Trading Insults: Competitive and Collaborative Identities in Canadian Hip Hop Music
Although hip hop culture has only recently emerged as a significant area of inquiry within the academic community, the breadth and variety of scholarly work in the field attests to the importance of hip hop for linguists, ethnomusicologists, sociologists, and scholars of literature and cultural studies. While recent investigations have examined crucial issues attached to hip hop culture such as rhetoric and ideology (Campbell), racial identity and appropriation of “black” urban vernacular (Cutler, Ibrahim), and female rappers (Morgan, Pough), few studies to date have dealt exclusively or extensively with Canadian hip hop. Although the genesis of rap music has its roots in urban American black culture—Michael Newman specifically pinpoints the southern Bronx in the 1970’s—it has developed into a heterogeneous and far-reaching genre, the presence of which in Canada exerts a considerable influence on Canadian culture. This paper will build on the body of criticism that directly analyzes the Canadian hip hop scene, and will focus in particular on collaboration among members of the Canadian hip hop community, in order to delineate how the inherently collaborative and yet competitive nature of rap music produces shifting intersubjective relationships between MCs (“microphone controllers” or “masters of ceremony”). The method by which hip hop artists generate lyrics is founded upon a collaborative model that relies fundamentally upon competition, appropriation, and one-upmanship between rappers. However, I hope to show that the nature of this rivalry is strategic and rhetorical—that is, it is understood to be integral to the artistic process and does not usually engender genuine feelings of ill-will between rappers who may “diss” (denigrate) each other in performance. By examining how the lyrical tenor of MC competition changes depending on locale (from the studio to “the street”), I argue that Canadian hip hop presents a particularly elastic model of artistic collaboration—one that allows its practitioners to play with rhetorical identities and to alternate between antagonistic and co-operative relationships while simultaneously fostering goodwill among one another.
If Canadian MCs have agreed that “collaboration is huge” (Ableman and Deering), they have less often reflected upon or explicitly theorized the nature of that collaboration, especially in light of the paradoxical fact that collaborative efforts between hip hop musicians occur within a culture that has fostered an ethos of individualism and intense competition as well. While collaboration is a salient part of hip hop music in general—so much so that the idiom “collabo” has been coined to refer to projects that involve collaboration between artists—so too is rivalry and one-upmanship. Boasting and braggadocio, or what Canadian rapper Nobs refers to as “the usual ‘I’m better than you'” posturing, are central stylistic features of rap lyrics and have a significant genealogy dating back to “toasting,” originally an African oral tradition that constructed the toast-teller as a “powerful, all-knowing, omnipotent hero, able to overcome all odds” (Smitherman 13). As Geneva Smitherman also shows, verbal insults (which she traces back to African practices of “playin’ the dozens” and “signifyin’,” discussed below) are an equally integral part of rap rhetoric (11-12), and are often leveled at one’s opponent to further augment one’s own stature as a lyricist. In improvisational hip hop contexts—namely, freestyle battles (lyrical competitions pitting two opponents against each other) and ciphers (round-robin rapping circles done a cappella or over a beat)—the most valued insults tend to be those which prove by “picking apart your opponent’s physical appearance, clothes he’s wearing, etc.” (MC Kal-El) that an MC is in fact composing on the spot. The personal nature of these rhetorical devices lends itself to a blurring of the line between a rapper’s lyrical and “real-life” personas, a distinction which in some cases may always already have been muddy. Indeed, as Jason Nichols’ study shows, some MCs are reluctant to completely sever their performance alias from their own personality for fear of losing credibility or seeming “fake,” and so these individuals prefer to view their MC identities as alter-egos of their own personas (63). As Canadian female MC Eternia puts it in a boast, “You can tell that I’m talkin’ ’bout myself when I write.” When MCs conflate their performance and personal identities, they run the risk of translating performed rivalry into genuine animosity as they denigrate their opponents. Canadian MC Jy Harris notes that although “true MCs know that the battle stays on the mic” sometimes “MCs cannot compartmentalize their humiliation and try to cause trouble” after freestyle battles. Such a cultural environment would hardly seem to lend itself to the kinds of positive interpersonal relations needed for artistic collaboration, and it is indeed important not to disregard feuding that can occur off the microphone. However, as I will show, it is precisely because the MC’s persona is situated on the threshold of performance and “reality” that he or she has the potential to negotiate multiple and shifting intersubjective relationships with peer members. Although the diversity and heterogeneity of hip hop sub-genres within Canada makes it difficult to generalize about “Canadian Hip Hop,” I would argue that on the whole, Canadian MCs have demonstrated dexterity in managing their rhetorical and real-life personas, in that they tend to keep “beefs” (feuds) between MCs where they belong: on the lyrical level. In interview Canadian MCs are continually referring to the camaraderie that exists between members collaborating in the studio; MC Red I mentions the “bunch of friends” he worked with on the hit Canadian hip hop track “Northern Touch”; MC Grimace Love explains that his Canadian hip hop collective “Monolith” is “one large group of people powerfully coming together with one force and purpose”; Canadian MC Adversaree the N.M.E. refers to the group he worked with on his latest album as “one big unit.” Competitive interpersonal relations within the Canadian hip hop community clearly do not preclude the kinds of collaborative ones these MCs describe.
Moreover, the rhetorical practices characteristic of improvisational arenas like ciphers and battles might be said to define a unique model of collaboration wherein competition iscollaboration. The raison d’etre of these forums is to show up other MCs, a tradition which is deeply entrenched in hip hop’s roots; from its inception on the streets of New York, freestyling “was all about battling to earn your rep as one of the fiercest […] MC’s on the block” (Watkins 13). Canadian MC Kal-El speaks to this hip hop ethic, by noting that when other rappers “bring their a-game, it drives [him] to want to out-shine them.” Earning one’s “rep” does not happen in a vacuum, but is rather an inherently social and collaborative process which depends upon a dialogic exchange between two or more rappers. This interchange is competitive because it is typically composed of “two categories: put-downs and boasts of potency” (Newman 408), yet it is co-operative because each MCs topic matter, tropes, and rhymes, become fodder for the next lyricist. Since lyrics in this context are created under pressure and off-the cuff at a rapid pace, MCs almost always have to stretch the reaches of their skill to produce lyrics that rhyme, follow the beat (i.e. “flow”), and which demonstrate their originality and facility with the language (Michael Newman’s study of rap ciphers illustrates this feature of improvised lyrics extensively). Consider the following example from a freestyle session with members of the Montreal hip hop collective Typecast. Louis Deering (“Lou”) is “spitting” (rapping) about himself and starts to lose steam in the (slightly comical) lines “I only can freestyle when I’m in the mood / It’s not my fault I don’t eat enough food”; “Third Person” jumps into the freestyle and picks up on Lou’s language to spit the lines “Hey Lou I didn’t know you were anorexic / I come to grab the mike and then flex this” (loosely rhyming ‘anorexic’ with ‘flex this’). Third Person’s intervention is a simultaneous boast about his own “muscularity” as a lyricist and a diss against Lou, both of which are accomplished by using his fellow MCs lyrical content to inspire his own rhyme scheme and imagery. Canadian MC Jy Harris describes this kind of interaction as “learn[ing] more about your own style by twisting and molding it to meld with that of your ‘collaboree’.” Using another MCs contribution as a catalyst enables the kind of innovative expression and unlikely rhyme that is needed (because MCs are under pressure to produce quickly) and desired (because novel linguistic devices are prized) in improvisational arenas. Moreover, in the cipher or battle forum, this type of sampling and manipulation of other rappers’ lyrics is expected, and participants offer up their rhymes to the group with the knowledge that everyone’s material becomes a shared pool of creative raw resources. As MC Hilarrius puts it, “Your energy comes from the cipher” (qtd. in Neuman 414). Improvised hip hop demonstrates not only that competition can be collaborative, but that at times collaboration is necessary for competition to occur.
The Typecast freestyle demonstrates one of the most salient aspects of contemporary lyrical competition in hip hop: the tacit understanding between MCs that insults and boasts are part of a rhetorical performance. This unspoken norm allows MCs to shift between performed interactions of antagonism and non- performance relations of camaraderie and collaboration. In commenting upon infamous rapper Eminem’s misogynist and aggressive lyrics, one young MC in Newman’s study emphasizes, “that’s all concept,” and Newman borrows this designation in his argument that the action within a cipher “takes place in ‘concept,’ a rhetorical space clearly distanced from reality” (413). Newman’s assertion is evidenced by Typecast’s assessment of themselves as “a tight group of friends that wanted an honest outlet where we could enjoy music”—a characterization one might not assume if their lyrical insults (their “concepts”) were taken at face value. Both Newman and Jason Nichols rightly assert that the rhetorical domain of rap freestyling delimits a battle terrain wherein antagonistic posturing can occur in lieu of real hostility, with the knowledge that braggadocio and hostile “disses” are “all concept” (see Nichols 20 and Newman 412). It is in this spirit that MC Top Dog states “I don’t have to use a gun / I use my lyrical tongue” (qtd. in Newman 424). To be sure, the existence of a separate, hermetic, rhetorical space is predicated to a certain degree upon the dissociation between one’s rapper alias and one’s personal identity, a distinction which, as I argued earlier, does not hold for all MCs at all times. Yet it might be more useful to think of this distinction as contextual rather than psychological, meaning that while MCs may conflate their onstage and offstage personas, the manifestation of these identities is linked to locale (whether they are “on the street” or in the studio) and is governed by cultural norms. Thus, not only do “the social locations of the performer and the audience determine how meaning is interpreted” (Richardson 6) as Newman’s “concept” theory shows, but social context also designates the appropriateness of choosing one persona over another. As I will presently show, Canadian MCs have been more judicious in making these kinds of choices than some high-profile American rappers, whose lyrical rivalries have leaked beyond the conceptual space in which they were originally intended to be situated. The collapse between rhetorical and “real” identities in U.S. gangster rap has ossified potentially collaborative relations into solely competitive ones by losing sight of what Canadian rappers embrace: the contextual flexibility hip hop culture offers its participants in their adoption of multiple identities.
The prevalence and popularity of gangster rap in the U.S., as opposed to its relative paucity in Canada, is partly responsible for the disparity between the way in which American and Canadian MCs are able to negotiate alternatively competitive and collaborative relationships with their peers. Commercial gangster rap tends to emphasize, more strongly than does the general ethos of authenticity that underpins hip hop aesthetics, notions of “street cred” and “keepin’ it real,” even as these themes are in fact deftly constructed and manipulated by publicists for maximum audience appeal. More to the point, America’s glorification of “thug” life as portrayed in hip hop music combines with this stress on credibility, necessitating that big-name rappers “immerse themselves into a world of urban villainy” (Watkins 2) and practice what they preach, or at least flawlessly pretend to. To witness the degree to which gangster rap has abjured the need to distinguish between rhetorical and real violence, or between contextually specific personas, one need only consider how the feud between two of rap’s most powerful icons, Biggie Smalls (the Notorious B.I.G.) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac) is said to have culminated in their unsolved drive-by murders. On a related note, rapper Nas, who is engaged in an ongoing rivalry with Jay Z, comments in an interview about Jay Z’s overly personal and emotional reaction to Nas’ lyrical insults (see “Feud Between Jay-Z, Nas Gets ‘Super Ugly'”). Yet Jay Z’s reaction is merely evidence of the ideologies that have fostered him. The image of the thuggish rapper who professes a hard-knock ghetto life, a phenomenon virtually unknown in Canada, depends on his fans’ inability to divorce his lyrics from his life, given that multiple personas are anathema to the aesthetics of highly prized gangster authenticity. Along with the collapse of public and personal identities comes the rapper’s inability to negotiate the spectrum from collaboration to competition with his peers, as rivalries which were formerly purely rhetorical threaten to become reified.
Tellingly, a Canadian hip hop song that anomalously records an ostensible rivalry is producedin tandem by the two MCs who interact with each other on the track in a playful, dialogic manner; “Sibling Rivalry” from Classified’s Juno-nominated Boy-Cott in the Industry album features a humorous battle between Classified and brother Mic Boyd where they alternate insults such as “I left home in ’98 Ma and Pa still your crew” (Classified) and “I’ve had it up to here, always talking me down / Bossin’ me around, scared I’m takin’ your crown?” (Mic Boyd). The content of these insults is a far cry from the vitriol that gangster rap lays down, and more importantly, the salient feature of Classified and Boyd’s rivalry is that it is staged in such a way as to allow each MC to respond directly and instantaneously to the other’s attacks, in a dialogic manner that resembles a debate. Neither Classified nor Boyd emerges as the victor, but rather each MC’s response has the effect of leveling the playing field for the listener, who hears both sides of the argument. Furthermore, because of the seamless interplay between these interchanges, which are elaborated in argument and rebuttal style, the listener is made aware of the mutual contribution of both MCs in the creation and studio execution of the song. Finally, because Classified and Boyd couch their rivalry in terms of sibling disputes, the potential seriousness of the “disses” they put forth is mitigated by context: this is not a high-stakes feud between gangster rappers who boast about their gang affiliation or their ability to violently reify the content of their lyrics. It is a sibling rivalry, as the title of the track tells us. What results is a portrait of a “rivalry” which is light-hearted, ethical, and more collaborative than it is divisive.
The fact that there has not to date been a highly publicized feud between Canadian rappers suggests that the ideological milieu of Canadian hip hop has preserved the context-specific identities which allow MCs to shift between oppositional and cooperative interpersonal relations. MC wars that transpire in the Canadian scene tend to be tied to informal and ephemeral freestyle contexts (unrecorded battles and ciphers); Jy Harris and Nuv Takhar (two west-coast Canadian MCs) report that feuds they did engage in were hashed out improvisationally on local hip hop radio stations. As such, lyrical denigration of other MCs does not become ossified as part of a Canadian MC’s public identity, thus preserving the sanctity of the “concept” (Newman’s rhetorical space). This suggests that Canadian hip hop culture has remained faithful to its African-American ancestry in a way that American hip hop has not. As many scholars have shown (Smitherman, Kochman, Campbell, Richardson) rapping descends from oral African (and subsequently African-American) traditions like toasting, signifyin’, the dozens, call-response, and flippin’ the script (semantic inversion) which are above all, verbal performances that demonstrate the speaker/the rapper is a “master of the culture’s many rhetorical devices” (Campbell 37). Most importantly, these rituals are context-specific; they are “street-level practices” (Powell 246) which occur in precisely the same kind of informal environments (street corners, community centres, bars) in which ciphers and freestyle battles take place. While the rhetorical warfare of MC one-upmanship descends from street-level rituals like signifyin’ and the dozens, American MCs have moved these practices out of the ghetto and onto the global stage. American rivalries such as those between Jay Z and Nas, and Ja Rule and 50 Cent, are documented in these artists’ produced repertoire in that they feature prominently in CDs and mixtapes and have moved beyond the purely rhetorical loci of the street. That the art of verbal insult does not translate appropriately to different contexts is evidenced by an infamous “snap” diss that Jay Z levels at Nas in the rebuttal song “Super Ugly.” The “rules” for playin’ the dozens (a mode of verbal insult which disparages an opponent’s ancestors and whose contemporary manifestation is seen in “snaps” or jokes about relatives) include the crucial caveat that the insult “must not be literally true because, then, it is no longer a game” (Smitherman 13). In “Super Ugly,” Jay Z plays on the expression “more in common,” stating that Allan Iverson and he had “more in Carmen,” referring to Carmen Bryan, the mother of Nas’s child, and obliquely implying both his and Iverson’s sexual penetration of Bryan. In contravention of the rules Smitherman documents, the insult is at least partially true (Jay Z’s affair with Bryan has been confirmed although Iverson’s has not), and is thus no longer simply “part of the game.” Running counter to the spirit of traditional playin’ the dozens conventions, the Jay Z diss demonstrates that when the art of verbal insult is uprooted from its originary context, the “rules of the game” change entirely, and can become genuinely malicious rather than playfully rhetorical. The “more in Carmen” diss is one of many traded between Jay Z and Nas, all of which have contributed to a longstanding and public antagonism between the two rappers. Canadian MCs, on the other hand, have remained more faithful to the art of oral verbal insult, which as African-American tradition demonstrates, is rooted in highly rhetorical contexts that delineate a particular social space (the “street,” the “cipher”) which is governed by mutually understood codes. These codes allow rappers to “look at hip hop like a sport [where] competition, trash-talk, victory, defeat, [are] all part of the game” (MC Kal-El). I have been an onlooker in many freestyle battles and ciphers (in both Vancouver and Montreal) where rappers trade (sometimes outlandish) lyrical insults and then show their respect for each other after the battle is over by clapping hands, pounding knuckles, or even briefly hugging as a gesture of good will. This kind of camaraderie demonstrates that is it important for an MC to be able to step out of a rhetorical persona or away from “the game” in a definitive manner not possible when linguistic practices are stripped of their social and physical situatedness.
The ethos characteristic of Canadian rap can best be encapsulated by MC Jy Harris’ comment on hip hop codes of conduct: “Just respect the artist, challenge the art.” While the naturally competitive nature of improvised rap has its roots deep in oral African American tradition, by the same token, this ancestry has gifted contemporary MCs with a sanctified space that continues to be respected by Canadian hip hop artists—an arena in which rhetorical games allow its participants to use language strategically as part of a mutual performance. Tacit codes let MCs know that “whatever is said in the circle [i.e. the cipher] is not to be taken personal [sic], though nearly everything said is personal” (MC Kal-El). Context thus preserves identity, allowing rappers to adopt multiple identities and interact with each other across a range of collaborative and competitive registers. The unique rhetorical space of hip hop ciphers and battles not only challenges the seeming mutual exclusivity of cooperation and competition, it also demonstrates that collaborative relationships can be remarkably forgiving when everyone plays by the same rules.
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