What’s the Beef? 5 Major Rivalries in Music History

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Machine Gun Kelly, via Wikimedia Commons

As the Machine Gun Kelly and Eminem feud reminds us, the hip hop world loves a good a beef, and it’s replete with them. N.W.A. notoriously disintegrated and called out each other on subsequent solo recordings, and of course Biggie and Tupac took their disagreements to iconic hates.

But feuds aren’t limited to hip-hop—they’re sprinkled across the arc of music history, from classical music to rock and roll and jazz.

Below are some of the most notable feuds in music history.

1. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie vs. Jazz’s “moldy figs”

While still a teen, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker helped change jazz forever. As the story goes, Parker was playing Ray Noble’s jazz standard “Cherokee” in a 1939 jam session with guitarist William “Biddy” Fleet, and realized that could play any key by exploring the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale, one of the most common scales in Western music.

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Charlie Parker, via Wikimedia Commons

A few years after this critical moment of experimentation, Parker went into a recording studio to record “Cherokee,” but since there were royalty issues involved, Parker evolved jazz even further by creating a different melody and playing it faster. Thus was born the influential jazz tune “Ko Ko,” on which Dizzy Gillespie, a jazz trumpeter who had been pursuing his own style of bepop, or “swing,” played piano and trumpet.

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Dizzy Gillespie, via Wikimedia Commons

This more experimental brand of jazz, which would lay the groundwork for the music of avant-garde players like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, ran into quick opposition by the New Orleans jazz traditionalists. These “moldy figs,” as the new guard called them, were intent on resurrecting old jazz, while Parker, Gillespie, and others wanted to explore its frontiers. Though this friction played out in the post-World War II years, it anticipated the seismic musical and cultural shifts that were to take place in the late 1950s and 1960s, where musical forms and genres mutated and cross-pollinated at furious rates.

2. John Lydon vs. The Clash

In the United Kingdom’s punk and post-punk scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, two bands demanded an inordinate amount of attention and cultural influence—The Sex Pistols and The Clash. The two groups were studies in diametric opposites. The Sex Pistols were young, vulgary, angsty, loud, and hardly the tightest musical group on the scene. The members of The Clash, on the other hand, were each accomplished musicians with a more refined political edge and musical influences.

Lydon, not surprisingly, was no great fan of The Clash. In his memoir, Anger Is An Energy, accused The Clash of writing songs that “didn’t have any content,” and of concocting a feud with The Sex Pistols for what seems like publicity purposes.

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The Sex Pistols, via Wikimedia Commons

“They really didn’t seem to stand for very much at all other than this abstract socialism,” Lydon writes. “They had nothing to offer, character-development wise.”

“The Clash started setting themselves up as our competition,” he adds. “There was a headline in Melody Maker from Joe Strummer: ‘We’re going to be bigger than The Sex Pistols!’ It was infuriating, and I talked to him about it… [a]s soon as he took The Clash too seriously he became unfriendly and indeed got into some squabbles with my friends.”

Joe Strummer, via Wikimedia Commons

Granted, this feud didn’t spill into lyrical content, but it did simmer behind the scenes for years, and seemed to presage punk’s eventual schism, where some post-punk bands like The Clash, Billy Idol, and Adam & The Ants went pop, and others like Wire and Gang of Four went underground. And if one might think that Lydon is simply being Lydon above (which is at least partly true), Peter Gabriel—not a man to indulge in negativity—has been quoted as saying, “Joe Strummer used to piss me off.”

3. Neil Young vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd

As a songwriter, from his Buffalo Springfield days to his long solo career, Neil Young has always been political. For his album After the Gold Rush, he recorded the anti-southern slavery song “Southern Man,” and returned to the theme on “Alabama” for Harvest. It would seem to be a topic that no artist or band would counter.

But in In 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd decided to just that when they recorded “Sweet Home Alabama.” While the title and the song itself seem rather innocuous, not just upon one listen but multiple, it’s actually a response to Young, with lyrics like:

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her

Well, I heard ol' Neil put her down

Well, I hope Neil Young will remember

A Southern man don't need him around anyhow

“We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” vocalist Ronnie Van Zandt told Rolling Stone. “We’re southern rebels, but more than that we know the difference between right and wrong."

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Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973, via via Wikimedia Commons

Young, to his credit, admitted his approach had been flawed on “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” In his 2012 autobiography, Young wrote that he “richly deserved” the shot he got from Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“I don't like my words when I listen to it,” Young wrote. “They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”

4. Iggy Azalea vs. Azealia Banks

Rapper Azealia Banks is never one to shy away from a beef, particularly a Twitter beef. But in 2011, Banks set their sights on Australian rapper Iggy Azalea.

In September of that year, during CMJ Festival, Banks tweeted: “I once wrote a song called ‘Barbie Shit,’ but nicki minaj blew up like the week after so i took it down, lololz. i felt corny. Also wrote a song called P-U-$-$-Y before Iggy Azalea."

Banks and Azalea traded a few Twitter barbs, but things really ramped up with Banks took umbrage with Azalea being the only female rapper on Hip-Hop magazine XXL’s freshman list. Beyond this, Banks took Azelea to task for the lyrics “I'm a runaway slave ... master.”

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Azealia Banks, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the ensuing years, the feud grew into a fight over cultural appropriation, with Banks accusing Azalea—a white female rapper—of “cultural smudging.” All of this coincided with the activist movement Black Lives Matter, reminding hip-hop and music fans in general that music, even if it was commercial, still has an impact beyond superficial pop culture like clothes, slang, visuals, and the like.

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Iggy Azalea, via Wikimedia Commons

While the feud variously erupted and simmered for six years, Banks and Azalea collaborated in 2017 on a song recorded for Banks’ 2017 album Digital Distortion. The track, however, will likely never see the light of day, as Def Jam stopped releasing singles for Banks.

5. Philip Glass vs. Steve Reich

Classical music history is rife with feuds. From Mozart to Salieri (which may have been overblown) to Brahms and Liszt, it would seem that composers not opera singers were the real divas. But one of the more interesting classical music feuds actually comes from the 20th century American avant-garde.

It’s no hyperbole to say that Glass and Reich are two of America’s most influential composers. Reich, as an innovator in tape loop compositions, helped lay the groundwork for electronic music, while Glass’s repetitive musical structures contain obvious parallels with electronic and ambient music.

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Philip Glass, via Wikimedia Commons

Early on, the two composers were collaborators. The two first met at Juilliard School in 1958, and after graduation, Reich moved west to explore tape loop compositions at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, while Glass headed to Paris to further his musical studies. By the mid-1960s, the two were back in New York City, performing together in spaces in multimedia creative spaces. In 1971, Glass and Reich toured Europe together, performing each other’s works in cities like London and Paris.

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Steve Reich (right), via Wikimedia Commons

Since the two composers’ musical and personal careers were so closely intertwined, questions of authorship surfaced, and Glass eventually retracted a dedication of a new work to Reich. It was this retraction that drove the two apart. Quite happily, though, the two composers found great success on their separate but somewhat parallel tracks of minimalist classical music.  

Forty years after their European tour, Glass and Reich played together again at Brooklyn Academy of Music's signature Next Wave Festival, performing Reich’s and Mr. Glass's "Music in Similar Motion."

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