Who fired the first musical shot?
January 28, 2006 6:17 PM   Subscribe

[TriviaFilter] What could be considered the first insult/dis/call-out song?

I was talking with a friend who is a big Neil Young fan; and we got to talking about the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Sweet Home Alabama", which calls out Neil for his songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama". We tangentially started talking about the genesis of the insult/dis/call-out song, a popular past time in the rap world. Another example would be the Rainbo (aka Sissy Spacek) release, "You've Gone Too Far This Time, John"; referring to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's full-frontal cover for their "Two Virgins" album; but I'm not sure that was intended as insulting, but as a "shame on you". I didn't think that the practice was terribly popular outside of rap, but not knowing for sure, I started researching the topic.

This list was helpful, and that led me to this list. Unfortunately, these lists only catalog references, not insults. I still can't seem to get a definitive chronological picture of who was first. I should qualify my question; I'm only interested in songs that insult other singers/bands. Does anyone out there have an answer?
posted by weirdoactor to Media & Arts (35 answers total)
If rival bards weren't insulting each other in song a thousand years ago, I would be very surprised.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:50 PM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: The tradition of dissing, also called dozens or 'playing the dozens', goes back to the earliest days of African-American culture, if not before. The very first written citation of an African-American song in English, published in 1830, is a song of this type: Round the Corn, Sally, in which the enslaved female singer is described as dissing every member of a picnic party in skillful rhyme.

Up until very recent times, you could find rap's closest antecedent, toasting (or improvising spoken poetry, without a beat), in Southern roadhouses, and toasting often featured dissing and call-outs. For a sample of American toasting (along with a mind-blowing collection of other African American roots music traditions collected in the early 70s), you might want to view Alan Lomax's film, Land Where the Blues Began.

It's not quite what you asked, because you're looking for specific call-outs, but at least in African-American music the idea of it goes way, way back. You'll certainly find examples in the pop world , but I thought you'd want to know that it is deeply rooted in traditional oral culture.
posted by Miko at 6:55 PM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: The practice FoB references has got a name.

In a more contemporaneous context, a quick glance through at least one book about the history of "hot music" -- i.e. minstrelsy, ragtime, and various proto-jazz forms, produces immedate results, although in particularly ugly form -- George O'Connor in 1917 sneered musically at Broadway superstar Bert Williams, who while on his way to the big time played in a "Hawaiian" band, passing for Polynesian. The name of the song is "They May Call You Hawaiian on Broadway, but You're Just a Plain N--- to Me." Sorry my example is such an ugly one, but it stuck out in memory from reading the book due to its...ugliness, I suppose.

But, as FoB says, I'm sure there are many earlier examples.

On preview -- exactly, Miko.
posted by BT at 7:05 PM on January 28, 2006

Check out wiki on NWA.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 7:35 PM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: There are references to song duels going back centuries and covering many cultures, as others have posted. Here's an interesting example to add to the list, Inuit duel-songs, with a transcription of a 1931 song recorded by Knud Rasmussen. Look at the Song (Part two) section of the article where it directly addresses use of song to "humble, belittle, satirize, denigrate, revile" [other singers].
posted by mdevore at 7:41 PM on January 28, 2006

No offense, Lockeownzj00, but the text of the question includes examples that predate N.W.A (and the Wikipedia entry misquotes Death Certificate, but it's not like that's not your fault).

There are other anti-Beatles songs that predate the Sissy Spacek one.

What about parodies of other artists' styles? That kind of thing comes up in classical music, does it not?

But yeah--I agree with Faint of Butt.
posted by box at 7:43 PM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: Fittingly, since we're celebrating the quarter-millennium of Mozart's birth, the (formal) honor may be his. Circa 1782, he composed a canon for six voices in B-flat major, "Leck mich im Arsch" (K. 231). Yup, the piece is entitled "Lick my ass." Scholars are unsure who it was written for (against?) — or if Herr M. was merely chafed.
posted by rob511 at 7:49 PM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oops--my double negative was unintentional.
posted by box at 8:10 PM on January 28, 2006

Always liked these two. It looks like it was around 1965 or so.
posted by Iamtherealme at 8:22 PM on January 28, 2006

wierdoactor, the response songs that inspired you to look into the insult-and-disrespect genre also fall into the genre of answer songs, which you may also find of interest.
posted by mwhybark at 10:05 PM on January 28, 2006

I suppose "How Do You Sleep"/"Too Many People" was a pretty famous musical battle. The former is pretty nasty.
posted by apple scruff at 10:07 PM on January 28, 2006

Also, So You Want to Be A Rock 'n Roll Star" was considered a pretty obvious shot at manufactured pop-groups a la Monkees.
posted by apple scruff at 10:10 PM on January 28, 2006

Good stuff above. I think finding an origin will be difficult especially with the different traditions and diverse cultures that have response/answer/insult songs in their histories.
Here are a few other links about Response/Answer songs (the Guardian article says, "Response songs have probably long existed in the form of playground chants and medieval minstrels' sonnets, but the first recognised modern response song was born when the 1927 Tin Pan Alley tune I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover was parodied in bar singalongs as My Dead Dog Rover").
As far as Hip-Hop response songs go, Egotrip's Book of Rap Lists has a great chapter on the subject called Beef.
Some of my favorites are:
Koko Taylor's I'm a Woman in response to Bo Diddley's chauvinistic I'm a Man (both great songs).
Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land responding to Irving Berlin's God Bless America.
Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville in response to the Rolling Stone's Exile on Main Street (structurely, not song by song).
Built to Spill's You Were Right.
posted by Dante5Inferno at 11:07 PM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: It's been a Norwegian tradition at least since Viking times. The name is nidvise. A Google search turns up almost 400 references, many in modern Norwegian media. I couldn't find any sources on the origins at first glance, though...
posted by Harald74 at 4:14 AM on January 29, 2006

the first recognised modern response song was born when the 1927 Tin Pan Alley tune I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover was parodied in bar singalongs as My Dead Dog Rover").

That's just ridiculous. If we're including "bar singalongs," I'm sure they go back to the beginning of time; parodying well-known songs is a basic human impulse. To take an example that happens to be fresh in my mind, soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line sang endless variations on "Just Before the Battle, Mother" during the Civil War.
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on January 29, 2006

Oh, and Miko: congratulations on your Boing-Boing mention! (Would have been nice if they'd mentioned your handle as well as quoting you, but that's BB for you.)
posted by languagehat at 6:16 AM on January 29, 2006

Oh, my GOD, I should not be as excited by that as I am!
posted by Miko at 6:27 AM on January 29, 2006

...it's also too bad that they just quoted that one comment. This is a pretty interesting discussion, particularly because of the ancient and cross-cultural nature of this tradition. I was really unaware of European traditions of this type, and it would be fascinating to look at Asian, Polynesian, and Native music for similar things. Good thesis potential here!
posted by Miko at 6:34 AM on January 29, 2006

Circa 1782, he composed a canon for six voices in B-flat major, "Leck mich im Arsch" (K. 231). Yup, the piece is entitled "Lick my ass."

AWESOME. I love it.
posted by mrbill at 6:34 AM on January 29, 2006

Although that's the literal meaning, it should be rendered in English as "kiss my ass," because it's used exactly the same way. There was a German division in WWI known as the "Leck mich am Arsch" or LMA Division, but I can't seem to find a reference to it online.
posted by languagehat at 7:35 AM on January 29, 2006

As far as Lech mich im Arsch, I remember being told in German class that this phrase was used by Frederick when recieving envoys from the Pope regarding Luther's "escape." I haven't been able to find anything online to support this, but I've heard similar stories a few times (though the cast seems to change each time I hear it).
posted by klangklangston at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2006

"Lech mich im Arsch" is indeed used similarly to "Kiss my ass", however, it has a bit more nastiness in it. Frankly, the act requested is, basically, anilingus, as it translates literally as "lick me *in* the ass", whereas, "kiss my ass" is, well, more external for everyone concerned. In the German, and I am not quite as sure of this, I think the requested act is one of humiliating hygienical assistance, as opposed to anything sexual. Either way, it is more obscene than "kiss my ass".
posted by Mr. Beech at 12:47 PM on January 29, 2006

in which the enslaved female singer is described as dissing every member of a picnic party in skillful rhyme.

Am I the only one skeptical about historical accounts of modern African-American cultural minutia always having 'roots' that extend back to slavery and/or Africa? Especially because there are stark generational differences in African-American culture throughout the 20th century?

I had a sociology textbook in college with a picture of "popular rap singer" [sic] Ol' Dirty Bastard, in which I was informed that "ebonics" stretch back to West African locution traditions. I'm pretty sure a lot of that is just evolving variation of southern accent.

Anyway, I hardly see an unbroken chain of rap battles from the plantations to Run DMC, the connection appears cynically manufactured.
posted by dgaicun at 1:06 PM on January 29, 2006

Why is this never done with "white" culture? Why don't we hear about Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a pigeon, actually extends back to Gaelic shock ritual? Tight pants on rock stars actually extends back to working class English fertility displays?
posted by dgaicun at 1:14 PM on January 29, 2006

dgaicun: in folklore and ethnomusicology, there are tremendous bodies of evidence which allow scholars to trace the evolution of traditional behaviors. It used to be believed that there were no survivals of African traditions after the Middle Passage; that enslavement had completely wiped out all the West African songs, stories, and styles of worship of the captives, and that they began with a blank slate in the plantation culture of the New World. NOthing could be further from the truth: survivals of cultural memes are everywhere. Do they change and evolve? Absolutely! In fact, the ability to assimilate change is what makes a tradition long-lasting. No one is claiming that African-American musical culture is the same as it was 300 years ago, or the same as it was in Africa. What's more interesting is to trace the evolution of certain memes as they are expressed in varying times, geographic places, and social structures.

And why is it never done with white culture? Well, it is. Music scholars study white ethnic communities all the time: Eastern European, Spanish, Irish, British Isles, Italian, American and Canadian Scots-Irish, on and on. Some of the traditions within ethnic musical genres have certainly made their way into pop music; it's just that the music of dominant culture is rarely examined in the popular press with a view toward tracing its development and influences outside of other pop stars. But hey, we could sit around and discuss the roots of the storyline and the fiddle style in "Devil Went Down to Georgia" or the jug-band influence in the sound of the Old Crow Medicine Show or the impact of early blues recordings on Bob Dylan all day if you'd like -- ethnomusicologists do. Is the idea that music does not spring fully formed from the brains of geniuses with no outer influences and no reference to tradition "cynically manufactured?" You might think so, but you'd have a hard time telling the thousands of people who make their livings documenting, recording, studying, writing, and teaching about just that process.
posted by Miko at 2:27 PM on January 29, 2006

And why is it never done with white culture? Well, it is.

No it isn't. Look, you are acting like I'm disputing the very discipline of musical history, I'm not. I'm disputing what I see to be a trend of superficial faux history where any and every bit of minority cultural minutia, from specifics of language to dress, are "explained" as just the latest manifestation of some eternal tradition connected by a mythical chain of evidence back into historical infinity (of course the chain is always "established" with nothing more than tenuous examples of similarity padded with calculated language, such as saying a female slave was "dissing" her companions with "skillful rhymes" [Just look at the similarities with modern rap music, how could it be a coincidence? I mean dissing!]). This certainly is not done with "white" music. Every Lolita belly flash of Britney Spears or demonic prosthetic worn by Marilyn Manson don't automatically get these mysteriously similar "antecedents" back during the Civil War era ("One Cylus T. Chesterton was seen to gyrate upon a crucifix, delivering his music with most curious screams"). Dorky white LEET net slang isn't traced tenuously back to some Anglo cultural "tradition" ("Benjamin Franklin invented the first LEET-like speak when he . . . "; "goatse finds its roots in the colonial practice of . . .")

Not being a student of musical history myself, I admit I am necessarily vulnerable to a great deal of information asymmetry in any debate here, I can only say your links didn't establish the rather incredible facts they were said to. A red flag comes up, when you start with the 1830's, instead of, oh say, the Sugar Hill Gang, and related artists at the beginning of rap. Who were their influences, etc? I don't recall the smooth soul sounds that came before that containing a lot of 'Yo momma' type conflict. Again, simply pointing to a slave "dissing" song from 1830 doesn't establish any convincing chain from the plantation to Run DMC, and it seems like a tenuous way to answer the question, which could have been answered with less speculative "chains of influence" than Mozart to Eminem. While we are all influenced by what came before, I don't think its a wrong answer to pinpoint the beginnings of modern trends and styles. Rap may have had similar things that came before it, and without doubt was a confluence of any number of cultural trends, but it wasn't inevitable, and there were definitely objective moments and figures that signify creative breakthroughs that serve as origination points. Its hard to believe this is any different for the trends the main poster is asking about.
posted by dgaicun at 3:53 PM on January 29, 2006

Dorky white LEET net slang isn't traced tenuously back to some Anglo cultural "tradition"

Yes, it is; I'm not sure why anyone would reasonably suggest that it's not. It's just the latest manifestation of coded language, or coterie speech, within a specifically privileged group. You can find endless antecedents, from GI slang of World War II to the trucker-speak of the 70s to London underworld cant. There's nothing new under the sun in terms of human behavior; it simply adapts to local conditions and changes flavor.

Though you claim not to have found anything in my links, you definitely didn't watch "Land Where the Blues Began", or you'd have a pretty clear illustration of where the Sugar Hill Gang and Fatback may have gotten some ideas - via the Great Migration from the American south in the 20th century. (Yeah, I know, it's at the end of the film). Toasting is such an obvious and well-documented performance style in African-American culture that it would be ridiculous to suggest that it had no impact at all on early rap artists.

I'm sorry that you feel these to be tenuous examples of similarity padded with calculated language, but I'm afraid that unless you undertake a serious study of musicology, my point will continue to escape you. I understand your fears about a colonial outlook on ethnic music, and that, too, is debated within the field. But the same tracing processes apply to any folk behavior. But there have been very strong cases made on widespread evidence for the development of rap music from folk-cultural antecedents - it's not some whim of mine. I can recommend one excellent book by the brilliant John Szwed. The alternative would be for me to write out a full description of some musical tradition and detail its evolution over several hundred years; not only do I not have the time to do that right now, but if I did have time, I would be calling it "my dissertation".
posted by Miko at 4:22 PM on January 29, 2006

The earliest example from my lifetime that comes to my drug-addled mind is the song "Eve of Destruction" (Barry McGuire, Aug. 1965) which was answered by "Dawn of Correction" (Spokesmen, Oct. 1965).

Not the answer, I'm sure, but a memorable example.
posted by Twang at 5:50 PM on January 29, 2006

Meat Loaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" ("I want you/I need you/But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you") is a response to Elvis Presley's "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:54 PM on January 29, 2006

Response by poster: Great answers. I didn't get a definitive response; but from what I've learned here, I'd probably need a time machine for that. Thanks, guys!
posted by weirdoactor at 8:28 AM on January 30, 2006

Allow me to apologize for my snarky tone above. Ethnomusicology is probably my favorite discipline in the world, and I was a little sensitive about its being challenged. Really, I'm just glad people find it interesting enough to talk about.
posted by Miko at 8:31 AM on January 30, 2006

Don't apologize, Miko. You schooled a fool. Now bring us an FPP in your area of expertise, stat!
posted by mwhybark at 9:57 PM on January 31, 2006

This fool was hardly schooled, as in the speculative and ultimate were employed when the concrete and approximate would have clearly been more appropriate. This is not to say that Miko doesn't seem like a smart guy with valuable things to say, just that I think he was being a little, um, overenthusiastic - for lack of a better word - on the facts.

Anyway, I agree there are some interesting FPPs in his head.
posted by dgaicun at 3:18 AM on February 7, 2006

posted by Miko at 10:41 AM on May 10, 2006

(apologies in advanced for being a country bumpkin)

I was in the big city recently and witnessed 2 young gentlemen (each about 15 years old, one white, one black) surrounded by friends, trading insults in a acappella rap/hip-hop manner. There was no animosity, it was merely a contest to outdo each other. Would this be called 'toasting'?
posted by allelopath at 4:15 PM on September 12, 2006

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