A brief history of the diss track – from the Roxanne Wars to Megan Thee Stallion

A brief history of the diss track – from the Roxanne Wars to Megan Thee Stallion

Released last month, Houston-born rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s hit song Hiss is a textbook diss record. Fans and critics have suggested the track takes aim at multiple artists including Tory Lanez, Nicki Minaj and Drake. Minaj responded with her own track, Big Foot (a reference to Megan’s tall stature), but its weaker metaphorical content and flow mean it has failed to make the same impact.

Diss records are songs which intentionally dismiss, disrespect or mock others, usually fellow musicians. They are particularly prominent in hip hop. But although the diss record came to prominence in rap songs during the mid-1980s, the concept is nothing new. Artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, Queen, The Beatles and Sex Pistols have all insulted a variety of people, bands and record labels in their music.

Megan Thee Stallion’s diss track, Hiss.

Until the first hip hop records in 1979, the music and raps which helped shape hip hop culture were performed at live events and shared as taped recordings. During that time, lyrics that centred on territory, skills and identity formed much of hip hop’s content, which provided plenty of ammunition for dissing.

As a result, the diss became synonymous with battling, a phenomena where crews or individuals attempt to show and prove the superiority of their hip hop practice against opponents.

The relationship between diss records and rap battles was crucial to the expansion of diss records during the 1980s. The Roxanne Wars is the most famous exchange of diss records, with over 50 releases by 35 different artists.

The Roxanne Wars

The Roxanne saga was triggered by an “answer-back” record (a song which responds directly to the content in another artist’s song) by rapper Roxanne Shanté, directed at hip hop group U.T.F.O.’s 1984 hit Roxanne, Roxanne. Although Shanté was not the original target for their song, following her confrontational attack in Roxanne’s Revenge, U.T.F.O. released their own orchestrated answer-back, titled The Real Roxanne.

This musical altercation spawned diss records by other artists too, who took on personas such as Roxanne’s Doctor, Rocksann, The Parents Of Roxanne and Little Roxanne.

Roxanne’s Revenge by Roxanne Shanté.

The Roxanne Wars fostered a new paradigm of diss records. Other multifaceted diss narratives, such as The Bridge Wars (initially between BDP and The Juice Crew), emerged, often driven by hip hop territories.

Female pioneers

Looking back at the history of the diss track, it is the strength of female emcees that stands out. A year on from the Roxanne Wars, Brooklyn-born battle rapper Sparky Dee and Shanté went head-to-head on the six-track album Round 1.

Round 1’s producer, Spyder D, reworked the beats from Round 1 for a Sparky Dee battle track with The Playgirls, titled The Battle. The song was made up of several direct two-bar insults exchanged between the artists.

In 1985, Shanté battled with male New York rapper Busy Bee Starski to be crowned best freestyle rapper, a title that many fans argue she should have won. However, she lost due to judge Kurtis Blow’s alleged bias of not voting for a female rapper.

Throughout the 1980s, female rappers were often dismissed due to the patriarchal structure of rap. But the tenacious next wave of female rappers – including MC Lyte, Monie Love, Queen Latifah and Queen Mother Rage – constructed diss songs with deeper metaphorical complexity.

Queen Latifah’s diss track Ladies First featuring Monie Love.

Possesions, territory and skills were still central subjects for diss lyrics, but a clear feminist positioning was emerging. MC Lyte’s 10% Dis (1988) was a response to rapper Antoinette over a feud between Lyte’s crew, Audio Two, and Antoinette’s male producer, Hurby Luv Bug. Rather than solely diss Antoinette, MC Lyte aims several exemplary rap metaphors at Hurby.

In 1989, Monie Love and Queen Latifah presented one of the most committed yet subtle disses to the entire spectrum of the male-dominated music industry on Ladies First. Representing the idea of sisterhood with great clarity, the song consistently affirms they are “Strong, stepping, strutting, moving on”. They also offered an open invitation to battle without the gender bias: “The next man, or the next woman, It doesn’t make a difference, keep the competition coming.”

In the true essence of a complex diss record, Megan Thee Stallion’s Hiss contains both direct and suggestive metaphorical references. This leaves her audience with a clear idea of some of her targets, while leaving space for them to decipher others.

Hiss is at the forefront of hip hop’s 2024 trajectory, yet clearly continues the attitude of the culture’s 40-year old diss record history.

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