"The hair metal of the ghetto." Chuck D was famously quoted as saying that rap was the CNN of the streets; he has sinced revised his analogy. According to him, gangsta rap is the "Cartoon Network of the streets".

Gangsta rap is any rap song which depicts the violence and crime of street life. This depiction can be from the standpoint of the gangster or some other party. Some gangsta rap glamorized street life, whereas other examples decry the destruction.

Gangsta rap, while made famous by West Coast acts such as NWA and Ice T, was probably first introduced to the public by none other than Boogie Down Productions on their first album, Criminal Minded. This album featured the song 9mm Goes Bang in 1987. This, to my knowledge was the first gangsta rap song put out on wax. The style did not resonate with the hip hop crowd (not all rap is hip hop and not all hip hop is rap), and was reinvented for California consumption the subsequent year by NWA. It then sprouted in Houston, Texas with the Geto Boys, most notably Scarface, and has since spread around the country, including back to its point of origin, New York City.

"Gangsta rap" in its modern American form, traces its roots to New York City. And before that, entertainers called Griots have spread the form throughout West Africa.

Rap, and Hip Hop, became an underground success with "freestyle battles" and graffiti, as a battle of wits. To understand why these "rappers", or artists, talk about the things they do, one must understand the culture and mindset of the person.

Today, as of 2004, admittedly large amounts of these artists have guided the form into a more mainstream club culture. Still, many artists stay true to original form, and choose to stick with rap, or hip hop's, non-fiction storytelling roots.

A lot of more individuals, and/or individuals more isolated from the "street", "ghetto", "hood", or crime-ridden environments slander the form. Claims range from it provides a negative influence for children, to claiming it incites violence.

These claims have foundation, but are misguided. The form of hip-hop simply reflects on an underground culture previously ignored by mainstream America.

As an example, I cite one of rap's more famous artists, Tupac Shakur, or 2Pac. Tupac Amaru Shakur grew up in the crime infested streets of Marin City, California. As Tupac's musical, lyrical, and indeed political evolution took form, Tupac began to seperate himself from the confinements of "gangster rap", and branch into everything from poetry to screenplays and movies. One of his creations, a book of poetry known as The Rose That Grew From Concrete is considered by many critics to be a respectable piece of work. To the modern art culture, it is a shining piece of work from the "Urban Poetry" trend. To this culture of art and acceptance, these poems are considered profound and thoughtful.

The exact same thoughts contained in those poems are contained in his music, yet only his music was ever attacked as negative. Tupac was simply telling a story of his life, signified by the ever-satirized "Thug Life". T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. = The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody. And part of that "hate" could be attributed to mainstream society for creating an air of isolation instead of acceptance.

As far as the continuing critics of "gangster rap", I feel, could only criticize those that promote things like rape. "Rappers" like Tupac were crucified for confessing feelings, and telling true stories of their lives. I find it absurd and hypocritical in our liberal all-accepting society. I believe these critics that satirize the TRUE art form, not the mainstream club music, but the true art form do so out of both societal taboo and insecurity. But of course, there are some that just plain do not like a form of art or music. If it is because of these reasons, than of course that is absolutely acceptable. But to do so out of misunderstanding and prejudice due to ignorance, it is wrong and contributes to the still-prominent rift in a multi-racial society.

I still hear "gangsta rap" being discussed and talked about, and seemingly people still think it is an exciting new topic, or that pointing out that it is misogynist or violent is a startling new revelation. This annoys me. It annoys me because "gangsta rap" is now almost twenty years old, and the reaction to it, both in hip hop culture, and in the larger culture, has been going on just as long. To frame further discussion, we have to frame what exactly "gangsta rap" is, and perhaps what it is not.

The discussion is compounded by the fact that any discussion of rap music, or any art form created by a less dominant culture, is tinged with the question of projection. That is, the dominant "white" culture has its own self image, and thus chooses to project its shadow and/or anima on to the less dominant culture's art forms. An entire discussion of this is outside the scope of this node, but it should be kept in mind that many attitudes towards hip-hop are colored by projection.

The wuwu being out of the way, let us discuss the different levels of "gangsta" and how they may be viewed from within hip hop culture.

  1. All rap and hip-hop music is intrinsically violent, anti-human, misogynist, materialistic and self-destructive. A belief that, although not stated, is held, perhaps subconsciously, by a large number of people. Sometimes groups or rappers that intentionally keep a "clean" profile (such as Will Smith or Arrested Development) are given a pass, but it is assumed that most rap or hip-hop music is violent by nature. I think most people willing to pay attention to hip-hop would say that there is nothing inherently violent about using percussion and rhyme as your major musical tools.
  2. Rappers become "gangsta" when they talk about violence, even if in only a metaphorical way. This is a tricky thing for outsiders to understand at first, but one of the central aspects of the hip-hop culture is competition, and that competition is often phrased in metaphors of violence. So, for example, when the Genius rhymes "doing artists in like Cain did Abel", he is not literally talking about stabbing people to death, but rather about defeating his opponent with his stylistic prowess. Likewise, when Opio from Hieroglyphics raps
    "If you fencing with these you get stabbed in the heart
    Me, I'm like the Highlander
    Tapping the soul of my enemies, capturing their energies"
    the listener should understand that Opio is not really an immortal Scottish energy vampire. In hip-hop culture, this metaphorically violence is understood to be only metaphorical, but this can cause confusion to those not used to this cultural pattern.
  3. The next level is the first level that people actually inside hip-hop culture will start to have debates about. That is the difference between hardcore hip-hop and gangsta rap. Hardcore hip-hop is music about the streets, which seeks to reveal and talk about the realities of Urban America. Hardcore hip-hop can run the range from political, conscious rapping to sordid, unapologetic street tales. Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions are considered to be two golden age hardcore groups, although almost no hip-hop fan would call them a gangsta rap group. More ambiguous are later hardcore artists, such as Mobb Deep, Nas and The Wu Tang Clan. Most hip-hop fans would say that these artists were influenced by the years when gangsta rap was prominent, but are not themselves gangsta. Part of this has to do with the fact that most of these artists portray violence as a grim, terrible thing, and are somewhat repentant about both their real or theatrical violence. However, some hip-hop fans, and many people in the more dominant culture, would not hesitate to call this type of rap "gangsta".
  4. Finally, we get to what almost everyone, including those involved, would clearly consider "gangsta rap": groups from Southern California, from the late 80s to early 90s, most of whom were closely related to each other and shared a musical style. Most of these groups were descended from the seminal group NWA, and were signed to either Ruthless or Death Row Records. These include Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Ice T, Easy E, Snoop Dogg, and later Nate Dogg, Warren G and Tupac Shakur. It should be noted that in hip-hop circles, "gangsta rap" is not known so much for its subject matter, but for its sound, which is much more melodic and hook driven than hardcore hip-hop. Indeed, the lyrical content from "gangsta rap" is often much more light than hardcore hip-hop. For example, consider the chorus for Snoop Dogg's "Gin n Juice".
    Rollin down the street, smokin indo, sippin on gin and juice Laid back
    Note that while it isn't a good idea to drive a motor vehicle while smoking pot and drinking alcohol, it certainly doesn't compare with grimness with, say, (at random), Nas on "Small World".
    Enter your brain through your skull
    Another thug dies
    Picture your soul into the infinite black hole
    Where many souls go cuz of a fo' fo' blast
    Nas' vocals and music are also much grimmer than the average West Coast rapper. Thus, "gangsta rap" is known in hip-hop circles for being both lighter musically and lyrically than hardcore hip-hop. The major point of course, is that this style of music is what is considered universally to be gangsta rap.

There are many other contributing factors to whether a particular artist can be considered "gangsta". Some totally innocent artists may have a following of actual "gangstas", and may unfortunately have fights or shootings break out at their show, harming their reputation. Some artists that are not particularly lyrically or musically hard may have actual past or present ties to organized crime. Another factor is the fact that rap can be very ambiguous. Because coming out and preaching against violence may not be the most effective, some rappers deal with it by giving morality tales that may either glamorize or condone violence, depending on your viewpoint.

The most important thing is to think about what you are labelling and why. I have given a level of four distinctions, from what is considered certainly gangsta rap to what only the most blind person would call gangsta rap. This will aid you in further discussions.

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