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Gangsta rap

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Gangsta rap

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Gangsta rap is a subgenre of hip hop music which involves a lyrical focus on the lifestyles of inner-city criminals.

Although crime and violence in the inner city have always been part of hip hop's lyrical canon, before the rise of gangsta rap the subject was not embraced or addressed so blatantly. Gangsta rap also signalled an end to the mainstream popularity of socially conscious lyrics put forward by golden age artists. Gangsta rap was pioneered by Ice-T, who was influenced by Schooly D's Hardcore rap but still mixed in a lot of social commentary in his lyrics. Crews such as N.W.A would go on to set the stage for gangster rap to be the norm.

With the popularity of Dr Dre's The Chronic in 1992, gangsta rap became the most commercially lucrative subgenre of hip-hop. Since then, many gangsta rap artists have moved towards a more pop-friendly mainstream sound.


Controversy over subject matter

The subject matter inherent in gangsta rap has caused a great deal of controversy, with many observers criticizing the genre for the messages it espouses including homophobia, misogyny, racism, and materialism. Gangsta rappers generally defend themselves by pointing out that they are describing the reality of inner-city life and claim that when rapping, they are simply playing a character.

Given that the audience for gangsta rap has become predominately white, some commentators (for example, Spike Lee in his satirical film Bamboozled) have even criticized it as analogous to black minstrel shows and blackface performance, in which performers, both black and white, were made up to look African American , acted in a stereotypically uncultured and ignorant manner for the entertainment of white audiences. Some performers, such as The Geto Boys, are even accused of being cartoonish and over-the-top (though many artists, particularly the Geto Boys, would be the first to freely admit this).

More recently, gangsta rappers are endorsing a controversial tactic to avoid talking with police. It called "no snitching" and usually enforced in the lyrics of a certain rapper's songs. Others formed an underground campaign reportedly using Stop Snitchin shirts to encourage witnesses not to testify against drug dealers and gang members. Or to whereas frighten anyone with information about their crimes from snitching, or reporting to the police. The perceived response to such reporting is retaliatory violence against the snitcher.

Gangsta rap in the 1980s

Los Angeles' Ice T is the first gangsta rapper due to his influential "Six n' da Mornin'" and other aggressive, gritty recordings (like Rhyme Pays, 1987); his first rap in 1982 included references to guns, "hoes" and "niggers", but he remained a low-key rapper until 1987. The N.W.A are crucial to the foundations of the genre by upgrading Ice T's lyrics to more violent lyrics. Gangsta rap is usually credited as being an originally West Coast phenomenon, due to the influence of Ice-T and N.W.A, as acts such as Schoolly D, BDP, and Public Enemy are usually considered hardcore rappers. Ice T's Gangsta Rap is based on Schooly D's Hardcore Rap and it's a subgenre of the Hardcore Rap. After the disbandment of the N.W.A, Dr. Dre (one of the crew's formers) pioneered a new style of Gangsta Rap called G-funk (Gangsta Funk) based on George Clinton's P-funk (Parliament Funkadelic).

Hip hop moves west and gangsta rap appears

N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton. N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton.

Until the very late 1980s, hip hop had been dominated by the East Coast (essentially New York City, though Philadelphia and New Jersey also had vital scenes), with West Coast hip hop a curiosity dominated by dance-heavy and critically reviled electro hop artists like Egyptian Lover and World Class Wreckin' Cru. The latter crew included Dr. Dre before he joined N.W.A.

Aside from electro hop, early pioneer gangsta rap artists, including most notably Ice-T, gained underground fame in the Los Angeles area during the mid 1980s. Ice-T is often considered the earliest gangsta rapper, though paradoxically, he is most well known to mainstream America for the controversy regarding "Cop Killer", a song from his heavy metal band Body Count's self-titled debut album which bears virtually no resemblance to modern forms of gangsta rap. Aside from N.W.A and Ice-T, early West Coast rappers include Too $hort (from Oakland, California) turned from an Old School rapper to a gangsta rapper through the new golden era and others from Compton and Watts, Los Angeles, as well as Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego.

By the late 1980s, gangsta rap began to become a major force in hip hop. The first blockbuster hip hop album was N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton first released in 1988. Straight Outta Compton also established West Coast hip hop as a vital genre, and a rival of 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 the FBI strongly expressing law enforcement's resentment of the song.

Gangsta rap in the 1990s

G funk and Death Row Records

The Predator by Ice Cube. The Predator by Ice Cube.

Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Dr. Dre's The Chronic.

Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

Nas' Illmatic. Nas' Illmatic.

In 1992, former N.W.A member Dr. Dre released The Chronic, which further established the dominance of West Coast gangsta rap and Death Row Records, and is also the beginning of G-funk, a slow, drawled form of hip hop that dominated the 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, with anti-authoritarian lyrics that helped endear it to many young listeners. Another G-Funk success was Ice Cube's Predator album released on the same time as The Chronic in 1992. It sold over 5 million copies and was #1 in the Charts. Despite the fact that Ice Cube wasn't a Death Row artist. One of the genre's biggest crossover stars was Dre's protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg (Doggystyle, 1993), whose exuberant party-oriented themes made songs such as "Gin and Juice" club anthems and top hits nationwide. Tupac Shakur (Me Against the World, 1995) has endured as one of the most successful West Coast hip hop artists of all time. Snoop and Tupac were both artists on Death Row Records, owned by Dre and Marion "Suge" Knight. Many of Tupac's greatest hits sampled or interpolated earlier music by Zapp & Roger.

Mafioso rap

'Mafioso rap' is a hip hop sub-genre which flourished in the mid-1990s. It is the pseudo-Mafia extension of East Coast hardcore rap, and was the counterpart of West Coast G-Funk rap during the 1990s. In contrast to West Coast Gangsta rappers, who tended to depict realistic urban life on the ghetto streets, Mafioso rappers' subject matter included self-indulgent and luxurious fantasies of rappers as Mobsters, or Mafiosi, while making numerous references towards notorious crime organizations of the Italian underworld, including the Gambino crime family and Cosa Nostra. Fantasized and fictional narratives told by Mafioso rappers are often adapted versions of classic crime thrillers, most notably Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, King of New York, and Scarface. Another trademark feature of Mafioso rap is the idolizing of high profile organized crime figures. These crime kingpins range from legendary gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s such as Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Lucky Luciano, to the druglords of Latin America (including Pablo Escobar).

Kool G Rap was one of the first rappers to embrace the Mafioso theme in his subject matter. On his debut album, Road to the Riches (1989), Kool G Rap showcases graphic narratives about the "glamorous life" of a criminal:

Gettin' richer and richer, the police took my picture
But I still supplied, some people I knew died
Murders and homicides for bottles of suicide
Money, jewelry, livin' like a star
And I wasn't too far from a Jaguar car
In a small-time casino, the town's Al Pacino
For all of the girls, the pretty boy Valentino
I shot up stores and I kicked down doors
Collecting scars from little neighborhood wars
Many legs I broke, many necks I choked
And if provoked I let the pistol smoke
Eyes of hate and their hearts get colder
Some young male put in jail
His lawyer so good his bail is on sale
Lookin' at the hourglass, how long can this power last?
Longer than my song but he already fell
He likes to eat hardy, party
Be like John Gotti, and drive a Maserati

Kool G Rap's epic tales, chronicling the crime underworld of drug trafficking and the luxurious pleasures of the high-end illegal business, helped inspire the related Mafioso rap phenomenon of the mid-1990s, which later achieved some mainstream success and great critical acclaim with albums such as Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, AZ's Doe Or Die, and Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt. At the genre's zenith in the mainstream music industry, mafioso-inspired albums, including Nas's It Was Written and Biggie's Life After Death, went on to become multi-platinum commercial successes.

The rise of Bad Boy records

Meanwhile, East Coast rappers like Black Moon (Enta da Stage, 1993), Mobb Deep (The Infamous, 1995), Nas (Illmatic, 1994) and the Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die, 1994) pioneered a grittier sound in East Coast gangsta rap or known as hardcore rap. B.I.G. and the rest of Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records roster paved the way for New York City to take back chart dominance from the West Coast as gangsta rap continued to explode into the mainstream. The "East Coast/West Coast" battle between Death Row Records and Bad Boy Records resulted in the deaths of Death Row's Tupac Shakur and Bad Boy's Notorious B.I.G. This had a knock-on effect on Death Row itself, which sank quickly when most of its big name artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg left and it found itself on the receiving end of multiple lawsuits. Dr. Dre, at the MTV Video Music Awards, claimed that "gangsta rap was dead", which proved untrue. Bad Boy Records survived, though not untarnished. Puff Daddy's commercial empire continued to lose the support of the hip hop fan base with a mainstream sound aimed at middle-class America, and challenges from Atlanta and, especially, Master P's No Limit stable of popular rappers.

Southern and Midwestern gangsta rap

E 1999 Eternal by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. E 1999 Eternal by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

After the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, gangsta rap remained a major commercial force. However, most of the industry's major labels were in turmoil, or bankrupt, and new locations sprang up.

Atlanta had been firmly established as a hip hop center by artists such as Goodie Mob and Outkast and many other Southern hip hop artists emerged in their wake, whilst gangsta rap artists achieving the most pop-chart success. Jermaine Dupri, an Atlanta-born record producer and talent scout, had great success after discovering youthful pop stars Kris Kross (Totally Krossed Out, 1992) performing at a mall, and later masterminded a large roster of commercially successful acts on his So So Def label which although mostly weighted towards pop-rap & R&B, also included rap artists such as Da Brat (Funkdafied, 1994), and himself. Perhaps the most famous gangsta rapper from the South is Scarface for Rap-A-Lot Records.

Master P's No Limit Records label, based out of New Orleans, also became quite popular, though critical success was very scarce, with the exceptions of some later additions like Mystikal (Ghetto Fabulous, 1998). No Limit had begun its rise to fame with Master P's The Ghetto Is Trying to Kill Me! (1994, 1994 in music), and subsequent hits by Rappin- 4-Tay (Don't Fight the Feeling, 1994), Silkk the Shocker (Charge It 2 Da Game, 1998) and C-Murder (Life or Death, 1998). Cash Money Records, also based out of New Orleans, had enormous commercial success with a very similar musical style and quantity-over-quality business approach to No Limit but achieved even less critical acclaim and were widely ridiculed.

Cleveland based rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony also had a monumental impact on the Midwestern gangsta rap scene. The mid-1990s saw Bone metamorphose into an extremely popular commercial rap assemblage with the release of their critically aclaimed album E 1999 Eternal. Their fast, harmonizing vocals (coupled with their fast rap delivery) changed the limitations of gangsta rap.

Houston,TX The Geto Boys were the first rappers from H-Town, and the first dirty douth rappers.But Today music from Houston is much more mainstream then it was when Geto Boys were rapping. With mainstream rappers from Houston such as Lil Flip, Mike Jones, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Slim thug, and Micheal "5000" Watts production. Yet there is still underground music in Houston such as Bun b, Pimp C, UGK, Z-Ro, Scarface and the Geto Boys

The mainstream era

Before the late nineties, gangsta rap and hip hop in general, while being extremely popular, had always been seen as a fringe genre that remained firmly outside of the pop mainstream. However, the rise of Bad Boy Records signaled a major stylistic change in gangsta rap (or as it is referred to on the East Coast, hardcore rap), as it morphed into a new subgenre of hip hop which would become even more commercially successful. Notorious B.I.G. is seen by many to have initiated gangsta rap's move towards conquering the pop charts, as he was the first hardcore gangsta rapper to produce albums as a calculated attempt to include both gritty gangsta narratives and polished, catchy, danceable pop productions entirely aimed at the clubs and at the mainstream pop charts. Between the release of Biggie's debut album Ready to Die in 1994 and his follow-up Life after Death in 1997, his sound changed from the darker, sample-heavy production to a cleaner, more upbeat sound fashioned for popular consumption (though the references to guns, drug dealing and life as a thug on the street remained). R&B-styled hooks and instantly recognizable samples of well-known soul and pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s were the staples of this sound, which was showcased primarily in his latter-day work for The Notorious B.I.G. ("Mo Money, Mo Problems"), Ma$e ("Feels So Good"), and non Bad Boy artists such as Jay-Z ("Can I Get A...") and Nas ("Street Dreams"). Very little of this commercially minded music was met with acclaim from hip hop enthusiasts or critics, however - Puff Daddy's "loop it and leave it" style of sampling, which most of the time just consisted of rapping over someone else's instrumental, was criticized heavily. Generally, the era in which this sound prospered (called the "Shiny Suit Era" by some due to Puffy and Ma$e's tendacies to wear expensive clothing that would literally shine) is not fondly remembered, and it is no coincidence that its rise to prosperity was virtually paralleled by a surge of activity in underground and alternative hip hop scenes.

Also achieving similar levels of success with a similar sound at the same time as Bad Boy was Master P and his No Limit label in New Orleans, as well as the New Orleans upstart Cash Money label. A Cash Money artist, The B.G., popularized a catch phrase in 1999 that sums up what the majority of late-nineties mainstream hip hop focused on subject-wise: "Bling-Bling." Whereas much gangsta rap of the past had portrayed the rapper as being a victim of urban squalor, the persona of late-nineties mainstream gangsta rappers was far more weighted towards hedonism and showing off the best jewelry, clothes, liquor, and women. Many of the artists who achieved such mainstream success in fact started out as straight gangsta rappers - artists such as Ma$e, Jay-Z and Cam'Ron are straight out of the mid-90s New York school of gritty gangsta rap, influenced by artists such as the Notorious B.I.G, Mobb Deep, and Nas. Ma$e, Jay-Z and Cam'Ron are also typical of the more relaxed, casual flow that became the pop-gangsta norm. However many or these artist are not consideed to be gangster like their contemporary peers of the west coast.

Pop-inflected gangsta rap continues to be successful into the 21st century, with many artists deftly straddling the divide between their hip hop audience and their pop audience, such as Ja Rule and Jay-Z. The influence of West Coast gangsta rapper 2Pac on the East Coast rap scene has also become increasingly apparent in the new century.

Hardcore East Coast gangsta rap after 1997

Although the "softer" pop/R&B-inflected artists received the most commercial success, hardcore gangsta rap continued to thrive on the East Coast. Baltimore-born DMX is often credited with reviving New York's hardcore scene with It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, his 1998 debut, which entered the charts at #1. DMX's work was clearly inspired by that of Nas (Illmatic, 1994), The Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993), and 2Pac (All Eyez On Me, 1996). DMX's management company, Ruff Ryders Entertainment, ran a record label by the same name which also featured Eve (Scorpion, 2001) and The Lox, defectors from Bad Boy (We Are the Streets, 2000).

However, the biggest success for post-Bad Boy East Coast gangsta was 50 Cent, who achieved worldwide superstardom after jointly signing with Eminem's Shady Records and Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment and releasing the album Get Rich or Die Tryin', before launching numerous similarly styled affiliate artists such as Lloyd Banks, Young Buck and Tony Yayo. 50 Cent's music was harder-edged than most artists who had achieved similar levels of success, though he made occasional concessions to a more mainstream sound, particularly in his single releases.

Music samples

  • Fuck Tha Police (sample)
    • Short sample of Fuck Tha Police, by N.W.A. - harsh language advisory. Fuck Tha Police was an early landmark in the gangsta rap movement.
  • N.Y. State of Mind (sample)
    • Short sample of N.Y. State of Mind, by Nas. From his highly-regarded 1994 album Illmatic, N.Y. State Of Mind illustrates the guns, drugs and crime obsessions associated with gangsta rap, but with a track characteristic of the East Coast hardcore rap scene..

See also

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

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