News
Alexander Tamargo/Leon Bennett/Getty Images
COMMENTARY

Women Invented Rap Beef

Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma, and the truth about the Roxanne Wars

On Saturday afternoon, while many of us were enjoying our weekends, the Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj feud that had been brewing since 2007 hit its boiling point. The story started a decade ago, when a then-little-known Minaj released a freestyle over a beat that Remy had been on a mere three years prior. In the freestyle, Minaj took what Remy perceived as shots at her career. Remy reportedly confronted the newer artist at an album release party, and though the confrontation produced no violence, the level of tension had been set.

Nicki Minaj’s rise to superstardom largely coincided with the window of time between 2009 and 2013, when Remy Ma was serving a six-year prison sentence for assault and weapons possession in connection with a New York shooting. Even before that, though, rap's struggle to allow two women at the top of the genre meant that they were seen as natural rivals. Remy's solo album, 2006’s There's Something About Remy: Based on a True Story, was filled with clever, biting rhymes and a strong and unique delivery; for a moment, during Minaj’s rise and Remy’s incarceration, it seemed as though Remy was the latest example of an artist who lost her golden era to prison. Yet since her release in 2014, Remy has been active and sounding rejuvenated, peaking with a stellar verse on the Grammy-nominated “ All the Way Up.” With Nicki coming off a creative run of her own, a renewed collision seemed imminent.

The two began circling each other, lobbing soft punches and seeing where they landed. Remy freestyled over the instrumental to “ Truffle Butter,” something that seemed initially harmless until one thinks back to Nicki freestyling over one of Remy’s beats in 2007. After initial silence, Nicki Minaj peeled a layer off of the subliminal during her guest turn on Jason Derulo’s “ Swalla” last week, rapping, “Bless her heart, she throwing shots but every line sucks.” And then it happened again, with a run of bars on Gucci Mane’s “ Make Love” that were interpreted by many as being aimed at Remy. In some ways, this is Nicki being Nicki: always facing some imagined other woman as foe, despite never having her popularity directly challenged by any of rap’s other female MCs.

Until now, that is. Remy, who seemed to be waiting for the green light to appear, took the opportunity to release “ShETHER” on Saturday — a seven-minute-long track rapped over Nas’s famed “ Ether” instrumental. "ShETHER" is a track that begins with haymakers and doesn’t show much mercy to Minaj from there. In tone, it is the perfect dis track — a delicious balance of jokes and what listeners might believe to be facts, peppered with vague threats of insider knowledge. It was an embarrassing moment for Minaj, but also a showcase for those who might have forgotten Remy’s roots as a battle-ready MC who sharpened her skills under the mentorship of Big Pun. More than all of that, it was a dis track suited for the social-media era, providing plenty of opportunities for us to gather in our digital rooms and throw jokes around, drowning out any response Nicki could have even considered.

To better understand the significance of this moment, it's worth recalling the story of rap’s first notable beef on record, which began with a B side. In 1984, U.T.F.O. released the single “ Hanging Out,” which was a commercial flop. The second side of the single was “ Roxanne, Roxanne,” a song about a woman who supposedly rejected the group’s advances. As this song was gaining traction and airplay, 15-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden was battling any rapper who stepped to her on Queens street corners. She was pushing back against the feel-good nature of early-’80s rap, offering battles as an alternative to party tracks. Sensing opportunity, up-and-coming producer Marley Marl recruited Gooden to record a verse over the original “Roxanne, Roxanne” instrumental; she took the name Roxanne Shanté, and with it, the persona of a woman responding to U.T.F.O’s original claims and turning them back on the group.

When there are complaints about modern rap beefs being manufactured, or feeling less than genuine, this part feels especially notable: Rap’s biggest early beef was entirely fabricated, and rooted in nothing but a desire to seize an opportunity. The response track, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” sold 5,000 copies in 1985, causing U.T.F.O. to send a cease-and-desist over the sample, which hadn't been authorized. This led to Marley Marl simply laying a new beat over the song and pushing it out again. This time, bolstered by the controversy, it more than quadrupled in sales.

U.T.F.O. retaliated by recruiting their own Roxanne stand-in, a woman named Elease Jack. Her song “ The Real Roxanne” was clearly inferior to Shanté’s effort, but it got radio airplay, which was all either side could hope for. Shanté, who rightfully felt like her style was being leaned into a little too heavily, responded with “Bite This,” a six-minute, slightly more aggressive track than her first outing. It is a relentless track, taking on not just The Real Roxanne, but everyone else, too (“I’m talking to all MCs out there / I’ll say your name because I just don’t care”). Shanté was especially good at using her opening line as an anticipatory warning (“The rhymes that you’re about to hear me recite / Are dedicated to all of those that bite”), speaking only about half of the real message and letting the unspoken do the rest of the work. Here is where the separation began: Shanté, even at just 15 years old, was a seasoned battle rapper with chops. The Real Roxanne — who by now was being played by Adelaida Martinez, a young and inexperienced MC from Brooklyn — was a gimmick, a way for U.T.F.O. to remain afloat.

The story of the Roxanne Wars becomes more bizarre after this. Other artists, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on this new concept of manufactured disagreement for profit, began to release their own versions of the Roxanne story. It’s comical to consider this now: little-known ’80s rappers stumbling over themselves to capitalize on a two-person feud by retelling the same fictionalized story from different angles. There was “ The Parents of Roxanne” by Gigolo Tony and Lacey Lace, “ Yo, My Little Sister (Roxanne’s Brothers)” by Crush Groove, “ Roxy (Roxanne’s Sister)” by D.W. and the Party Crew, and dozens of other tracks, spanning various personas, insults, and narratives.

At the end of 1985, when everyone had their fill of the saga, U.T.F.O. took one final, exhausted swipe at the air with “ Calling Her a Crab (Roxanne, Roxanne Part 2),” a tacky and sloppy song, complete with low blows about Shanté’s appearance and family. Shanté, still sharp as ever, responded with “Queen of Rox (Shanté Rox On),” which landed a final blow to an opponent already on the ropes, gasping for air.

The point is this: rap beef was born as soon as someone realized that there was profit in it. Sure, it's also about competition — but it wasn’t always about competition, or only about competition. Sometimes it’s simply about the jokes, and that is also fine. People of color, specifically black people, use the roast as an opportunity to call someone closer, so that they might be able to tell them exactly what they want to tell them, stripped-down and made plain. Women of color, specifically black women, are more skilled at this than any other demographic. If my mother, for example, wanted to throw my brother and me off of the scent that we were in trouble, she would crack jokes, maybe laugh a little until we eased up. There’s no work that can be done if you don’t invite your audience to let their guard down. You hear this in Roxanne Shanté years ago, and you hear it today in Remy Ma. The biting humor in the work is a vehicle to make the listener briefly comfortable, before the airing of real grievances. And decades after "Roxanne's Revenge," cleverly articulated friction can still make as much if not more noise than songs that might pack a house party.

One response, hours after Remy Ma’s Saturday bombshell, was “I don’t like to see women tearing each other down. Why can’t they just uplift each other?” I can see that as a statement that both feels good on paper and requires so little work to unpack that it might also feel good off of paper. But we rarely ask for such urgent unity out of men who are in conflict. As Saturday went on, it seemed like some people's problem with what Remy had done — something about an imagined lack of decorum — was unfairly latched to her gender, and certainly to her race. There were calls for Nicki Minaj to refrain from responding in the name of some moral high ground, which, had people known the history of their feud, was likely plowed through months ago. It felt like approaching two boxers who had already trained for years and stepped into the ring to ask if they’ve considered pacifism. Less than two years removed from watching the consensus cheering of Drake’s quest to “end” Meek Mill’s career, it was odd to see people scolding knowledgeable rap fans for joking at the expense of a rap battle.

Ultimately, though, this is about the ways that women of color, specifically black women, talk to and about their people: in a way that is biting and honest and comical and jarring and beautiful and fear-inducing. Who better to speak and let that which remains unspoken become a weapon? Who has been better at getting the whole collective together when one member gets out of pocket? I say Roxanne Shanté invented the rap battle, and I’m talking records. But surely, in a time before Roxanne Shanté existed, there was a black woman in a room with a closed door, taking someone to task out of anger, or love, or both. It just wasn’t recorded.

That historical lens does important work. It is a mistake to imagine that Remy, in coming at Nicki so directly and ferociously, is not, in fact, trying to uplift her in the most generous way possible. To take time out of your life and career to face a worthy opponent and put the entire weight of yourself on them until they feel no choice but to rise to the level you have set is a blessing. For people who are perhaps unfamiliar with the nuances and shifting discourse of race, class, and genre, there is only a single way for one person, or one woman, to uplift another: locking fingers and walking, hand in hand, into a new and improved future for all. But sometimes, in order to lock fingers, the gloves have to first come off. Until then, I hope these two artists uplift each other by allowing themselves to be sharpened by the challenge. I hope they uplift each other by using this beef to sell songs and albums, as rap has used so many beefs before it. I hope, more than anything, that Roxanne Shanté smiled when she heard Remy, before launching into the first verse of “ShETHER,” shout a precursor, a warning:

“They told you your whole career / I’d come home and kill you.”