting the name Roxanne Shanté – told a new side to the band's story: that the band had sleazily come on to Shanté numerous times and that she’d turned them down because they weren’t good enough for her. Shanté recorded the verse off the top of her head – a trick she’d repeat for many of her songs – and crafted the Roxanne persona as she went along.
With that, the first rap beef was born.
Listen to Roxanne Shanté's Roxanne's Revenge.
1985: THE DISS TAKES OFF
The track was an immediate hit on radio, so Shanté and Marl decided to release it, and it instantly sold 5,000 copies. When UTFO heard the song they issued a cease-and-desist over the unauthorised sample – so Marl re-recorded it with a new beat, and ended up selling over 250,000 copies in New York alone.
But still, the song might have been just a cult record in hip-hop history had it not been for UTFO sensing an opportunity. Striking back at the teenage rapper in a more inventive way, they crafted the female personality of The Real Roxanne to offer up another take on their own song. The song – which was also called The Real Roxanne – was less sassy than Roxanne’s Revenge, but still went on to be a radio hit in the same year.
The Real Roxanne song comes off as weirdly masochistic. Even though UTFO wrote it, it finds them taking pot-shots at themselves, ending with the line: “Where’s the beat you guys can't deal it/I need a man who can make me feel it.”
Shanté was angry, feeling like they were biting her style. As she put it in a 2004 documentary: “They got a Roxanne already, me! What they need another one for?”
Listen to The Real Roxanne below.
SHANTE SIGNALS THE THIRD ROUND
Shanté felt riled up enough to respond with Bite This, which really kickstarted the beef. It began with the lyrics: “The rhymes you’re about to hear me recite/Are dedicated to those that bite..."
When Shanté rapped “the Real Roxanne is standing right here”, this was a clear riposte to UTFO. But the song also signalled she was taking on all-comers: “I’m talking to all the MCs out there/I’ll say your name ’cause I don’t care.” A 15-year-old girl, calling out the likes of Run DMC, LL Cool J and Sparky D by name – the boldness was startling.
This is where the story gets a bit crazy. Ironically, the voice of The Real Roxanne, Elease Jack, was replaced shortly after the single's release, with aspiring rapper Adelaida Martinez taking up the mantle. Martinez went on to have a successful career under the Real Roxanne persona – even though, of course, she was essentially just impersonating Roxanne Shanté.
At this point, other artists decided to jump onboard, responding with their own variations of the story. Some hip-hop historians speculate there have been 100 Roxanne response records, although only around 30 have been officially documented.
If you wondered what Roxanne's parents thought, you’d listen to The Parents of Roxanne by Gigolo Tony & Lacey Lace, who defended Roxanne’s honour by saying how she was only safeguarding against U.T.F.O’s advances. For the more psychologically inclined, Roxanne’s Doctor (The Real Man) by Dr Freshh details Roxanne’s doctor’s viewpoint on the whole debacle, providing a much needed perspective on how he feels about his patient’s treatment from UTFO.
Perhaps the weirdest and most tasteless of the responses was Roxanne’s A Man (The Untold Story)by Ralph Rolle, which claimed Roxanne was transsexual, making the leap from male to female after a spell in prison. The song also features Billy Squier’s classic Big Beat drum sample, familiar to any fan of Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up Look Sharp or Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.
Listen to Gigolo Tony and Lacey Lace's The Parents Of Roxanne below.
LATER IN 1985: UTFO TAKE A SECOND SWIPE
The Roxanne saga couldn't last forever, and before long interest was waning: indeed, The East Coast Crew made a record called The Final Word: No More Roxanne (Please) which did its best to kill off the trend for good.
First, though, the main players would exchange blows once more. On Roxanne, Roxanne, Pt. 2: Calling Her A Crab, UTFO got nasty, calling Roxanne an "ape" and offering her bananas to stop her rapping. (Confusingly, they go on to call her a crab in the chorus, which is really mixing the animal metaphors.) Shanté responded one last time with Queen Of Rox. Recounting the whole saga from start to finish with skill and sharp humour, the song cemented her status as the best of her kind: "I tell you something don’t you see," she rapped, "I have to watch my language/Because I got so many beefs."
Watch the video to Queen Of Rox below.
AFTER '85: THE LEGACY
Roxanne eventually moved on from the Roxanne saga by dropping the name altogether and just calling herself Shanté. She eventually released two more records, Bad Sister in 1989 and The Bitch Is Back in 1992, and she inspired Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Bitches Ain’t Shit with her empowering song Brothas Ain’t Shit, which had called out catcallers and sleazy men.
Even so, her penchant for battling every MC reared its head when she decided to beef with every female emcee that she “gave birth to” in the 1992 track Big Mama, once more underlining how she shaped the rap beef.
In other words, to make it a continual battle to outsmart everyone else. Some old habits die hard.
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