Going Way Back: Jay-Z vs. the Game, the Prequel

Marc Lynch has unleashed a blog phenomenon with a foreign policy exegesis of the Game’s challenge to rap “hegemon” Jay-Z. The original post is here, and Lynch followed up with a roundup of replies here.

The question facing Jay-Z of whether and how to respond to the attack, according to Lynch, illustrates the dilemma before any hegemonic power in the face of a weaker, but potentially threatening, upstart.

Lynch uses Jay-Z’s now-reconciled feud with Nas as an example of the unintended and unexpected consequences of escalation. But my immediate thought on reading the piece was to an incident from the early 90s that illustrates even more clearly the dangers of retaliation, even when the balance of forces is overwhelmingly in the great power’s favor. I’m thinking of KRS-One’s legendary bumrush of a PM Dawn set at the Sound Factory.

For context, at the time, KRS represented, if not hegemony, then a sort of untouchable authority that came from the “global commons” normative rule set he forcefully articulated, combined with rock-solid street cred. KRS had made a name for himself with the ultimate battle rap, South Bronx, and his first record was filled with slice-of-life vignettes from BDP’s very real origins as a street-level, warzone militia. But in the aftermath of the shooting death of DJ Scott LaRock, KRS quickly pivoted from his South Bronx realist roots to espouse idealist values of non-violence and humanism.

Now, even after the shift, KRS continued to enjoy enormous respect for being a bad boy who could break necks but chose not to. In other words, there was a very clear recognition that his respect for the global governance system he advocated for was a matter of self-restraint. But there was also a certain tension to the newfound “teacher” status. The problem quickly became, to paraphrase Madeleine Albright’s remark to Colin Powell, What good was BDP’s rep for breaking necks if they could never use it?

As this brilliantly entertaining Kenny Parker interview demonstrates, the actual PM Dawn incident was the culmination of a series of real and perceived slights from rappers other than PM Dawn, disses that KRS had chosen to ignore. But when, following this period of self-restraint, even PM Dawn had the temerity to test, it really left KRS with no choice but to respond. The entire interview is worth a read, because it exemplifies the risk of escalation inherent in even the most initially limited response. The incident also demonstrates the wildcard element introduced by unpredictable coalition partners — anyone familiar with BDP, by the way, won’t have any trouble figuring out who started throwing knots — and the uncontrollable factor represented by the media battlefield, which can impact the strategic outcome of the war as much if not more than the actual fighting.

For KRS, the incident had a decidedly mixed outcome. It certainly restored the credibility of his deterrent power by reminding folks that rap has real-world consequences. But by very flagrantly and visibly flouting the non-violent rule set with which he had become associated, KRS damaged the legitimacy of his preferred role of hip hop philosopher.

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