Ever since some gang-related violence occurred at a Run-D.M.C. concert in Long Beach, CA in 1986, rap music has been controversial; hip-hop had its detractors in the '80s and still has plenty of them in the 21st century. And no form of rap has been more controversial than gangsta rap, which has been attacked by everyone from Tipper Gore to conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly. Why have so many people been critical of gangsta rap, including some of hip-hop's non-gangsta MCs? It all comes down to the first-person format; instead of rhyming in the third person about the problems of the inner city, gangsta rappers rhyme in the first person about the lives of thugs, felons, gang members, pimps and crack dealers. Gangsta rappers portray the thugs they're rapping about, which is a lot different from what Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (one of rap's earliest groups) did on their 1982 classic "The Message." That gem found Flash and his New York colleagues rapping in the third person about the oppressive conditions of the inner-city ghetto, but they didn't actually portray criminals -- gangsta rappers, however, give listeners the perspective of a gangbanger, a drug dealer or someone who is serving hard time for armed robbery. And for that reason, gangsta rap has often been accused of glorifying -- or even promoting -- crime and violence. But many gangsta rappers have countered that portrayal should not be confused with advocacy; in other words, the fact that Ice-T, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre have portrayed thugs on record doesn't mean that they're encouraging listeners to live the thug life. Ice-T would argue that when he gave first-person accounts of thug life on "6'N the Mornin'" and "Colors," it was comparable to Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro portraying hoodlums in Casino and Goodfellas -- that he wasn't promoting thuggery any more than director Martin Scorsese's modern film-noir.
Like any style of music that has generated gold and platinum sales, gangsta rap has been saturated with clone artists -- people who reasoned that the easiest way to sell a lot of CDs was to emulate N.W.A or the late 2Pac Shakur instead of developing something original. And in the hands of the clones, gangsta rap can seem like cheap exploitation and an endless stream of sexist, violent clichés. But the most compelling gangsta rappers -- including Ice-T, N.W.A, Shakur, Schoolly D, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the Geto Boys -- weren't about shock value for the sake of shock value. The best gangsta rap has served as an audio-documentary on the problems of the inner city; at its best, gangsta rap is film-noir with a beat.
Gangsta rap got started around 1986, when the seminal Ice-T wrote a disturbing tune called "6'N the Mornin'". Rapping in the first person, Ice-T took his audience on a guided tour through the world of a Los Angeles criminal. It wasn't the first time that a rapper examined the darker side of urban life; when Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five recorded "The Message" in 1982 and "New York, New York" in 1983, they painted a very troubling and depressing picture of the inner city. And there were many other East Coast MCs who, in the early to mid-'80s, rapped about social problems, including Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis Blow. But they never rapped about thug life in the first person -- if anything, they were complaining about the criminals who were making New York a dangerous place to live. "6'N the Mornin'," however, found the L.A.-based Ice-T portraying the sort of felon Flash and Run-D.M.C. were trying to avoid in their songs. And the first-person approach was effective on subsequent Ice-T offerings like "Drama," "Pain," "Colors" and "The Hunted Child," all of which were vehemently criticized by those who thought that he was glorifying crime and violence. But Ice-T often countered that his lyrics were being taken out of context -- that if you listened closely, his lyrics were actually anti-crime. In fact, there were no happy endings for the pimps, players and gangbangers in Ice-T's songs; they usually ended up dead or incarcerated, much like the thugs that James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson often portrayed in the '30s and '40s. In a subliminal way, Ice-T was telling his fans that crime doesn't pay; "The Hunted Child" and "Drama" paint as unattractive a picture of crime as Cagney's characters did in White Heat and Public Enemy (1931).
Although gangsta rap was dominated by the West Coast in the '80s, one of the early gangsta rappers was Philadelphia's Schoolly D. Lyrically, Schoolly wasn't as violent or as graphic as his West Coast counterparts; however, some of the first-person rhymes that he came out with around 1985-87 were more thuggish than anything else that the East Coast had to offer at the time. "PSK What Does It Mean?," "Saturday Night" and other singles that Schoolly provided during that period weren't as bloody as N.W.A or the Geto Boys, but they were still ahead of their time and deserve to be recognized as gangsta rap classics.
If gangsta rap's detractors found Ice-T and Schoolly D troubling, they were even more shocked when they heard N.W.A's influential Straight Outta Compton. Released in late 1988, that album turned out to be even more violent than Ice-T's work. N.W.A's members (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E) covered a lot of the same ground as Ice-T -- gang violence, drive-by shootings, drug dealing, etc. -- and the L.A.-based rappers didn't think twice about being as inflammatory as possible. One of the songs on Straight Outta Compton, "Fuck tha Police", inspired the FBI to write an angry letter to Priority Records. But Straight Outta Compton, for all its graphic violence, was far from an example of cheap exploitation -- it was really a cry for help, and the album told people all over the world just how dangerous life in Compton, CA and South-Central L.A. could be.
Other noteworthy gangsta rappers from the late '80s and early '90s ranged from the Houston-based Geto Boys to L.A.'s Cypress Hill, who brought some of the Chicano/Mexican-American influence to gangsta rap. Cypress Hill wasn't the first rap group with a Latino influence, but they were the first major group that brought a Latino perspective to West Coast gangsta rap. Meanwhile, the L.A.-based Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. has demonstrated that Samoan-Americans can be a part of gangsta rap.
As influential as N.W.A turned out to be, the group only lasted about four years. In 1991, N.W.A broke up, and Dr. Dre launched his solo career with 1992's The Chronic (which was among the best selling gangsta rap albums of all time and put the distinctive Snoop Dogg on the map). Ice Cube, meanwhile, had been recording solo albums since 1990, when he left N.W.A and had a falling out with Dr. Dre and Eazy-E (who died of AIDS-related causes in 1995). Cube's solo output has always been extremely sociopolitical; if anyone has bridged the gap between the militant black nationalism of Public Enemy and the thuggery of gangsta rap, it's Ice Cube.
Most gangsta rappers have distanced themselves from the thug life that they rhyme about; a tragic exception was the late 2Pac Shakur, who was all too familiar with the urban horrors that he describes on albums like 1995's compelling Me Against the World. There was plenty of violence on Shakur's recordings, but there was also plenty of remorse -- Shakur, at times, expressed regret over having lived the thug life, and yet, he seemed addicted to it. The rapper had numerous run-ins with the law in the early to mid-'90s, and he made his share of enemies in the hip-hop world. Shakur was only 25 when, in September 1996, an unknown gunman shot him four times in Las Vegas; on September 13, 1996 (six days after the attack), Shakur's bullet wounds ended his life. And only six months later, Shakur's East Coast rival the Notorious B.I.G. was also murdered by gunfire. There was speculation that whoever murdered the Notorious B.I.G. did so to avenge Shakur's death, but nothing has ever been proven.
If gangsta rap hadn't received enough negative publicity in the late '80s and early '90s, it received even more when Shakur was killed in 1996. Nonetheless, gangsta rap continued to be incredibly popular and was still going strong when the 21st Century arrived. In 2001 and 2002, gangsta rap's critics weren't any less vocal than they had been 13 and 14 years earlier -- if anything, they had become even more vocal. And even some of gangsta rap's defenders had grown tired of all the predictable artists who kept jumping on the gangsta bandwagon. But despite all those things, the best gangsta albums -- gems like Shakur's Me Against the World, Ice-T's Power and N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton -- continue to hold up well and offer riveting descriptions of the tragic side of urban life.
by Alex Henderson