Rock Rivalries Beef Up Music Business

It’s a common enough story in the music world: an aging artist loudly insults the current style, sending waves through the whole scene. But this time, the feuding parties aren’t Nas and Benzino.

Barry Burns, the guitarist for Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, called recent BRIT Award winners James Blunt and Coldplay’s Chris Martin a “twat” and a “fuckface,” respectively. MCs have been capped for much less.

But given all the news coverage and corresponding hype—and increased record sales—accompanying even the lamest rap feud, the disinterest with which its rock counterpart is treated is surprising.

Sure, talking trash is arguably a constitutive element of rap; its origins can be traced back to the MC “battle” at Bronx block parties and it has recently evolved into recorded “diss tracks.” But many of the same motivations that fuel today’s rap battles are shared by those in the rock world—the stress of life in the spotlight, the diva-ish tendencies of celebrities—and result in trashed vans, fistfights, and verbal bouts.

The most primal musical beef is that of the theft or “turf” feud: admonishment for stealing a style, lyrics or even a whole genre. The rap world is full of MCs claiming to suffer from “jacked” or “bitten” rhymes.

The Sugarhill Gang’s breakthrough hip-hop hit “Rapper’s Delight” is a classic culprit; the song liberally incorporates lyrics from Grandmaster Caz’s—of old-school favorites the Cold Crush Brothers—rhyme book.

Decades before Caz’s lament, Little Richard voiced a similar criticism of Elvis, claiming that the so-called “King of Rock and Roll” had usurped his status as rock’s monarch.

Turf wars continue to thrive in the modern era (witness Nirvana’s territorial pissings over Pearl Jam’s alleged corruption of grunge), along with another enduring cut of beef, the “philosophical” feud, one founded on a fundamental difference regarding aesthetic or content.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic rock diss track “Sweet Home Alabama” is directed at Neil Young, not for biting their style or jacking their riffs, but for insulting the South’s reputation in his song “Southern Man.” Unfortunately for the tabloids, the artists remained friendly throughout, with no drive-by buckshot blasts.

Indeed, rock feuds tend to be less violent than their hip-hop counterparts. Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crüe, two bands known for their cock-rockin’ swagger, couldn’t muster more than a slumber party shovefest when they quarreled.

More recently, the political hardcore group Born Against’s indignation over NYC brocore band Sick of It All’s label-enforced censorship led to an hour-long radio debate. In a polarization that haunts hardcore to this day, SOIA came across as bonehead sell-outs, and Born Against as self-righteous aesthetes.

But feuds rarely reach such lofty abstractions, centering more often on clothing styles and record sales. Most hilariously, the dude from Fall Out Boy ridiculed the singer of the Killers for wearing too much makeup. Emo boy, methinks thou dost protest too much!

Contemporary rap music has perfected this combative sub-genre, taking it to the logical (and lucrative) extreme: artists on the same label exchange public barbs and bullets—50 Cent and the Game, anyone?—so as to keep the hype boost well within the family.

Mogwai’s anti-BRIT sentiments represent a perfect intersection of the above-mentioned categories. Their own music, while more compositionally accomplished (Barry added to his anti-Blunt screed with, “I have spewed blood down dirty toilets with more talent”), is also melodic British rock that attempts to win over a similar audience. But Mogwai stands as an indie band smugly assaulting their major label peers.

The band is also a prime candidate for attention-seeking antics. They haven’t cut a good record in about a decade. For every brave soul who’s listened to the 16-minute “Mogwai Fear Satan,” thousands have paid cold hard cash for “Clocks” ringtones.

Those who keep indie kosher should think twice next time they criticize 50 Cent for his commercial feuds; beef has never been an all-rap product.

—Staff writer Will B. Payne can be reached at payne@fas.harvard.edu.