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Hip-Hop Fridays: On Jay-Z vs. Nas, Cain, Abel and "Amadeus"

As soon as I heard Jay-Z's "Super-Ugly" response to Nas' "Ether"; which was Nas' response to Jay-Z's " TakeOver"; which was Jay-Z's response to Nas' "Stillmatic"; which was Nas' response to Jay-Z's shouting him out at Hot 97's Summer Jam, I knew we had reached the point of diminishing returns in the most famous Hip-Hop "battle" since the Cannibus vs. L.L. Cool J episode four years ago.

For those in Hip-Hop, even Jay-Z and Nas to a degree, who tried to position their public airing as good for Hip-Hop and in the best tradition of "M.C. battles," "Super-Ugly" and even parts of "Ether" ended that line of rationale.

By the time that I heard Jay-Z's latest response I knew that the woman whose name, and personal business was being dragged through the mud, in public, was the mother of Nas' daughter. I knew her name, which Jay-Z mentions at least 4 times in the song, having met her in 1994, for the first time, only four days after Nas' beautiful daughter Destiny was born. I only knew her through my interaction with Nas and found her to be a very kind and beautiful young woman. The last time that I would see her,in person, would be in the offices of Def Jam, in 1996, while I was there with Method Man for a meeting with Lyor Cohen. There I saw Carmen, with her daughter, Destiny, walking through the office hallways.

When I heard Jay-Z say what he did about her, seemingly in every dishonorable way imaginable, I really began to think over why Hip-Hop artists can't seperate the personal from the professional. I also wondered what it is about Nas that gets under Jay-Z's skin so much. Without getting into the specific details of my thoughts, I did come to the conclusion that external forces, including entourage members, label executives, friends, and industry "gossip"-mongers were near the real cause of the "beef" between two of Hip-Hop's greatest stars. But at the root of the tension between Jay-Z and Nas and their two camps are invidious comparisons which aggravate existing spiritual diseases like envy and jealousy. Artists and other public figures are especially susceptible to the pressures produced by such comparisons, which always have at their root the premise that an individual can only be exalted at the expense of another individual. In economics and other disciplines that premise is described by the term "zero-sum", which holds that one's gain is another's loss. Throw affairs of the heart into the mix, and the confluence of forces is combustible, and potentially violent.

So, we don't accept the argument that what Nas and Jay-Z have engaged in is a classic "MC Battle" in the best of traditions. And even if it were, we would still have to look at that artistic expression in the context or backdrop of the history and condition of the people who produce the artform. As a result, the Black community's history with envy and jealousy is inextricably intertwined in any artistic endeavor that pits one Brother against another. If any competitive exchange in Hip-Hop is to make a positive contribution it has to steer clear of the pitfalls of invidious comparisons, envy and jealousy as well as the "zero-sum" mentality that leads to a Cain and Abel scenario.

How did a primarily private, industry-circulated, and veiled back and forth between Nas and Jay-Z become the stuff that public dis records are made of? As we argued months ago, it was something that The Source magazine was angling for and helped to publicize, but really only Jay-Z and Nas can be responsible for engaging in this exercise.

To be sure, the controversy has contributed to both rappers elevating their skill levels, and has meant dramatically increased sales and regained popularity for Nas, who just scanned 340,000 albums in his new album Stillmatic's first week of release. And we don't disagree with Jay-Z's assertion that Nas owes him a platinum plaque. Jigga's opposition to Nas deserves credit for forcing the Queensbridge MC to focus on his craft. But are those benefits worth all that this stridency has (and will) cost? While the monetary benefits and increased attention and marketing assistance on one side are measurable, on the other side we have a woman, who is the mother of a young girl who has had her reputation besmirched by a man who took a private relationship public. And we have another man's sexuality being questioned by a man who weaves innuendo and slander into a "dis" record. And we have Black, Hip-Hop, and mainstream radio stations trafficking in the mess, spreading it throughout every corner of the United States of America, it seems. Yet, we are all supposed to accept this scenario because it has resulted in badly needed interest in Hip-Hop and increased quality in the delivery of Hip-Hop lyrics for arguably its two biggest stars.

The argument that this is good for the culture and art form would hold more weight for us if the words being hurled back and forth between the two artists weren't as back-biting in nature and if the lines between reality and fiction weren't so blurred. As a result of the mixture of truth, falsehood, slander, secrets and innuendo, countless people have been offended, insulted and gossip has begun to circulate about both Nas and Jay-Z that has taken the discussions far away from the realm of a classic MC battle. This is no MC Shan vs. KRS-One.

Part of our litmus test for the value, nature and redemptive quality of any debate is how personal the arguments are. We picked this lesson up from the history of the Nation of Islam and some advice that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad gave to Malcolm X. From a Final Call interview with Minister Farrakhan, conducted while President Clinton was being impeached and personally attacked, there is a lesson that Nas and Jay-Z and the Hip-Hop community should consider:

FC: President Clinton recently has come under tremendous attack for his part in the Monica Lewinsky affair. How does such an attack affect the Office of the presidency as an institution?

MLF: The institution of the presidency has been badly damaged by this personal attack on Mr. Clinton. Years ago, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad told Malcolm X, when he repeated slander given to him by a reporter on Martin Luther King Jr., that he should never make an attack personal; that he should criticize that person's program or the principles on which he or she stands. In this case, the personal attack on President Clinton and his moral lapse has done irreparable damage to that office as the moral leader of the United States America.

While this may not appear to be as important as American politics, it really is, as Nas and Jay-Z should be mindful of Minister Farrakhan's identification earlier this year, of Hip-Hop artists as the world's youth leaders. By publicly tearing each other down via personal attacks, both artists have generated increased disrespect for themselves, in the eyes of numerous Hip-Hop artists and fans who would otherise listen to Jay-Z or Nas if they were ever asked by either artist, to do more than just bop their heads and buy their albums. In keeping with the Minister's answer pertaining to Bro. Malcolm's personal attack on Dr. King and the Republican-led Congress' personal attack on President Clinton, we think that Nas and Jay-Z are actually destroying the office they hold as world youth leaders, so to speak, and the institution of Hip-Hop in what they are doing. This may be hard for some to recognize at this stage but if one imagines external political forces attacking youth activists in a manner similar to how Nas and Jay-Z are attacking each other, it may be easier to understand how a whole generation that admires Hip-Hop artists can be undermined when the youth leaders that they pledge allegiance to, tear each other down morally and intellectually. As youth leaders, Nas and Jay-Z are doing their followers a tremendous disservice.

While MC battles do allow a measure of personal comments they are usually made in a very superficial manner that demonstrates more of the artist's ability to create rhymes off of the top of their head than they indicate a desire to expose personal weakness or to defame. Nas and Jay-Z sat down, and methodically wrote what they did. They then entered professional state-of-the art studios and recorded their dis records. They and their record labels leaked advance copies of the songs to popular street D.J.s like the popular D.J. Clue, and the the one-and-only "Drama King" of mixtape, D.J. Kay-Slay. But what they are engaged in is studio warfare, with special effects, and corporate intermediaries. No audience, no off the top of their heads rhymes, no back and forth in real time. A very clean process for the two of them while everyone else has to figure out how serious things are, as each artist sends mixed signals in every interview they grant.

But again, even with their virtual-"battle," neither artist had to get into the other's personal business, drop innuendo or even lie. Similarly to how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad advised Brother Malcolm, in reference to Dr. King, either artist could have found plenty of material in criticizing the other's professional careers, lyrical style and content and impact on Hip-Hop without getting into each other's bedrooms. To a large degree, aside from the gun references and the very vague hint of his personal relationship with Nas' old girlfriend, Jay-Z accomplished this in "Takeover" which is why we think it was better than Nas' "Ether".

That the Honorable Elijah Muhammad did also say that one cannot be crowned a champion without an opponent does not contradict what we are arguing. In fact that principle strengthens and supports what we are saying. How can one be the "King" of the rap game through the clever use of insults and personal attacks? That, in our opinion would make the victor the heavyweight champion of slander, defamation and vitriol, not Hip-Hop. And no young Black male can take that belt from off of the waist of the mainstream and tabloid media.

MCs battle everyday with one another without even knowing the personal business of another artist, yet they compete, with no problems. Now, as a result of the nature of that in which Nas and Jay-Z are engaged the number of participants involved promises to spiral out of control as rappers who have either a personal or professional beef or interest with either Jay-Z and Nas jump into the fray in search of honor, street credibility, and financial reward. Before long, Nas and Jay-Z won't even recognize what will be credited as their "beef", as was the case with two now deceased rappers last decade.

We now are at a similar point to that which we were at in 1996 with Biggie and Tupac, where the principals, associates and entourage members carried the beef and rumors of such into almost every celebrity party, radio interview and magazine article related to either side. The ultimate lines between art and reality are now blurred, to the point where if violence erupts, involving either side, the media and law enforcement officers can point to a few dis records as the motive for bodily injury. This is especially interesting when one considers that both Nas and Jay-Z believe that they are under surveillance by law enforcement agents, with Jay-Z most recently being arrested on gun charges while under the watchful eye of the NYPD's street crimes task force unit. And of course, we have written about this before - that the NYPD has publicly announced that it has the Hip-Hop industry in New York City under surveillance. MTV prominently reported this fact earlier this year.

It is difficult to argue that Nas and Jay-Z don't know better. On that point, what makes this all the more interesting is that the most prominent principals in this controversy - Mobb Deep, Nas and Jay-Z had no such dis records blaring throughout radio stations in this country when they were dissed by Tupac on a record that was played everywhere. What stopped Nas, Jay-Z and Mobb Deep from publicly attacking Tupac when they were called out by him just 5 years ago? We have our opinion(s), which we will hold back, for now, regarding why Tupac's missives weren't reciprocated, but Jay-Z and Nas should especially think over why they made the decision they did 5 years ago. But to what degree did the sincere admiration and respect that Nas, Jay-Z and Mobb Deep have for Tupac contribute to their relative silence? I remember part of a conservation I had with Nas in 1994 where the subject of Tupac came up. Nas, in his remarks to me, showed tremendous respect for Tupac.

That Jay-Z and Nas obviously don't feel that way about each other is not just an indication of how charismatic and powerful a Brother Tupac was, it also speaks to the level of envy and jealousy that has been fostered and created between both artists, who have more money, popularity and admiration than do 99.9% of all Black men 30 years of age and younger. So, why the angst and apparent dislike that both men are publicly manifesting toward each other? Is it justified? Is it truly redemptive, or serving a larger purpose that is for the betterment of Hip-Hop as both men have argued in recent weeks? Do they privately believe that, or are both Brothers rationalizing conduct that they know has caused injury to Hip-Hop artists individually and to the entire community/industry as a whole? Lastly, why aren't both men secure enough in who they are and their place in Hip-Hop history that they couldn't pass on the most personal aspects of their public exchanges? Why weren't they able to resist the pressure(s) to go at one another in public. What is it inside of both of them that permitted this to escalate?

We think that Nas is correct when he says that there is something about him and some of the love he has earned from the streets that gets under Jay-Z's skin and we think that there is truth to the argument that Jay-Z's success in numerous aspects of Hip-Hop and beyond, may similarly irritate Nas.

But is that the basis for a competition? We pose that question particularly to those who buy the argument that this controversy is good for Hip-Hop. How could this be good for Hip-Hop when artists should be testing and improving their skills via regular freestyle compettitions, anyway? Why does it take invidious comparisons, rumors, gossip and the influence of people in both circles to feed a supposedly legitimate MC battle? An MC battle is much more dignified and professional than this thing that Nas and Jay-Z have going on. Remeber, the process by which a thing, individual, or circumstance is created determines its nature. If envy and jealousy created this "battle" then that "battle" will continue to be maintained by the god and law that perpetuates envy and jealousy. How is that good for Hip-Hop? And why is the preservation of a culture, that is flawed, more important than the people who produce it?

The last time we heard Jay-Z speak he was reflecting over the fact that his own mother thinks that he has gone too far with his recordings against Nas. And when asked if he thinks it would be possible for he and Nas to record a song together in the future, he answered that he does not think so, in light of the fact that things have gone too far. How could Jay-Z let things get that far, we wonder, to the point where he is publicly exposing his private relationship with a woman, a relationship that no one would otherwise know about? It makes you seriously wonder whether Jay-Z had all of this in mind when he was dealing with the Sister. It also makes you wonder what turned in Jay-Z's mind to make him call Nas out at Summer Jam this summer. Lastly, why didn't Jay-Z think of the impact that all of this would have on Nas' daughter, whose mother is being scandalized as a result of this event. Even if all that Jay-Z says of her is true, her "sins" were relatively private, as are most of ours, including Jay-Z's.

And how can Nas let it get too far? After all, all Jay-Z said at New York's Hot 97 Summer Jam was "Ask Nas, he don't want it with H.O.V..." That shout out, though unnecessary, certainly doesn't warrant Nas, on wax, describing Jay-Z as a homosexual. And if Nas was as affected by his problems with Tupac as he says, why didn't he learn that lesson and take the high road and ignore Jay-Z? Nas' initial response in "Stillmatic" was much more vicious and given to violence than what Jigga offered up in Nas' direction at Summer Jam. What gives?

Cain and Abel. At the root of all of this controversy, that many want depicted as simply a rap battle, is the story of Cain and Abel - the ultimate account of the worst that envy and jealousy produce - hatred, then murder.

A good movie to watch in order to see a graphic depiction of how envy and jealousy work, particularly in the artistic community is the movie "Amadeus", where the envy that one artist held for another lead him to conspire against his peer. You can literally feel the hatred growing, over time, toward Amadeus, as the gifts he manifests , from the Creator, grow and expand, in the face of his peers. But although Amadeus is the victim of envy and jealousy, to Whom ultimately is the worst hatred directed, when one envies? Ultimately, the hatred goes all the way up to the Source of the talent, the Grantor of ability, in the first place. What a horrible disease and condition envy produces in another's heart, mind and soul. It is so powerful that it causes the envier to ignore and forget the gifts and talents that they have been given from the same Source that the one they envy received their gifts and talents. If one really reflects over it, envy, like misogyny, is in the category of the worst form of self-hatred.

Nas and Jay-Z should both, in the privacy of their own homes, and free of their entourage, rent and watch the movie "Amadeus", and they should read Genesis 4: 1-11; Genesis 37; and the 12th chapter of the Holy Qur'an while they are at it.

Any correspondence between their "battle" and the storyline(s)is not a coincidence.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, December 28, 2001

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