“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War


To be dissed in rap is nothing new. Whether it’s your flow, fashion sense or recent actions, name one MC who doesn’t have a target on his or her back for any rival rhymesayer to take a shot at.

Ready, aim…but wait!

When engaging in war, the objective is to overpower your enemy in order to make them surrender. It’s no different in rap. The difference is an MC’s words are the weapon of choice to engage, disable and conquer the opponent.

It’s easy when your enemy knows you’re aiming for him, but what happens when the shooter goes stealth and fires shots that may not be aimed directly at you. That shot could’ve been for someone else or just all rappers in general who rubbed said shooter the wrong way.

Although the field is crowded with obvious shots, few rhymesayers can pull off a great subliminal diss. One that keeps fans speculating months or possibly years after the shot is fired. Pulling this off takes a creative mind, powerful imagination and a chess-like mentality that builds up to an uncontested victory, making moves that eventually end with the warrior getting the W over his adversary through indirect and, sometimes, obvious means.


Few in hip-hop can pull this off without tipping their hat sooner than they would like. Masters of the art (to name a few) include Jay Z, Eminem, the late great Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Drake. Call them rap’s Seal Team 6 if you want, or not, but you get the idea.

Apparent disses fall back to hip-hop’s genesis. But how far back do subliminals go?

Jay Z and co. wouldn’t be mentioned without looking at the ones who first engaged in subliminal warfare. The exact date or instance may not be known, but subliminal disses could date back to the mid ‘80s, when the Golden Age of hip-hop still ruled. The most lyrical during that period included the likes of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, who seemingly engaged in a subliminal war of rhymes.

Legend has it that Kane and Rakim had a bit of a rivalry back in the day. In 1988, Kane dropped his debut Long Live The Kane, which contained the following subliminal to the R on the song “Set It Off”:

“Feel my blood fist, or my death kiss

The rap soloist, you don’t want none of this…Save the bass for the pipe and rearrange your tone

Or take a loss and be forced in the danger zone”

Rakim’s response came via the song “Follow The Leader” from 1988's Follow The Leader album:

“No need to speed, slow down and let the leader lead word to daddy, indeed!

The R’s a rollin' stone, so I’m rollin'

Directions is told, then the rhymes are stolen

Stop buggin', a brother said, dig 'em, I never dug 'em

He couldn’t follow the leader long enough so I drug 'em

Into danger zone, he should arrange his own

Face it, it’s basic, erase it, change ya tone”

As the story plays on, Rakim had another assault ready for Kane with “Hypnotic,” an unreleased track that targeted the former Juice Crew member with “I don’t sniff no ‘caine (Kane) to get raw (“Raw”).” There was even talk of Rakim taking a couple of Kane-centered subliminal bars out of “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em.” Nonetheless, this "secret" war wasn't made known until decades later.

With that, fans wonder what could’ve happened if those bars stayed in the song and a full-scale lyrical war took place between two of the best to ever hold a mic. The world may never know, but one thing proved certain. The subliminal era had arrived as the ‘90’s came knocking on the door.

Enter the Subliminal Age

With the '90s came a slew of BDK and Rakim disciples, who morphed the pioneers' way with words into their respective flows and inherited the subliminal art of war.

A rapper may get his props for dropping obvious bombs, but it's the hidden opposition that can often cause more controversy, speculation, and receive attention later in the artist’s professional life. Biggie’s short time in the spotlight was filled with coastal beef from Tupac as well as local conflicts with Nas, among others. Although he never touched on those conflicts directly, B.I.G. got his point across subliminally on classics ranging from “Kick in the Door” to “Who Shot Ya,” “Brooklyn’s Finest” with Jay Z and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”

Years after B.I.G.’s death, there was confirmation in a 2003 XXL magazine interview from Lil Cease that “The Long Kiss Goodnight” was about Tupac. Prior to that, the track, as well as “Kick In the Door” (a subliminal for Nas, who verified it on 2002’s “Last Real Nigga Alive,” as well as Jeru tha Damaja, and Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and Ghostface Killah) was up for speculation.

The same wasn’t said for “Who Shot Ya?”, as many saw it as a direct diss to Tupac, despite denials from Puff Daddy and B.I.G. Nevertheless, with Tupac getting shot around the time the song was released, those denials didn’t carry much weight with some rap fans. Taking a deeper look at it, B.I.G. himself let the cat out of the bag on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” leaving little to the imagination regarding his opinion on Pac’s claims of messing around with his then-wife Faith Evans: (“If Faye had twins, she probably have 2 ’Pacs”).

Subliminals from most rappers follow the same pattern, planting seeds to get fans and the target’s inner circle talking, as well as pushing the right buttons for a reply from the object of their diss. As Joe Budden (“Pump It Up” freestyle), Nas and Mase (“Ride or Die”) have found out, Jay Z has made a career out of subliminal warfare. Often times, these shots were made in response to something that offended the rapper. In Mase’s case, it stemmed from going at Jay on 112’s “Love Me.”

Jigga’s retort came with a reality check for the former Bad Boy on “Ride or Die.”

"Always gotta be the weakest nigga out the crew

I probably make more money off your album than you...

Check your own videos, you'll always be number two

Niggas talkin' real greasy on them R&B records

But I'm platinum a million times, nigga, check the credits,” Jay Z spat.

So yeah, it takes a certain way with words to accomplish the mission. But all the credit can’t be given to Biggie and Jay. There were plenty of subliminals coming from sources outside the East. Whether it was Krayzie Bone goin’ in on acts with styles similar to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Crucial Conflict) on Mo Thugs’ “Ain’t Said No Names,” Nas weighing in on contenders for the King of New York title on “The Message” (There’s only one life, one love, so there can only be 1 King”) or Goodie Mob’s Khujo expressing his opinion of a certain Ruff Ryder on the Outkast track “Y’all Scared”, subliminals can be brought from anyone, anywhere.

And it’s not just for battling. Chatting with Complex, Erick Sermon alluded to a hidden game of one-upmanship on the EPMD classic "Rampage" between his partner in rhyme Parrish Smith and LL Cool J.

“I think 'Rampage' was dope. It was a record where LL and Parrish were secretly battling,” Sermon confessed. "People talk about that a lot. LL is a subliminal shot thrower. It turned out to be a great record….”

Drake: Modern Day Subliminal Warrior

Playful battling aside, subliminals are often more serious. For Drake, subliminals are a mixed bag that he pulls out whenever it’s time to unload. From giving props to rap legends by using instrumentals from their classic material, to expressing what he thinks of those who cross his path, the Young Money spitter may not have dropped names, but he didn’t have to in order to get his point across.

Just ask Common (Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin’” remix) or Pusha T (“Tuscan Leather”), who got a subliminal shot for initially throwing hidden shade on “Sweet,” “Exodus 23:1” and “Don’t Fuck With Me, respectively. Like Lil' Cease, Common fessed up to “Sweet” being directed at Drizzy later and ultimately called it a day after some back and forth between them. As for Pusha, that conflict is seemingly still open-ended.

Such is the case with frenemies such as Kendrick Lamar, who may have or may not have thrown a dart at Drake on “Control” and TDE’s BET Hip Hop Awards cypher last year.

“Yeah, and nothing's been the same since they dropped "Control"/And tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes/Ha-ha, joke's on you, high-five” Lamar stated.

Despite their friendship, Lamar was not shielded from catching it on the low from Drizzy, as heard on Future's "Shit" remix and “The Language.”

“I don’t know why they been lying/But your shit is not that inspiring…F**k any ni**a that’s talkin’ that sh** just to get a reaction,” Drake rhymes on the latter track in what could be a response to being among those called out by name on “Control.”

With all the subliminals he’s thrown in his career, Drake could arguably rival Hov and fellow secret warrior Eminem, who are regarded as much for creatively going in low-key, as they are with firing shots point black at competitors. No matter what, the fact remains that a true battle-tested lyricist is one who has mastered the art of subliminal warfare. When you have lyrics that leave scars and are still felt and analyzed years later, that’s leaving your mark. And if the enemy comes around and actually admits the hidden dart was actually thrown or aimed at him, or a close associate confirms our suspicions, then in the end it’s all summed up in one line:

“Ya'll respect the one who got shot, I respect the shooter”

- Jay Z “30 Something”

‘Nuff said. Any questions?