Vocals (rapping, beatboxing), drum machine, sampler
The subject matter inherent in gangsta rap has caused a great deal of controversy. Criticism has come from both left-wing and right-wing commentators, as well as religious leaders, who have accused the genre of promoting crime, serial killing, murder, violence, profanity, sex addiction, homophobia, racism, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, street gangs, disorderly conduct, drive-by shootings, vandalism, theft, driving under the influence, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, disregarding law enforcement, materialism, and narcissism. The White House administrations of both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton criticized the genre. "Many black rappers—including Ice-T and Sister Souljah—contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what's going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form," wrote journalist Chuck Philips in a review of the battle between "the Establishment" and defenders of rap music. "The reason why rap is under attack is because it exposes all the contradictions of American culture ... What started out as an underground art form has become a vehicle to expose a lot of critical issues that are not usually discussed in American politics. The problem here is that the White House and wanna-bes like Bill Clinton represent a political system that never intends to deal with inner city urban chaos," Sister Souljah told Philips.
On the other hand, some commentators (for example, Spike Lee in his satirical film Bamboozled) have criticized gangsta rap as analogous to black minstrel shows and blackface performance, in which performers – both black and white – were made to look African American, and acted in a stereotypical uncultured and ignorant manner for entertainment. Gangsta rappers often defend themselves by arguing they are describing the reality of inner-city life, and that they are only adopting a character which behaves in ways they do not necessarily endorse. Gangsta rappers are also famous (or infamous) for appearing more hardcore compared to early concepts and themes of hip-hop artists, and are known for saying things that are often considered taboo; for instance, the gangsta rap group N.W.A produced the famous "Fuck tha Police" protest song about police brutality and racial profiling.
In high-crime areas, putting on these made up personas is life-threatening, but the fact that gangsta rappers told the stories of others is often seen as having earned them respect for raising awareness of the severity of inner-city crime. Many gangsta rappers argue that in the world of their genre exists the emotions and perspectives of a people whose suffering is too often overlooked and belittled by society. Gangsta rap, some argue, was an effect of the various wrongdoings perpetrated against African-Americans in underprivileged neighborhoods. The various riots sparked by the Rodney King beating and the acquittal of the police officers responsible for the beating sparked anger and outrage in an area that was already at risk. Gangsta rap acted as an outlet so such people could express themselves angrily and not in fear that they were going to be silenced for telling the truth. They often used gangsta rap to tell the stories of their lives, which sometimes included strong violence, hypersexuality, and drug abuse.
Origins: 1984-1990 Edit
Beginnings: Ice-T and Schoolly D Edit
Tracy "Ice-T" Morrow, was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1958. As a teenager, he moved to Los Angeles where he rose to prominence in the West Coast hip hop scene. In 1986, Ice-T released "6 in the Mornin'", which is often regarded as among the first gangsta rap songs. Ice-T had been MCing since the early '80s, but first turned to gangsta rap themes after being influenced by Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D and his 1985 album Schoolly D, often considered to be the originator of gangsta rap. In an interview with PROPS magazine, Ice-T said:
- Here's the exact chronological order of what really went down: The first record that came out along those lines was Schoolly D's "P.S.K." Then the syncopation of that rap was used by me when I made "6 in the Mornin'". The vocal delivery was the same: ' ... P.S.K. is makin' that green', ' ... six in the morning, police at my door'. When I heard that record I was like "Oh @#!*% !" and call it a bite or what you will but I dug that record. My record didn't sound like P.S.K., but I liked the way he was flowing with it. P.S.K. was talking about Park Side Killers but it was very vague. That was the only difference, when Schoolly did it, it was "... one by one, I'm knockin' em out." All he did was represent a gang on his record. I took that and wrote a record about guns, beating people down, and all that with "6 in the Mornin'". At the same time my single came out, Boogie Down Productions hit with Criminal Minded, which was a gangster-based album. It wasn't about messages or "You Must Learn", it was about gangsterism.
In 2011, Ice-T repeated in his autobiography that Schoolly D was his inspiration for gangsta rap. Ice-T continued to release gangsta albums for the remainder of the 1980s: Rhyme Pays in 1987, Power in 1988, and The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say in 1989. Ice-T's lyrics also contained strong political commentary, and often played the line between glorifying the gangsta lifestyle and criticizing it as a no-win situation.
Schoolly D's debut album, Schoolly D, and especially the song "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?", would heavily influence not only Ice-T, but also Eazy-E and N.W.A (most notably in the song "Boyz-n-the-Hood") as well as the Beastie Boys on their seminal hardcore hip hop-influenced album Licensed to Ill (1986).
Boogie Down Productions and N.W.A Edit
Boogie Down Productions released their first single, "Say No Brother (Crack Attack Don't Do It)", in 1986. It was followed by "South-Bronx/P is Free" and "9mm Goes Bang" in the same year. The latter is the most gangsta-themed song of the three; in it, KRS-One boasts about shooting a crack dealer and his posse to death (in self-defense). The album Criminal Minded followed in 1987, and was the first rap album to have firearms on its cover. Shortly after the release of this album, BDP's DJ, Scott LaRock was shot and killed. After this, BDP's subsequent records were more focused with the inadequate rationale removed.
The first blockbuster gangsta rap album was N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, released in 1988. Straight Outta Compton would establish West Coast hip hop as a vital genre, and establish Los Angeles as a legitimate rival to hip hop's long-time capital, New York City. Straight Outta Compton sparked the first major controversy regarding hip hop lyrics when their song "Fuck tha Police" earned a letter from FBI Assistant Director, Milt Ahlerich, strongly expressing law enforcement's resentment of the song. Due to the influence of Ice-T, N.W.A, and Ice Cube's early solo career, gangsta rap is often somewhat erroneously credited as being a mostly West Coast phenomenon, despite the contributions of East Coast acts like Boogie Down Productions in shaping the genre and despite Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D being generally regarded as the first gangsta rapper.
In the early 1990s, former N.W.A member Ice Cube would further influence gangsta rap with his hardcore, socio-political solo albums, which suggested the potential of gangsta rap as a political medium to give voice to inner-city youth. N.W.A's second album, Efil4zaggin (1991) (released after Ice Cube's departure from the group), broke ground as the first gangsta rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard pop charts.
Aside from N.W.A and Ice T, Too Short (from Oakland, California), Kid Frost, and the South Gate-based Latino group Cypress Hill were pioneering West Coast rappers with gangsta rap songs and themes. Above the Law also played an important role in the gangsta rap movement, as their 1990 debut album Livin' Like Hustlers, as well as their guest appearance on N.W.A's 1991 Efil4zaggin, foreshadowing the dominance of the genre in 1990s starting with Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
The Beastie Boys were one of the first groups to identify themselves as "gangsters", and one of the first popular rap groups to talk about violence and drug and alcohol use, though largely in a more humorous manner. They had started out as a hardcore punk band, but after introduction to producer Rick Rubin and the exit of Kate Schellenbach they became a rap group. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, their 1986 album Licensed to Ill is "filled with enough references to guns, drugs, and empty sex (including the pornographic deployment of a Wiffleball bat in "Paul Revere") to qualify as a gangsta-rap cornerstone."
The Beasties' 1989 album Paul's Boutique included the similarly themed tracks "Car Thief," "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun," and "High-Plains Drifter." In 1986, the Los Angeles-based group C.I.A. rapped over Beastie Boy tracks for songs such as "My Posse" and "Ill-Legal", and the Beastie Boys' influence can be seen significantly in N.W.A's early albums.
The New York rap group Run DMC is often credited with popularizing hardcore and confrontational attitudes and lyrics in hip hop culture, and were one of the first rap groups to dress in gang-like street clothing. Their stripped-down, rock-inspired beats were also important in establishing the early gangsta rap production style. The seminal Long Island-based group Public Enemy featured aggressive, politically charged lyrics, which had an especially strong influence on gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube. East Coast hardcore rappers like Rakim, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and EPMD also reflected the trend in hip-hop music in the late 1980s towards hard-hitting, angry, aggressive, and politically conscious lyrics, revolving around crime, violence, poverty, war and gunplay.
The Houston-based group known as the Geto Boys came out around the late 1980s and made songs containing both gangsta themes of crime and violence and sociopolitical commentary. The group notably released proto-mafioso rap music with the song "Scarface", a track centered on selling cocaine and killing rival gang members. The Geto Boys are also known for being the first rap group to sample from the movie Scarface, a film which became the basis for various mafioso rap samples in the 1990s. Furthermore, the Geto Boys, along with Jam Master J's and Erick Sermon's group Flatlinerz and Prince Paul's and RZA's group Gravediggaz, are often cited as pioneers of "horrorcore" rap, a transgressiveand abrasive subgenre of hardcore rap or gangsta rap which focuses on common horror themes, such as the supernatural and the occult, often with gothic or macabre lyrics, satanicimagery, and slasher film or splatter film-like violence.
Ice-T released one of the seminal albums of the genre, OG: Original Gangster in 1991. It also contained a song by his new thrash metal group Body Count, who released a self titled album in 1992. Particular controversy surrounded one of its songs "Cop Killer". The rock song was intended to speak from the viewpoint of a police target seeking revenge on racist, brutal cops. Ice-T's rock song infuriated government officials, the National Rifle Association and various police advocacy groups. Consequently, Time Warner Music refused to release Ice-T's upcoming album Home Invasion and dropped Ice-T from the label. Ice-T suggested that the furor over the song was an overreaction, telling journalist Chuck Philips"... they've done movies about nurse killers and teacher killers and student killers. Arnold Schwarzenegger blew away dozens of cops as the Terminator. But I don't hear anybody complaining about that." In the same interview, Ice-T suggested to Philips that the misunderstanding of Cop Killer, the misclassification of it as a rap song (not a rock song), and the attempts to censor it had racial overtones: "The Supreme Court says it's OK for a white man to burn a cross in public. But nobody wants a black man to write a record about a cop killer."
Ice-T's next album, Home Invasion was postponed as a result of the controversy, and was finally released in 1993. While it contained gangsta elements, it was his most politicalalbum to date. After a proposed censoring of the Home Invasion album cover art, he left Warner Bros. Records. Ice-T's subsequent releases went back to straight gangsta-ism, but were never as popular as his earlier releases. He had alienated his core audience with his involvement in metal, his emphasis on politics and with his uptempo Bomb-Squad style beats during a time when G-funk was popular. He published a book "The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a @#!*% ?" in 1994.
G-Funk and Death Row Records Edit
In 1992, former N.W.A member Dr. Dre released The Chronic, a massive seller (eventually going triple platinum) which showed that explicit gangsta rap could hold mass commercial appeal just like more pop-oriented rappers such as MC Hammer, The Fresh Prince, and Tone Lōc. The album established the dominance of West Coast gangsta rap and Dre's new post-N.W.A label, Death Row Records (owned by Dr. Dre along with Marion "Suge" Knight), as Dre's album showcased a stable of promising new Death Row rappers. The album also began the subgenre of G-funk, a slow, drawled form of hip hop that dominated the rap charts for some time.
Extensively sampling P-Funk bands, especially Parliament and Funkadelic, G-funk was multi-layered, yet simple and easy to dance to. The simple message of its lyrics, that life's problems could be overcome by guns, alcohol, and marijuana, endeared it to a teenage audience. The single "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang" became a crossover hit, with its humorous, House Party-influenced video becoming an MTV staple despite that network's historic orientation towards rock music.
Another success was Ice Cube's Predator album, released at about the same time as The Chronic in 1992. It sold over 5 million copies and was #1 in the charts, propelled by the hit single "It Was a Good Day", despite the fact that Ice Cube was not a Death Row artist. One of the genre's biggest crossover stars was Dre's protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg(Doggystyle), whose exuberant, party-oriented themes made songs such as "Gin and Juice" club anthems and top hits nationwide. In 1996, 2Pac signed with Death Row and released the multi-platinum double album All Eyez on Me. Not long afterward, his shocking murder brought gangsta rap into the national headlines and propelled his posthumous The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory album (released under the alias "Makaveli") (which eerily featured an image of 2Pac being crucified on the front cover) to the top of the charts. Warren G was another G-funk musician along with the now deceased Nate Dogg. Other successful G-Funk influenced artists included Spice 1, MC Eiht and MC Ren, all of them reaching decent positions on the Billboard 100, in spite of not being associated with Death Row.
Mafioso rap Edit
Mafioso rap is a hardcore hip hop subgenre founded by Kool G Rap in the late 1980s. It is the pseudo-Mafia extension of East Coast hardcore rap, and is considered the counterpart of West Coast G-Funk rap. Mafioso rap is characterized by references to famous mobsters and mafiosi, racketeering, and organized crime in general (but especially the Italian-American Mafia, the Sicilian Mafia, African-American organized crime, and Latin American organized crime or drug cartels). Though some mafioso rap was more gritty and street-oriented, many other mafioso rap artists frequently focused on lavish, self-indulgent, materialistic, and luxurious subject matter, such as expensive drugs, cars, and expensive champagne. Though the genre died down for several years, it re-emerged in 1995 when Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon released his critically acclaimed solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.... 1995 also saw the release of Doe or Die by Nas' protégé AZ and the release of the album 4,5,6 by subgenre originator Kool G Rap. This album featured other mafioso rap artists MF Grimm, Nas and B-1. These three albums brought the genre to mainstream recognition, and inspired other East Coast artists, such as Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, to adopt the same themes as well with their albums Reasonable Doubt, Life After Death and It Was Written (respectively). Though Mafioso rap declined in the mainstream by the late 1990s, it saw somewhat of a revival in the mid 2000s with Ghostface Killah's Fishscale, Jay-Z's American Gangster, and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II. Similarly, in recent years, many rappers, such as T.I., Rick Ross, Fabolous, Jadakiss, Jim Jones (rapper), and Cassidy have maintained popularity with lyrics about self-centered urban criminal lifestyles or "hustling". Lil' Kim's mafioso album La Bella Mafia, released in 2003, was a commercial success, receiving platinum certification.
East Coast hardcore hip hop and the East Coast–West Coast feud Edit
Meanwhile, rappers from New York City, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Onyx, Big L, Mobb Deep, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim, and The L.O.X, among others, pioneered a grittier sound known as East Coast hardcore hip hop. In 1994, both Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. released their debut albums Illmatic and Ready to Die respectively, which paved the way for New York City to take back dominance from the West Coast. In an interview for The Independent in 1994, the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA commented on the term "gangsta rap" and its association with his group's music and hip hop at the time:
Our music is not 'gangsta rap'. There's no such thing. The label was created by the media to limit what we can say. We just deliver the truth in a brutal fashion. The young black male is a target. Snoop (Doggy Dogg) has gone four times platinum and makes more money than the president. They don't like that, so you hear 'ban this, ban that'. We attack people's emotions. It's a real live show that brings out the inside in people. Like I said, intense.— GZA
It is widely speculated that the ensuing "East Coast/West Coast" battle between Death Row Records and Bad Boy Records resulted in the deaths of Death Row Records' 2Pac and Bad Boy Records' The Notorious B.I.G. Even before the murders, Death Row had begun to unravel, as co-founder Dr. Dre had left earlier in 1996; in the aftermath of 2Pac's death, label owner Suge Knight was sentenced to prison for a parole violation, and Death Row proceeded to sink quickly as most of its remaining artists, including Snoop Dogg, left. Dr. Dre, at the MTV Video Music Awards, claimed that "gangsta rap was dead". While Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Entertainment fared better than its West Coast rival, it eventually began to lose popularity and support by the end of the decade, due to its pursuit of a more mainstream sound, as well as challenges from Atlanta and New Orleans-based labels, especially, Master P's No Limit stable of popular rappers.