Roxanne Wars: Is This How Diss Tracks Started?

On his latest album “Music To Be Murdered By”, diss track master Eminem had a few pretty provocative things to say to everyone ranging from MMA fighter Anderson Silva to his ex, Kim, enumerating celebrities both dead (Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden) and alive (Joe Budden, Lord Jamar, and Macklemore). This is not his first time to address his fellow celebrities with a few unsophisticated words – the one involving Ariana Grande and a bombing had the biggest media coverage so far – and it won’t be the last. Diss tracks add so much necessary spice to hip-hop that many have wondered if they are not, in fact, echoes of true differences between rappers but a marketing ploy to sell more records.

Diss tracks go back further than many would think. The first – and so far the biggest – documented hip-hop rivalry started in the mid-1980s, and it earned its own name: the Roxanne Wars.

Roxanne, Roxanne

The hip-hop trio U.T.F.O. released the single “Roxanne, Roxanne” in 1984, on the B side of “Hanging Out” (for those of you who are unfamiliar with the meaning of a “B side”, read here) that gained some attention. It was about Roxanne, a girl refusing their advances repeatedly. The attention it generated was enough for U.T.F.O. to be invited to an event organized by Tyrone Williams, Mr. Magic, and producer Marley Marl. The band canceled their appearance at the event, leaving the three with a hole in their lineup. 

Lolita Shanté Gooden – who wasn’t a well-known rapper at the time, considering she was only 14 – overheard them talking about this, and proposed to record a track to get back at them. She assumed the persona Roxanne Shanté and recorded the track “Roxanne’s Revenge” (produced by Marley Marl) that was confrontational and filled with profanities. As you might expect, it was an instant hit, selling more than 250,000 copies in the New York area alone.

It’s important to note that the original, “street” version of the track was recorded in Marl’s bedroom in one take, with Shanté freestyling the entire text. It only took one seven-minute take.

Roxanne Wars

The success of the track prompted U.T.F.O. to respond in kind – they released their own answer record titled “Real Roxanne”. The track featured Elease Jack in the role of Roxanne. This too became a hit and, unlike previous response track exchanges, it sparked a long-running feud. 

The exchange between U.T.F.O. and Roxanne Shanté (and the Juice Crew) “infected” other MCs, too. Among others, there were records attributed to Roxanne’s family, including her parents, brothers, and little sister, Roxanne’s doctor, and many others, ending with the track “The Final Word – No More Roxanne (Please)” by The East Coast Crew released in 1985. 

Different sources speak of different numbers of projectiles (tracks) fired back and forth during the Roxanne Wars – some say it was 30, others speak of over 100 response tracks. Either way, this was the longest hip-hop rivalry in history (so far).