'Songs That Shook America' Episode Five: How "The Bridge" Laid The Foundation for Rap Battle Culture
AMC's Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America is a docu-series that will focus on six individual rap songs that changed the genre. The latest episode took a close look at MC Shan's "The Bridge," a hip-hop classic that provided the blueprint for battle rap culture.
“A battle record is a staple in hip-hop.”
The voice of hip-hop griot KRS-ONE carries these words to viewers in the first five seconds of this week’s episode of Hip-Hop: Songs That Shook America. Focusing on MC Shan’s “The Bridge” classic from 1986, KRS-ONE, Shan, Marley Marl, LL Cool J, Roxanne Shante, DJ Red Alert, Funkmaster Flex, Nas and other legends spend 42 minutes using that classic Queensbridge anthem as a deep dive into the history of hip-hop battles, and how the world molds and shapes what we hear on wax. Songs That Shook America looks at “The Bridge” as more than a song in a rap battle. It was a regional anthem in a turf war between New York City boroughs, making this episode the first to explore how a song set off a chain reaction that divided a city.
“The Bridge” was recorded by MC Shan and Marley Marl, but in STSA, its birth is a byproductof a series of preceding battles. Hip-Hop’s battle with mainstream radio’s dismissal of the genre as a fad led to DJ Mr. Magic and Marley Marl’s Rap Attack being the first commercial radio show for hip-hop. Since that was the primary hip-hop radio show at the time, DJ Red Alert at Kiss 98.7 FM studied Rap Attack and worked to best his predecessor. That battle for radio supremacy led to Marley Marl deciding to produce his own music in order to get an edge. One of those songs produced from Marl’s desire to one-up Red Alert was Shan’s “The Bridge.”
When KRS and Boogie Down Productions were ready to release the “South Bronx” response, there was a battleground already established in radio between Marley Marl and Red Alert. Alert premiering the MC Shan diss record wasn’t just a DJ breaking a record. This episode makes it abundantly clear that actions that seem innocuous and traditional nowadays was tantamount to declarations of war during a time when people didn’t even say the name of the person they were dissing on a record.
READ: Songs That Shook America Episode Four: Outkast Proved the South Had "Something to Say" on "Elevators" [Recap]
By the time Nas recollects on how everyone in Queensbridge huddled around radios anticipating KRS’s “The Bridge Is Over,” the song feels like a knockout punch from one part of New York City to another. KRS-One didn’t represent the South Bronx because he was born and raised there. The Brooklyn native is seen in a 1980s interview saying he chose to live in the Bronx because people had abandoned the Bronx the way he felt people abandoned him for chasing his dream. The idea of a battle that divided boroughs essentially was predicated on an outsider of both of those areas identifying with one over the other, and not solely because of a relatively harmless slight. This is the crux of what makes this episode the finest of the series so far.
There’s a sort of novelistic approach to documenting this part of hip-hop history; opting for folklorish descriptions than simple historical retellings. Marley Marl holds the infamous tape of his drum sounds from 1985-1988 he alleges BDP stole in order to make “The Bridge is Over” and “South Bronx.” LL Cool J called DJ Magic Mike “Hip-Hop’s Moses” for having the first hip-hop radio show. Nas refers to the impact of “The Bridge is Over” on Queensbridge as “cataclysmic.” There’s even inclusion of a rare 1996 Sprite commercial of KRS and Shan playfully battling in a boxing ring, showing how their feud crossed over into popular culture.
READ: Songs That Shook America Episode Three: The Legacy of Run-DMC’s Barrier-Breaking Single “Rock Box”
For such a jam-packed episode that explores the subject from a multitude of angles, there were a few missed opportunities that would have expanded its scope. Near the end, some of the guests break down which elements from historic battles that succeeded Shan and KRS's lyrical joust were inspired by the '80s war of words. There were parallels drawn between 2Pac's “Hit Em Up” and “The Bridge is Over." There were also parallels drawn between Jay-Z and Nas' reconciliation and Shan and KRS doing the same. But, no one who had been in a battle in roughly 20 years spoke on its lasting impact.
The only one who had — Nas — didn't share any insight into his own battle with Jay, even though Funkmaster Flex proclaimed “‘Ether’ was Nas' ‘The Bridge is Over.’” Nas being such a vocal and enthusiastic participant in the episode centered around the art of battling, and having no onscreen opinion of his own was a huge missed opportunity that could’ve helped contextualize the magnitude of the KRS and Shan battle during its time.
There was also a brief clip of Muhammad Ali’s famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” boastful speech, included to make the idea of viewing rap battles like heavyweight fights. Yet, Ali, with his propensity for rhyming words to denigrate his opponent, is often credited as one of the earliest examples of battle rap. It wasn't explored much after that short clip.
These missed opportunities are small and practically unnoticeable because of just how much history is covered in this episode. The art of battling has changed over the years, but STSA’s episode on “The Bridge” is clear that no matter the era, a good rap battle can shake up America.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire