“Who shot ya?” A lyric that seems innocuous enough when removed from all historical context. But within the greater context of the rap industry, this lyric may just be responsible for the untimely demise of two of rap’s biggest stars. Ultimately the feud that led to those tragic deaths may just have helped rap solidify itself as a true part of mainstream music rather than the outsider-looking-in dynamic it seemed to have before then. But before we get to that, let’s paint a picture of the 1990’s rap scene. Rap came to fruition and synthesized as an art form on the East Coast in the 1970s. It started as a party genre of music for the most part. Being more about having fun and partying. Rap actually first started at block parties in NYC as DJs experimented with telling jokes rhythmically over beats they were playing. As time went on, rap came into its own as a genre of music and people started making rap songs and albums. It left the party entertainment phase and became music in its own right. But still, these songs were for the most part still about having fun and partying. It wasn’t until the 1980s when rap found a way to take the next step towards becoming what we know it as today.
Inspired by the politically aware and attentive music of the 1970s, a form of rap called “socially conscious hip hop” was created. When it first came about, the form was largely underground and less financially successful than the upbeat fun party raps. But over time it broke into the mainstream paving the way for some of the rappers we have today like Kendrick Lamar or Kanye West. But at what point did this socially conscious form of rap truly become financially viable and successful? Well one of the first songs to reach mainstream success was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five which came out in the early 80s. But many would argue that the real turning point for socially conscious rap was NWA’s 1988 studio album Straight Outta Compton. This album accomplished a number of things for rap and frankly, the music industry hasn’t been the same since.
The album ushered in the era and form of “gangsta rap,” a form of music that often overlapped with socially conscious rap. In simple terms, Gangsta rap was a form of music where artists spoke on gang culture and their experience growing up in it. With lyrics like “Fuck tha police coming straight from the underground” and “so police think They have the authority to kill a minority,” it galvanized rap as the most controversial form of music. It became to the 90s what Elvis and his sinful hips were to the 60s. In addition to all that the album sold incredibly well. It solidified both socially conscious and gangsta rap as being financially viable and helped to build up the previously lacking West Coast rap scene. In fact, it was so successful that media attention and record companies were far more interested in working with West Coast rappers than they were with East Coast rappers.
However, this sudden interest in the West Coast is not what started the feud between the coasts. While the West Coast had huge names like NWA, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur for the first time, the East Coast eventually had rappers that could match the caliber of those names. Most notably the Notorious BIG, also known as Biggie Smalls or Christopher Wallace. The thing that kicked off the feud completely started when Tupac was leaving Quad Studios and shot in the lobby. This was followed up by the Notorious BIG releasing a song titled “Who Shot Ya?” which many took as Biggie mocking Tupac and some even saying that this was Biggie’s way of taking responsibility for the hit and ridiculing Tupac. Although Biggie always said that the song was recorded before the shooting and that it was just a coincidence, the feud had officially start in full.
There is one other element that should be noted in this feud: the main record labels involved on each coast. On the West there was Death Row Records founded by former NWA member Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. On the East Coast there was Bad Boy Entertainment run by Sean Combs, who would later be known professionally as Puff Daddy or P Diddy. By the time the feud started, Dr. Dre had stepped back from being actively involved with Death Row Records and Suge Knight was more or less running things.
Much back and forth between the record companies and their artists and their fans followed, including things like Suge Knight calling out Diddy on television for dancing in all of his artist’s videos, The Dogg Pound releasing the song “New York New York” and destroying New York buildings in the music video and getting shot at while shooting the video in New York. After all that controversy and news attention, things finally came to a head when Suge Knight and Tupac were shot at while driving in Las Vegas. Tupac was shot four times and died in the hospital. Six months later the Notorious BIG was driving back to his hotel after presenting an award at the Soul Train Awards when he was shot in a drive-by by an unknown man on a motorcycle. Both murders remain unsolved to this day. There are a number of theories from blaming both on Suge Knight to chalking it up to gang violence and random coincedence. For the most part, the feud ended with their deaths. Both sides are still different and it isn’t uncommon to see someone espousing a favorite side or denouncing the other but it’s more akin to a sports rivalry than a war.
Rap is a complicated genre, it has incredible highs and terrible lows. In their article “Listening to Rap: Cultures of Crime, Cultures of Resistance,” authors Julian Tanner, Mark Asbridge, and Scot Wortley wrote that when compared to rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, two other genres that were heavily reviled in their hey day, it didn’t matter if rap received more or less disdain from mainstream publications, because it can definitely be a problematic contemporary music genre. This point could not be illustrated any better than by Suge Knight. In the East vs. West Feud Suge was found to be escalating things far more than nearly any one else. Outside of the feud he had this almost legacy surrounding him. There were numerous claims and stories about the things he did when he ran Death Row Records. One of the most notable was that he allegedly threatened to throw Vanilla Ice off of a hotel balcony unless he paid.
There was a reason that people thought he may have been involved with the death of Tupac and Biggie; the myth surrounding him made him out to be like a person who was capable and willing to do it. Whether he did or not isn’t really relevant at the moment. What is relevant is that he was seen as a figurehead of rap, he was indicative of rap in the 90s. He and his behavior influenced people who bought records, albums, songs, produced by Death Row. He influenced the way rap was viewed. And while the number of people in the music industry who aren’t problematic in any way shape or form is probably vastly outnumbered by the people who are, rap had a special distinction as noted in the article. “Rap artists are applauded for their importance as role models to inner city black youth” and it goes on to say how rap helped speak to racial inequality and cultural resistance.
Suge Knight first signed Tupac when he was imprisoned for a sexual abuse conviction, the night he died he and Suge assaulted a gang member who allegedly tried to rob one of their associates earlier. Yet his music hasn’t endured because he was this controversial figure who committed crimes, it endured because of the effect he had on the youth, the effect he had on people who found that his songs were speaking to them specifically. Sure Tupac represented the more violent sides of Rap but he also represented the best parts of it as well. His music spoke to people in a way that his actions may not have.
But to get back to that central question posed at the beginning of this paper, how did this feud solidify rap as an actual part of the mainstream music landscape? In short, the answer is that it changed the ratio of good to bad. The violence became less prominent, some of the people behind the feuds realized the danger in having them. But it was accomplished without lessening the impact that this form of music can have on people. Honestly, the amount of violence referenced in rap actually peaked during the time of the feud. In her article “Changing Images of Violence in Rap Music Lyrics: 1979-1997,” Denise Herd researched just how often violence was referenced or referred to in rap lyrics, and it rose to a staggering 60 percent in the time period of 1994-1997. In fact, the correlation in the rise in songs that not only referenced violence but also presented it in a positive light can be directly tied to the rise of gangsta rap. Though Herd states that the two main points that address this shift are first that it’s a reflection of the social climate these artists grew up in and still have deep ties to. This really ties back to the idea of socially conscious rap, and that it’s speaking truth to lived experiences by the artists. The other more cynical school of thought as Herd writes is the idea that controversy sells, and by bringing up violence and showing it in a positive light the songs become controversial and therefore sell more. It’s essentially as if you were to see a video on YouTube titled “Fuck Tom Hanks, That Human Garbage Bin Should be in Prison” made by a notable creator. You almost certainly wouldn’t agree with the video but most people would watch it out of sheer curiosity to see that controversial video and hot take.
With all of this being said how does it answer the question? How was this ratio changed? What lowered the violence and increased the reputation of this art form. Essentially it seems as though the biggest culprit was maturity. On the West Coast Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg had been steadily distancing themselves from Death Row Records as well as Suge Knight for a while. After the two tragic murders many people came to their senses, the violence that had for so long been glorified in the music they made had been a wakeup call. Snoop called together a summit to end the feud. Dr. Dre started his own record company away from the nonsense Suge had turned Death Row Records into.
Back East, Diddy decided to reinvent the idea of rap. He strove to make the artists he signed to be able to represent themselves in meetings, to loop them into the actual process of business more. Ideally creating a rapper who would be just as comfortable in a board room meeting, as on the red carpet, or in the studio. Making them more cohesive performers. From the debris and wreckage of this feud ultimately came a new era of rap. On the East Coast, Biggie’s good friend Jay-Z rose to prominence, Diddy started making his own music and became a known artist in his own right. Back West Dr. Dre started his own company called Aftermath Records, with no involvement fro mSuge Knight. He signed a little artist named Marshall Mathers, perhaps better known as Eminem, and later went on to sign even more prolific acts like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson Paak. As for Death Row Records, it went bankrupt and Suge Knight eventually wound up in jail for a manslaughter charge, though it wasn’t related to the deaths of Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls. Overall the feud came full circle a few years ago when Snoop Dogg posted a video to his instagram story of him dancing and partying. And who should appear dancing in the background of this video? Sean “Diddy” Combs, doing the same thing that Snoop’s former friend Suge had called him out for on live television years before at the very start of the feud.
Rap is a genre that has had it’s own rough patches without a doubt, but it also provides a voice to people who feel underrepresented. It gives young innercity kids something that they can aspire to. It gives role models to kids who may not have had any if not for them. But tragically it took a lot of horrible things to get the art form to where it is now, but overall maybe it’s possible that the East Coast West Coast feud was more than just a feud, maybe it was more of a crucible. A trial by fire of sorts. Something that helped the people inside rap see some of the inherent problems and helped bring together two different sides of the country. Because overall East Coast rap and West Coast rap have a lot more in common with each other than with any other music genre.
Herd, Denise. “Changing Images of Violence in Rap Music Lyrics: 1979-1997.” Journal of Public Health Policy, vol. 30, no. 4, 2009, pp. 395–406.
Hinton, Anna. “‘And So I Bust Back’: Violence, Race, and Disability in Hip Hop.” CLA Journal, vol. 60, no. 3, 2017, pp. 290–304.
Tanner, Julian, et al. “Listening to Rap: Cultures of Crime, Cultures of Resistance.” Social Forces, vol. 88, no. 2, 2009, pp. 693–722.
Sullivan, Rachel E. “Rap and Race: It’s Got a Nice Beat, but What about the Message?” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 33, no. 5, 2003, pp. 605–622.