Gangsta Rap

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Gangsta Rap

Gangsta rap is the most controversial style of the rap music genre. It has achieved global prominence through its vivid sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic lyrics, as well as its violent depiction of urban ghetto life in America. Gangsta rap has also helped bring attention to other styles of rap music.

Although gangsta rap originated in New York in the late 1970s, it has widely become associated with the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles, due to the multi-million sales of rappers such as Ice Cube, Ice T, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Los Angeles might proclaim itself as the home of gangsta rap, but gangsta lyrics and style were part of the hip-hop scene from its origins in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s. The inspiration behind the specific style known as gangsta rap in the late 1990s was Schooly D's Smoke Some Kill (1987) and Boogie Down Production's Criminal Minded (1987). In particular, the latter's track "9mm Goes Bang" has been seen as a pioneering force in gangsta rap's development. However, it was West Coast based Ice T's Rhyme Pays (1987), which ranged from humorous boasts and tales of crime and violence to outright misogyny, together with N.W.A.'s (Niggaz With Attitude) underground album Straight Outta Compton (1988) that established gangsta rap firmly within the American music scene. Its keynote track "F*** Tha Police" was considered so shocking that radio stations and MTV refused to play it. Nonetheless, the album went platinum. N.W.A. and gangsta rap's popularity was compounded with the release of their second album EFIL4ZAGGIN in 1991, which debuted at number two in the Billboard chart with neither a single nor a video and became the first rap album to reach number one. Snoop Doggy Dogg then became the first rapper to go straight to number one with his album Doggystyle (1993).

Gangsta rap is distinctive for its rich descriptive storytelling laid over heavy funk samples from Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly Stone, James Brown, Rick James, Average White Band, Ohio Players, and George Clinton. Although it originated in New York, gangsta rap has evolved a unique West Coast flavor. Its roots can be traced to early depictions of the hustler lifestyle and low-budget blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, which glorified blacks as criminals, pimps, pushers, prostitutes, and gangsters. And since many of rap's early pioneers were gang members, gangsta rap came from the life experiences of the rappers. Gangsta rappers have become high-profile figures, many of them featured in Hollywood films such as Boyz 'n' the Hood (1991), New Jack City (1991), and Menace II Society (1993), which have brought views of ghetto life to the masses.

The reliance on crime in the lyrics of gangsta rap fuels much of the controversy surrounding the musical style. Too Short, Above the Law, Mr. Scarface, and Big Daddy Kane, for example, all celebrate pimping. While it has been criticized for glorifying the negativity of the streets, gangsta rap's defenders claim that the rappers are simply reporting what really goes on in their neighborhoods; that drugs, prostitution, violence, and sexual promiscuity are all features of their daily existence. As N.W.A. proclaim, "It's not about a salary, it's all about reality." Nonetheless, this has led to suggestions that rap reinforces negative stereotypes of the black community and lionizes anti-social behavior. What is more, many of gangsta rap's high-profile rappers have acquired public notoriety. Some like Snoop Doggy Dogg have been implicated in gangland murders, while others such as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. have been killed.

Gangsta rap has become popular with those who have no direct experience with the lifestyle it depicts. The sexually explicit lyrics combined with graphic portrayals of gang killings have appealed to many middle-class white male youths. Indeed, some critics have suggested that a directly proportional relationship has developed between gangsta rap's explicitness and the sale of its records. Critics note that the violence and gangsterism has been over-exaggerated as a highly effective marketing ploy by the white-owned record companies. This has been helped by the addition of "parental advisory" stickers to many of their albums. For white middle-class male youths, gangsta rap possibly fulfills the same role as the blaxploitation films, attracting listeners for whom the "ghetto" is the location of adventure, violence, erotic fantasy, an alternative to the conformity and banality of suburbia. This voyeurism helps to explain gangsta rap's large following outside its communities of origin.

—Nathan Abrams

Further Reading:

Fernando, S. H., Jr. The New Beats: Exploring the Music Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop. Edinburgh, Payback Press, 1995.

Kelley, Robin D. G. "Kickin' Reality, Kickin' Ballistics: 'Gangsta Rap' and Postindustrial Los Angeles." In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class. New York, Free Press, 1994, 183-227.

Toop, David. Rap Attack 2: African Rap to Global Hip Hop. London, Serpent's Tail, 1991.