In 2009 track Reflecting, grime pioneer Skepta raps "I think I'm the best / And I call it competitive confidence, not vanity". It's a line that encapsulates the combat-driven spirit that has shaped rap music throughout its five-decade history.
Whether through the East vs West Coast rivalries of '90s US hip–hop or the modern postcode wars of UK drill, clashing with opponents has always been at the lyrical heart of rap music's DNA.
The concept of the hip-hop diss track first gained prominence with the Roxanne Wars of 1984 and The Bridge Wars that saw KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions (BPS) clash with Queensbridge's Marley Marl later that decade. However, while hip-hop popularised the diss track as a concept, the phenomenon of making calculated attacks on people via music dates back further than many people realise.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney took aim at each other on records following The Beatles' split, and reggae pioneers like Lee "Scratch" Perry have been known for directing scornful lyrics at other musicians. The concept of battling has even been linked to ancient Greece, where lyrical poets from different regions would represent their hometowns in musical "battles" that mirror today's clashes.
Throughout the history of dissing, the blueprint for success has revolved around powerful, personal, and often hurtful lyrics that question an opponents' abilities, values, and decisions. The most successful disses are often backed up by rigorous research that allows MCs to drop revelations about the figure they're targeting. Add to the mix a beat worthy of a battle, and you've got a magic formula. So what are the best diss tracks of all time?
1. Jay-Z - Takeover
Nas and Jay-Z's beef is one of hip-hop's most documented disputes. It started in New York in the mid-1990s, when a quiet tension rumbled along due to Nas' suspicions that up-and-comer Jay-Z had borrowed from his style. Things finally erupted in 2001, when Jay dropped his sixth album The Blueprint, featuring a track titled Takeover packed to the brim with attacks on both Nas and his New York affiliate Prodigy of Mobb Deep.
"I don't care if you Mobb Deep, I hold triggers to crews / You little fuck, I got money stacks bigger than you / When I was pushin' weight, back in '88 / You was a ballerina, I got your pictures I seen ya," Shawn Carter spits in his explosive second verse. He switches from attacks on diminutive rapper Prodigy to critiques of Nas' rapidly-declining credibility: "Had a spark when you started but now you're just garbage / Fell from top 10 to not mentioned at all". Takeover was a savage shot that announced Jay-Z as the new king of the New York hip-hop scene.
2. Nas - Ether
When it comes to the Nas vs Jay-Z beef, both camps have their own passionate advocates; however, many people think that the release of Ether left Nasir Jones, AKA Nas, on top. His response to Takeover was unrestrained, painting Carter as shady and back-stabbing while questioning his originality and asserting his New York dominance in lyrics like "I am the truest, name a rapper that I ain't influenced / Gave y'all chapters but now I keep my eyes on the Judas".
As well as crucifying Jay-Z, the track also helped reignite Nas' career after a series of albums that flopped commercially and critically, paling in comparison with influential debut Illmatic. Ether was featured on Nas' fifth studio album Stillmatic, which rekindled many hip-hop fans' respect for the Queensbridge rapper and helped cement the foundations for a long AND illustrious career.
In the years since, the pair have patched things up, with Nas reflecting recently that they even joke about reigniting the feud: "Sometimes I text Hova like, 'n****, this ain't over,' laughing," he says. Regardless of whether they remain friends for good, their disagreement has had an undeniable impact on hip-hop's history.
3. The Notorious B.I.G - Who Shot Ya?
The mid-'90s feud between Christopher Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur remains arguably the most iconic in rap history. Not only did it lead to some incredible tracks, it also concluded in tragedy, leaving an enduring musical legacy behind.
The pair were initially friends, but tensions quickly grew when 2Pac was shot in 1994 in New York by men he suspected were affiliated with Biggie's Bad Boy Records crew. A fierce rivalry ensued, ultimately culminating in the fatal shooting of Shakur in September 1996 in Las Vegas and the murder of Wallace in a drive-by shooting six months later. The two crimes remain unsolved but will forever be viewed as closely linked to the pair's musical rivalry.
The aforementioned studio shooting prompted Biggie to drop Who Shot Ya? in 1995, a deeply provocative track that most people viewed as mocking Shakur's shooting. Over a swaggering, stripped-back instrumental, Biggie asserts his strength with bars like "Who shot ya? / Separate the weak from the obsolete… I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek", his deep, thick tones delivering ferocious rhymes that 2Pac couldn't help but respond to…
4. 2Pac - Hit 'Em Up
In reply to Who Shot Ya?, 2Pac dropped a track that many view today as the greatest diss in hip-hop history. Led by the hook "Who shot me? But your punks didn't finish / Now you 'bout to feel the wrath of a menace, N***** I hit 'em up" (surely one of hip-hop's most iconic lines), Hit 'Em Up was an explosive response to a life-changing event.
The track's opening ad-lib sets the tone, with 2Pac casually throwing in the off-hand comment "That's why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker", before proceeding to lay heavily into Wallace, poking fun at his weight, questioning his talent and labelling him a cuckold, while waxing lyrical about the superiority of West Coast rap over the scene's East Coast rivals.
Perhaps the biggest flex in the whole track is Shakur's decision to give up over 90 seconds of bar-spitting time to three members of his collective the Outlawz (Hussein Fatal, Yaki Kadafi and E.D.I. Mean), who continue slewing Biggie and his crew Junior M.A.F.IA. Leaving things to the young guns is a big power play, and it certainly has the desired effect.
5. Pusha T - The Story of Adidon
On Infrared, the final track of Pusha T's third album Daytona, he hit Drake with allegations of ghostwriting, rapping "How could you ever right these wrongs? / When you don't even write your songs?" Drake responded with Duppy Freestyle, but it was Pusha's reply that stuck in the memory.
In The Story of Adidon, Pusha T alleged that Drake had had a child named Adonis with French model and former pornstar Sophie Brussaux. The Canadian artist was reputedly planning on revealing the news at an upcoming Adidas launch, but Pusha hijacked those plans, and incredibly, pushed Drake to confirm a month later that the rumours were true.
The title referenced the track's instrumental (Jay-Z hit The Story of OJ), whilst also mashing together Adidas with the name of Drake's son. And it did not pull any punches. "You are hiding a child, let that boy come home / Deadbeat motherfucker, playing border patrol / Adonis is your son / And he deserves more than an Adidas press run" rapped Pusha, laying into the OVO founder's character in the fiercest way possible. This diss track captured how intensive background research and clever timing can land an explosive sucker-punch on an opponent.
6. Roxanne Shante - Roxanne's Revenge
Back when artists like Pusha T, Nas and Kanye West were still kids, Roxanne's Revenge laid the foundations for the phenomenon of the diss track. Contested between Brooklyn collective UTFO and the young rapper Lolita Shanté Gooden, this was widely viewed as the first ever major hip-hop feud.
Soon after the 1984 release of UTFO's Roxanne, Roxanne' (a track in which they rapped about being rejected by a girl named Roxanne), this legendary clash was kickstarted when 14-year-old Queensbridge rapper Lolita Shanté Gooden (aka Roxanne Shanté) heard that UTFO had cancelled an appearance on a radio show that producer Marley Marl and DJ Mr. Magic were promoting. She grabbed the moment and approached Marl with the idea of releasing a response track in which she assumed the fictional character of Roxanne, titled Roxanne's Revenge.
Her reply was a hit, and despite UTFO then attempting to discredit the authenticity of her story, Shanté was thrust into the limelight. Numerous other rappers released their own 'Roxanne' tracks, and the Roxanne Wars phenomenon led to over 100 song releases.
"Men felt threatened; fans loved the novelty of hearing a girl take such an aggressive stance," said Shanté of the diss in a recent interview. "I didn't want to be second best, I didn't want to be the best girl — I wanted to be the best."
7. Bugzy Malone - Relegation Riddim
The UK rap scene experienced a huge resurgence in the 2010s, with grime MCs like Skepta and Stormzy entering the mainstream and flourishing across the globe. Since the sound emerged from the East London pirate radio movement in the early 2000s, clashing has been at its core. But it was in 2015 - at the peak of grime's mainstream hype - that one feud inspired the masses.
The beef between north London veteran Chip and Manchester up-and-comer Bugzy Malone began when the latter sent for Chip in his first Fire in the Booth freestyle, spitting "Fuck Chipmunk and his As and Bs". The Londoner hit back with Pepper Riddim, before Bugzy went super direct with Relegation Riddim, a dark, brooding grime track produced by Z-Dot that featured heavy bars like "Chipmunk's Fire in the Booth was boring / I set fire to the building / Chip made everybody in the building start snoring".
While Chip's hat trick of quick-fire disses (Light Work, Run Out Riddim and Hat Trick) probably won him the overall clash, Relegation Riddim arguably remains the sharpest shot fired in the battle.
8. Devlin - Extra Extra (Wiley Diss)
Long before the emergence of Bugzy Malone and his new-gen counterparts, grime was thriving. This was largely down to the innovation and creative vision of one artist: Wiley. The east London MC and producer was pivotal to the scene's early development, but he also repeatedly clashed with a range of other grime artists.
Wiley's 2006 beef with young Essex MC Devlin came out of the veteran's initial clash with Ghetts, who was in the same crew as Devlin, The Movement. The collective are mentioned frequently in this particular Wiley diss, which remains one of the hardest ever grime sends.
Devlin uses Ruff Sqwad's pumping, strings-led instrumental Xtra, first released on their legendary beat tape White Label Classics. The bars are devastating from the very start, including pops at Wiley's age ("You used to say '38, 38', nowadays you're about 38, 38"), his faltering career ("You won't blow like Dylan / You counterfeit villain"), and his unsuccessful attempts to join The Movement ("You asked to be in The Movement, tryna beg friends with us / We can't let a snake in the clique").
9. Bob Dylan - Positively 4th Street
Rap music has given the world most of its iconic diss tracks, but various pop and rock artists have also dropped some savage disses over the years. Bob Dylan's Positively 4th Street is a great example; widely understood as an attack on the Greenwich Village folk crowd who had criticised Dylan's intertwining of folk music with rock and the electric guitar, the 1965 track sent shockwaves across the New York music scene.
With lyrics like "You've got a lotta nerve to say you got a helping hand to lend / You just wanna be on the side that's winning" and "Though I know you're dissatisfied with your position and your place / Don't you understand, it's not my problem?", Positively 4th Street genuinely caused a stir, particularly at a time when diss tracks were unheard of.
"It was unfair. Dylan comes in and takes from us, uses my resources, then he leaves and he gets bitter," said Village figure Izzy Young. This is a track laced with rage and resentment, and one which offered an early glimpse of the diss track's potential for lyrical savagery.
10. Lauryn Hill - Lost Ones
Lauryn Hill's seminal debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, recently turned 25, but the ferocity of its opening track Lost Ones certainly hasn't ebbed away during that quarter-century. A barrage of precise, intelligently-crafted personal attacks on a man we assume is her ex-Fugees bandmember and romantic partner Wyclef Jean, Hill's track is an inflammatory opener that serves to underscore Hill's lyrical skills and unapologetic attitude.
Hill criticises Jean's infidelity and two-faced nature in bars like "A groupie call, you fall from temptation / Now you wanna ball over separation" and riffs on themes of redemption and karma extensively, rapping "What you throw out comes back to you, star / Never underestimate those who you scar".
Marrying smooth Jamaican patois rhyming with reggae influences and adding a whiff of East Coast hip-hop stank, the track propelled Hill to colossal heights, as she reached platinum status and broke the record for first-week sales by a female artist on the release of her debut album. What's more, it certainly put Wyclef Jean in his place.