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Where's the beef? In hip-hop, it's now on Twitter

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Lupe Fiasco was brainstorming tweets that might set the world on its ear.

His representative from Atlantic Records tensed up, looked at me, rolled his eyes. "This guy -- everything he tweets starts a discussion," he said. "The good and the bad."

This was weeks after Fiasco found himself embroiled in a brief but now notorious Twitter exchange with fellow Chicago rapper Chief Keef (Fiasco said in an interview that Keef scared him, Keef tweeted his intention to "smack" Fiasco) and just days after Fiasco traded 140-character barbs with comic D.L. Hughley (who reacted negatively to a Fiasco statement discouraging voting).

In 2012, when rappers throw down, it's off the record -- literally.

The days of East Coast/West Coast-style disses, communicated via snarky rhymes on albums and singles and delivered weeks or even months after the original offense, have waned. Today the genre's famous flip remarks, wicked critiques and occasional threats are transmitted in real time through social media.

Twitter, in particular, has been the modern rapper's choice for soapbox, megaphone and boxing ring since the service debuted just six years ago. But the off-the-cuff nature of tweets means disses drop in the heat of the moment and wars of words escalate -- often to the brink of offline violence.

Famous feuds
As if legitimizing his online one-liners as a medium of equal importance to his music, Kanye West said earlier this year, "If I don't say something in a rap or on Twitter, it's not true."

Like many Chicago-native MCs, West has used Twitter to maximum effect -- showing his latest furniture purchases, sharing photos of girlfriend Kim Kardashian and offering his many public apologies. (Mysteriously, however, West deleted all his tweets this week, leaving behind only a typically cryptic post: "BE BACK SOON.") Rhymefest, too, has utilized Twitter as an important outlet both professional (his 2010 campaign for Chicago city council) and personal (his tweets during the presidential debates this season have been spot-on and full of zingers).

Fans also know Twitter as an arena for a few famous feuds, such as:

-- 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule: Last year, 50 retweeted a post about Ja Rule pleading guilty to tax evasion and then suggested this was the only headline Ja Rule could generate anymore. Ja Rule wrote the comments off to a "ho ass n----." Fiddy is a fighter, not a lover: He was burning up his feed just this week, barking back at French Montana's claims that 50 damages his own career with these very quarrels.

-- Ciara vs. Rihanna: After talking smack about Rihanna on the cable series "Fashion Police," these two transferred the sniping to Twitter, where Ciara warned: "trust me Rihanna u don't want to see me on or off the stage."

-- Chris Brown vs. everyone: In the last year, the beleaguered Brown has fought in his feed with Frank Ocean, John Legend, Brian McKnight, even Rihanna and, of course, throwing digital bottles at Drake.

Aged beefs
The word for these feuds, "beefs," goes back to the very roots of hip-hop. In the street during the '70s, DJs and MCs squared off by showing off their technical skills as well as their flair for insults, usually without real malice. Beefs are so commonplace in hip-hop the BET cable network aired "Beef," a short-lived series documenting them.

Before the establishment of social media as a preferred medium of instant discourse, hip-hop beefs played out on record, in interviews, sometimes in scuffles at award shows. A lyric would serve as a warning shot, a liner note would rile a rival. Responses usually were in kind -- Marly Marl's claim about hip-hop's roots in Queens ("The Bridge") engendered KRS-One's "South Bronx," Biggie's "Who Shot Ya?" begot Tupac's "Hit 'em Up," "Jay Z's "Takeover" prodded Nas' "Ether" -- but, via old media and the marketplace, they had a built-in delay. By the time a retort was written, recorded and released, tensions usually had cooled.

Instant online media like Twitter, however, tend to sizzle the beef.

"I think it's pretty likely that instantaneity means there is no chance to 'count to 10' in hopes that things might cool off a bit," said Steve Jones, distinguished professor of communication at the Univ. of Illinois-Chicago. "I don't pin that on Twitter, though, as that is the case with other synchronous media -- Facebook, [texting], etc. ... There's probably some perceived advantage to the public-ness of Twitter, that it seems like more of a mass medium than other options at this point. It also has the perceived advantage of having messages amplified via re-tweeting. If Facebook is a wall, Twitter might be a bullhorn."

As Fiasco noted, a bullhorn merely amplifies messages that are already there.

"Twitter isn't the cause [of beefs]. Twitter facilitates everything that's already in the culture," Fiasco said. "We get caught up in the distraction of the medium as opposed to the actual content and origination of the message. When you see certain outlandish things on Twitter, or certain conflicts, or certain expressions of heartlessness, it's already happened. It's already there. So what are you more concerned about -- that someone happened to put it on Twitter, to publicize it on the Internet or Facebook or what have you, or the fact that we're fighting at all?"

Words without rhymes?
If a Twitter beef backfires, standard procedure is to claim that your Twitter account was hacked. This was Chief Keef's fallback position last month following tweets in his feed that made light of the recent murder of South Side rapper Lil Jojo -- which resulted in Chicago police investigating him for the crime.

When former Mobb Deep partners Havoc and Prodigy duked it out on Twitter in April -- one of this year's biggest (and most surprising) beefs, with the former alleging that the latter was a homosexual -- Havoc said he'd been hacked; he later retracted that claim, calling those tweets "just the wrong thing to do."

Then again, when Ja Rule and 50 Cent were fighting, Ja Rule proudly claimed his words, tweeting, "And NO I didn't get HACKED I just don't RESPECT b---h ass n----s!!!"

Some rap stars avoid the Twitter fray altogether. Eminem's feed is purely commercial. Jay-Z hardly tweets at all. Young Jeezy shied from for a long time, summing up his position to MTV in August: "Twitter is a motherf-----."

"The interesting and potentially problematic thing from an artistic point of view," Jones said, "is whether the energy that is channeled into the disses is dissipated, no pun intended, by expressing it immediately via real-time media and thus not being channeled into a new track."

Indeed, beefs make rappers into modern gladiators for our amusement, so if the anger, passion and comedy of talented wordsmiths is playing out on Twitter, who will deliver the next great diss track?

There's still hope. In last year's buzzworthy single "Yonkers," Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator lashes out against pop-rapper B.o.B. (and his hit "Airplane"), snarling, "I'll crash that f---ing airplane that that f----t n---- B.o.B is in." B.o.B. fired back old-school in his own song "No Future," implying that's exactly what haters like Tyler have.

Tyler then took the beef to Twitter to compliment B.o.B. for being fired up by the exchange and thus producing a great song. "I've never heard him spit like that," Tyler tweeted. "Took me by surprise, cus it's tight."


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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