From Juvenal to Jay-Z: Trash-Talking is as Old as Verse
Hip-hop didn’t create the practice of poetically skewering one’s rivals and/or culture, although you could argue that it’s the only modern art that does so with such creativity and glee. Indeed, the history of language is the history of trash-talking: Almost from the moment that people could commit words to paper (or its equivalent), they were figuring out the best rhymes to decimate those special figures in their lives.
Take the case of Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, better known to generations of Latin students as Juvenal, whose satirical verse was a literary shotgun aimed at those around him. He lived during the first and second centuries A.D., when the Roman empire was arguably at its height, and the wealth of conquered nations drove its patricians (i.e., the richest folks) to heights of absurd debauchery. Juvenal often targeted this degeneracy; for example, there’s this choice bit from his Satire I:
“But you will soon pay for it, my friend, when you take off your clothes, and with distended stomach carry your peacock into the bath undigested! Hence a sudden death, and an intestate old age; the new and merry tale runs the round of every dinner-table, and the corpse is carried forth to burial amid the cheers of enraged friends!”
That was one of Juvenal’s better shots, but he declined to call out his targets by name; there was no faster route to execution in the Roman world was to call a rich, connected man a slob of the highest order. There’s another satirical bit I love, from his Satire II, which applies to people of any era:
I get an itch to run off beyond the Sarmatians and the frozen sea,
every time those men who pretend to be old-time paragons of virtue
and live an orgy, dare to spout something about morals.
Had you tossed him in a time machine and transported him to the 1700s, Juvenal would have found a lot of literary ground in common with Alexander Pope, an English poet who likewise enjoyed pillorying what he viewed as venality and stupidity. His words generated so much animosity, in fact, that Pope reportedly went outside only with pistols and a large dog; but like Juvenal, he declined to name the targets of his satire — people had to guess, and guess they did.
The fact is, authors have always enjoyed assaulting one another. Just as a very small sample, you have Nietzsche calling Dante “a hyena that wrote poetry on tombs,” Nabokov damning Dostoevsky as “monotonous” and “wallowing,” and Robert Louis Stevenson referring to Walt Whitman as a “large shaggy dog just unchained.” Long before someone invented Twitter #shade, writers earned notoriety by crafting razor-sharp insults.
So when a hip-hop artist like Jay-Z raps something like, “Go against Jigga, yo ass is dense / I’m about a dollar, what the fuck is 50 Cents?”(an oldie, but the first one to pop up on my playlist while I was writing this), it’s part of a tradition that extends back a couple thousand years. From the very beginning, lyrics have always been a poison-tipped arrow. Aim wisely.