With Drake throwing subliminal disses as much as other rappers take obvious shots, how far back do hidden disses go, and who joins Drizzy in the art of fighting without directly dropping any names?
âThe supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.â
â Sun Tzu, The Art of War
To be dissed in rap is nothing new. Whether itâs your flow, fashion sense or recent actions, name one MC who doesnât have a target on his or her back for any rival rhymesayer to take a shot at.
Ready, aimâ¦but wait!
When engaging in war, the objective is to overpower your enemy in order to make them surrender. Itâs no different in rap. The difference is an MCâs words are the weapon of choice to engage, disable and conquer the opponent.
Itâs easy when your enemy knows youâre aiming for him, but what happens when the shooter goes stealth and fires shots that may not be aimed directly at you. That shot couldâve 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,Â 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 rapâs Seal Team 6 if you want,Â or not, but you get the idea.
Apparent disses fall back to hip-hopâs genesis. But how far back do subliminals go?
Jay Z and co. wouldnât 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 â80s, 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 âSet It Offâ:
âFeel my blood fist, or my death kiss
The rap soloist, you donât want none of thisâ¦Save the bass for the pipe and rearrange your tone
Or take a loss and be forced in the danger zoneâ
Rakimâs response came via the song âFollow The Leaderâ from 1988's Follow The Leader album:
âNo need to speed, slow down and let the leader lead word to daddy, indeed!
The Râs a rollin' stone, so Iâm rollin'
Directions is told, then the rhymes are stolen
Stop buggin', a brother said, dig 'em, I never dug 'em
He couldnât follow the leader long enough so I drug 'em
Into danger zone, he should arrange his own
Face it, itâs basic, erase it, change ya toneâ
As the story plays on, Rakim had another assault ready for Kane with âHypnotic,â an unreleased track that targeted the former Juice Crew member with âI donât sniff no âcaine (Kane) to get raw (âRawâ).â There was even talk of Rakim taking a couple of Kane-centered subliminal bars out of âLet the Rhythm Hit âEm.â Nonetheless, thisÂ "secret" war wasn't made known until decades later.
With that, fans wonder what couldâve 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 â90âs 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.
AÂ rapper may get his props for dropping obviousÂ bombs, but it's the hidden opposition that can often cause more controversy, speculation, and receive attention later in the artistâs professional life. Biggieâs 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 âKick in the Doorâ to âWho Shot Ya,â âBrooklynâs Finestâ with Jay Z and âThe Long Kiss Goodnight.â
Years after B.I.G.âs death, there was confirmationÂ in a 2003 XXL magazine interview from Lil Cease that âThe Long Kiss Goodnightâ was about Tupac. Prior to that, the track, as well as âKick In the Doorâ (a subliminal for Nas, who verified it on 2002âs âLast Real Nigga Alive,â as well as Jeru tha Damaja, and Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and Ghostface Killah) was up for speculation.
The same wasnât said for âWho Shot Ya?â, 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 didnât 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 âBrooklynâs Finest,â leaving little to the imagination regarding his opinion on Pacâs claims of messing around with his then-wife Faith Evans: (âIf Faye had twins, she probably have 2 âPacsâ).
Subliminals from most rappers follow the same pattern, planting seeds to get fans and the targetâs inner circle talking, as well as pushing the right buttons for a reply from the object of their diss. As Joe Budden (âPump It Upâ freestyle), Nas and Mase (âRide or Dieâ) 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 Maseâs case, it stemmed from going at Jay on 112âs âLove Me.â
Jiggaâs retort came with a reality check for the former Bad Boy on âRide or Die.â
"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,â Jay Z spat.
So yeah, it takes a certain way with words to accomplish the mission. But all the credit canât be given to Biggie and Jay. There were plenty of subliminals coming from sources outside the East. Whether it was Krayzie Bone goinâ in on acts with styles similar to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Crucial Conflict) on Mo Thugsâ âAinât Said No Names,â Nas weighing in on contenders for the King of New York title on âThe Messageâ (Thereâs only one life, one love, so there can only be 1 Kingâ) or Goodie Mobâs Khujo expressing his opinion of a certain Ruff Ryder on the Outkast track âYâall Scaredâ, subliminals can be brought from anyone, anywhere.
And itâs 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.
âI think 'Rampage' was dope. It was a record where LL and Parrish were secretly battling,â Sermon confessed. "People talk about that a lot. LL is a subliminal shot thrower. It turned out to be a great recordâ¦.â
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 itâs 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 didnât have to in order to get his point across.
Just ask Common (Rick Rossâ âStay Scheminââ remix) or Pusha T (âTuscan Leatherâ), who got a subliminal shot for initially throwing hidden shade on âSweet,â âExodus 23:1â and âDonât Fuck With Me, respectively. Like Lil' Cease, Common fessed up to âSweetâ being directed at Drizzy later and ultimately called it a day after some back and forth between them. As for Pusha, that conflict is seeminglyÂ 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 âControlâ and TDEâs BET Hip Hop Awards cypher last year.
âYeah, 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-fiveâ 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 âThe Language.â
âI donât know why they been lying/But your shit is not that inspiringâ¦F**k any ni**a thatâs talkinâ that sh** just to get a reaction,â Drake rhymes on the latter track in what could be a response to being among those called out by name on âControl.â
With all the subliminals heâs 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, thatâs 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 itâs all summed up in one line:
âYa'll respect the one who got shot, I respect the shooterâ
- Jay Z â30 Somethingâ
âNuff said. Any questions?