“James I got yo letter/ It came to me today/ You said I could have my baby back/ But I don’t want her that way/ So you keep her.”
“You Keep Her” is 52 years old, the result of one of the most prolific music beefs in history, a saga involving labelmates turned rivals, a love triangle, dance battles, multiple diss tracks and a club shootout in which seven people were shot and bribed to stay quiet. Three decades before the Notorious B.I.G.‘s “Who Shot Ya” and five decades before Drake’s “Charged Up,” there was the intense rivalry between James Brown and Joe Tex, one of the earliest beefs among soul superstars.
Beef has been a part of the music for as long as it was the music. Hip-hop especially laid down roots in a call-out, toe-to-toe, battle culture: with battles and feuds between break dancers and crate-lugging DJs predating the MC beefs we so commonly associate with the genre. But those structures existed long before hip-hop, structures that paralleled if not directly connected to longstanding rivalries between ancient Mandé griots and collectives of griots. While the battleground is now grandstanding on social media platforms, Soundcloud tracks, and phantom songs on DJ shows, it still recalls those basic elements of beef that have always existed. Drake and OVO versus Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj, and Funkmaster Flex is just another episode of the same show― a show with genres that have been defined by beef.
Aretha Franklin famously beefed with almost every woman in the genre for twenty years. Natalie Cole rose to popularity singing tracks that Franklin had turned down―a fact that Franklin often flaunted by including those songs on concert setlists. Franklin famously beefed with Cole, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and even both of her own sisters. Diana Ross and Patti Labelle shared a nasty beef that involved costume copycats and members of backing bands switching sides. Beyond the umbrella of Black artists, Oasis beefed with Blur and Axl Rose beefed with every person with a pulse.
And there was Brown versus Tex, perhaps the most violent and wide-ranging beef involving a true superstar outside of the Biggie versus Tupac and East Coast vs. West Coast blowup. The stories are similar enough to be eerie. Brown and Tex started out as labelmates and friends when a disputed writing credit caused a rift between them. Brown covered a Tex single and added slight rewrites, not only catapulting his own version well beyond Tex’s success, but garnering co-writing credits along the way. The beef was made, and “You Keep Her” was created after Tex’s girlfriend, Bea Ford, left him to date and write for Brown in the middle of the rivalry. The final straw was a performance in which Tex mocked Brown while opening for him. Brown would later drive to the juke joint after party and shoot seven people with a shotgun while trying to hit Tex. He drove away in his tour bus. Makes Tony Parker’s collateral damage in the Drake vs. Chris Brown beef seem pretty light, huh?
Rivalries have always served a major purpose in music. They provide some of the easiest avenues for promotion for any artist, especially when diss tracks are involved. Controversy sells. They also provide ways to level the playing field between challengers and more established or successful rappers. Beefs also often arise out of controversies around writing, promotion, jealousy, and attribution. Sound familiar, Drake and Meek? All in all, save the times when they have ventured into truly deadly extreme or deadly levels, beefs are entertainment―and it looks like the current dispute is hitting for the cycle. At least, whenever we get that response.
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