Genesis of the East Coast and West Coast Rivalry
The East Coast–West Coast hip hop rivalry was a feud in the 1990s between artists and fans of the East Coast hip hop and West Coast hip hop scenes in the United States. Focal points of the feud were East Coast-based rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (and his New York-based label, Bad Boy Records) and West Coast-based rapper 2Pac (and his Los Angeles-based label, Death Row Records), both of whom were killed by unknown assailants. The rivalry came to a close when Dr. Dre collaborated with Nas on the single Nas is Coming in the 1996 album It Was Written.
Hip hop emerged in the 1970s on the streets of South Bronx. Powered by DJs such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, the new genre became popular throughout the city’s neighborhoods. The New York City area remained the forefront for rap music throughout the mid-80’s, becoming home to numerous stars like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-One, Dougie Fresh, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Slick Rick, Salt-n-Pepa and others. In the early 1990s hip hop functioned to give the black community a voice in the public sphere. Hip hop gained appeal within the black community because of the authentic and relatable nature of the lyrical content. Over time, hip hop and gangsta rap became a tool for competing record labels and associated gangs. Record labels wanted to build up a reputation in order to achieve commercial success and profit off of the lucrative music business.
In 1986, inspired by Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D, Crenshaw-based Ice-T released the song “6 in the Mornin'”. It is considered by many critics as the very first gangsta rap song. The LA gangsta rap scene exploded afterward. A young drug dealer named Eric Wright saw the potential profits and fame of the hip hop lifestyle, so he began recording songs in his parents’ garage. Wright, going by the name Eazy-E, befriended two local artists named Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Along with locals DJ Yella and Arabian Prince, the group became N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitude).
With the help of friend Jerry Heller, Eazy-E founded Ruthless Records on March 3, 1987. Shortly afterwards the group released the Panic Zone EP. It contained the title track (Arabian Prince), “8 Ball” (Eazy-E), and the well-known “Dopeman” (Ice Cube). Despite its popularity, “Dope Man” was never released as a single proper. In a way, the song set the bar for later hits with its profanity-driven and vulgar lyrics.
The group’s debut album was released later in the year. It featured the Fila Fresh Crew and a young The D.O.C. The most popular song on the release was the famous track “Boyz-n-the-Hood”. Although it was written primarily by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, Eazy-E was the one who appeared on the vocals.
Due to a money disagreement, Arabian Prince left N.W.A just before they released their ground-breaking Straight Outta Compton. Eazy-E’s friend MC Ren filled his place. Backed by hit singles such as the title track, “Fuck tha Police”, and “Gangsta Gangsta”, the album redefined hip hop genre and cemented the West Coast’s presence in the nation’s rap scene.
Economic issues led to dispersing of the group. Eazy-E remained the wealthy owner/manager of his Ruthless label. Ice Cube released a string of successful albums that included AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate. Dr. Dre would go on to co-own Death Row Records with Suge Knight.
At Death Row, Dr. Dre released one of the most influential hip hop albums of all time in The Chronic. It revolutionized the G-Funk movement. Other successful stars on the label included Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Lady of Rage, Nate Dogg, Daz Dillinger and Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound. By the early 90’s the West Coast had separated itself as the dominant region in hip hop.
In April 1994, a 20 year old, Queens-based emcee by the name of Nas released Illmatic. Five of the album’s ten tracks reached single status. It featured simple, menacing beats and dark street narratives. The release was vital in flipping the spotlight back to the east coast, facilitating the so-called East Coast Renaissance.
A few months later, another New York rapper recorded one of the classic albums. The 22 year old Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die. This album helped put Bad Boy Records on the map, following up on the success of Craig Mack’s famous “Flava in Ya Ear”. The growing popularity of The Wu-Tang Clan and their debut album also helped the east re-soar in popularity.
In 1991, disgruntled by the record companies’ rejections of East Coast artists and the growing popularity of West Coast hip hop, Bronx rapper Tim Dog decided to voice his anger on the notorious diss track, Fuck Compton. It contained shots at the entire LA rap scene, particularly the members of NWA. The music video contained violent gestures towards Eazy-E and Dr. Dre look-a-likes, as well as DJ Quik.
There were several responses from numerous West Coast artists. The most notable was a song called “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” which featured Snoop Doggy Dogg dissing Tim Dog and a skit called the “$20 Sack Pyramid” featured on Dre’s landmark album, The Chronic.
In 1993, fledgling A&R executive and record producer “Puff Daddy” Sean Combs founded the New York-centered hip-hop label, Bad Boy Records. The next year, the label’s debut releases by Brooklyn-based rapper “The Notorious B.I.G.” (also known as Biggie Smalls) and Long Island-based rapper Craig Mack became immediate critical and commercial successes, and seemed to revitalize the East Coast hip-hop scene by 1995. New York born and California-based rapper Tupac Shakur publicly accused Biggie Smalls, Andre Harrell, and Sean Combs of involvement in the robbery and shooting (shot five times) in the lobby of Quad Recording Studios in Manhattan on November 30, 1994. Shortly after 2Pac’s shooting, “Who Shot Ya?,” a B-side track from BIG’s “Big Poppa” single was released. Although Combs and Wallace denied having anything to do with the shooting and stated that “Who Shot Ya?” had been recorded before the shooting, 2Pac and the majority of the hip hop community interpreted it as B.I.G.’s way of taunting him.
In August 1995, Death Row CEO Suge Knight took a dig at Bad Boy and Combs at that year’s Source Awards; announcing to the assembly of artists and industry figures:
“Any artist out there that want to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos … All on the records … dancing, come to Death Row!”
It was a direct reference to Combs’ tendency of ad-libbing on his artists’ songs and dancing in their videos. With the ceremony being held in New York, to the audience, Knight’s comments seemed a slight to the entire East Coast hip-hop scene, and resulted in many boos from the crowd.
Tensions escalated when Knight later attended a party for producer Jermaine Dupri in Atlanta. During the bash, a close friend of Knight’s (Jake Robles) was fatally shot. Knight accused Combs (also in attendance) of having something to do with the shooting. The same year, Knight posted the $1.4 million bail of the then-incarcerated 2Pac, in exchange for his signing with Death Row Records. Shortly after the rapper’s release for five counts of sex abuse in October 1995, he proceeded to join Knight in furthering Death Row’s feud with Bad Boy Records.
After the release of “Who Shot Ya?”, which Shakur interpreted as a diss song mocking his robbery/shooting, 2Pac appeared on numerous tracks aiming threatening and/or antagonistic insults at Biggie, Bad Boy as a label, and anyone affiliated with them from late 1995 to 1996. Examples include the songs “Against All Odds”, “Bomb First (My Second Reply)” and “Hit ‘Em Up”. During this time the media became heavily involved and dubbed the rivalry a coastal rap war, reporting on it continually. This caused fans from both scenes to take sides.
Although an official retaliation record was never released by the Brooklyn MC in response to Shakur’s slurs, certain lyrics from Biggie’s catalog of songs were interpreted by listeners as subliminal shots aimed at Shakur, in particular the track “Long Kiss Goodnight”, which Lil’ Cease claimed was about 2Pac in an XXL magazine interview. Puffy, however, steadfastly denied this theory, affirming that if Biggie were to diss 2Pac, he would have called him out by name.
On September 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur died after being shot multiple times six days earlier in a drive by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. A two-part 2002 article by journalist Chuck Philips called “Who Killed Tupac Shakur?” reported that: “the shooting was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier. Orlando Anderson, the Crip whom Shakur had attacked, fired the fatal shots. Las Vegas police discounted Anderson as a suspect and interviewed him only once, briefly. He was later killed in an unrelated gang shooting.” Philips’s article also implicated East Coast rappers including Biggie and unnamed East Coast music figures and criminals . Six months after Tupac’s death, on March 9, 1997, The Notorious B.I.G. was killed in a drive-by shooting by an unknown assailant in Los Angeles, California. To this day, both murders remain officially unsolved.