Gangsta Rap is a subgenre of hip hop music which involves a lyrical focus on the lifestyles of inner-city or "da hood" gang members and other criminals. Often the artists themselves are gang members, or at least claim to have been. Although crime and violence have always been part of hip hop's lyrical canon, before the rise of gangsta rap the subject was not often embraced or addressed so blatantly. Gangsta rap also signalled a decline in mainstream popularity of socially conscious lyrics put forward by golden age artists. Gangsta rap was pioneered by Ice T, N.W.A., MC Eiht and other rappers who were influenced by Schoolly D's hardcore rap but still mixed in social commentary in their lyrics. Artists such as Ice Cube, Mixmasta G-Munnie, MC J-Hunnie, and 2Pac would go on to further popularize gangsta rap.
With the popularity of Dr Dre's The Chronic in 1992, gangsta rap became the most commercially lucrative subgenre of hip-hop. Since then some former gangsta rap artists have moved towards a more pop-friendly mainstream sound.
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, promiscuity, lack of morality, 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 majority of sales of gangsta rap albums are from white buyers, 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). On the other hand there are rappers like Sacramento rapper Brotha Lynch Hung Lynch whose second album Season of Da Siccness in 1995 proved to be the one of the rawest, most gruesome, and misogynistic gangsta rap albums ever released, graphically chronicling a life of gang life with crip affiliation, drug use and sale, promiscuity, gang wars, ultra-violence, rape, infanticide, and even cannibalism.
More recently, gangsta rappers are endorsing a controversial tactic to avoid talking with police. It's called "Stop Snitchin'" 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, as well as to frighten anyone with information about their crimes from reporting to the police. The perceived response to such reporting is retaliatory violence against the snitch.
Descriptions of urban violence exist within various forms of folk music. The ballad of Stagolee, probably originating before the turn of the 19th century, describes a gambling-related shooting incident and has been recorded by over a hundred blues artists.
The album Hustler's Convention by Lightnin Rod was released in 1973. The lyrics deal with street life, including pimping and hustling. The Last Poet Jalal Mansur Nuriddin delivers the rhyming vocals in the urban slang of his time, and together with the other Last Poets was quite influential on later hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy.
Ice T, among many other rappers, has credited pimp and writer Iceberg Slim with influencing his rhymes.
There is also a long tradition of "gunman" lyrics in Jamaican music, which had a strong influence on South Bronx MC KRS-1.
LL Cool J can probably be credited as the first rapper to use the word "gangsta" in one of his songs. In I Can't Live Without my Radio, from his 1985 album Radio, he mentions it twice with "i'm a hip-hop gangsta" and "and a gangsta rock". Philadelphia MC Schoolly D released the 12" single "P.S.K." (short for Park Side Killers) in 1986. In this song Schoolly D makes direct references to his crew or gang (PSK) as well as describing putting his pistol against another rapper's head.
In the same year, Los Angeles-based rapper Ice T released "6 n the Mornin", which is often regarded as the first gangsta rap song. Ice T had been MCing since the early '80s; his first song, "The Coldest Rap", was the first hiphop song to use the words ho and nigga, and included references to guns and pimping.
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 Six In The Morning. 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 shit!" 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 Six In The Morning. 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."
Ice T continued to release gangsta albums for the remainder of the decade: 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.
The Beastie Boys, while never truly credited as gangsta rappers, were actually one of the first groups to identify themselves as "gangsters" on their acclaimed and commercially successful 1986 debut album, Licensed to Ill. They were also one of the first popular rap groups to talk about violence, drug and alcohol use, and themes common in gangsta rap today. According to "Rolling Stone" magazine, "Licensed to Ill is filled with enough references to guns, drugs, and empty sex (including the pornographic deployment of a Whiffle-ball bat in "Paul Revere") to qualify as a gangsta-rap cornerstone." In their early underground days, the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.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 all of N.W.A's early albums.
The Beastie Boys continued to produce proto-gangsta rap tracks on their 1989 album Paul's Boutique, which included such hardcore tracks as "Car Thief," "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun," and "High-Plains Drifter."
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-1 describes shooting rival weed-dealers after they try to kill him in his home. The album Criminal Minded followed in 1987. Shortly after the release of the album, BDP's DJ Scott LaRock was shot and killed. After this BDP's subsequent records focused on conscious lyrics instead.
N.W.A. released their first single in 1986. They were crucial to the foundations of the genre for introducing more violent lyrics over much rougher beats. The first blockbuster gangsta 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. Due to the influence of Ice T and N.W.A., gangsta rap is often credited as being an originally West Coast phenomenon.
Aside from N.W.A. and Ice T, early West Coast rappers include Too $hort (from Oakland, California), Kid Frost (who was an important Latin MC), and others from Compton, Watts, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco. On the East Coast, New York's Kool G Rap began to use more and more crime-related themes in his lyrics towards the end of the decade.
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. Ice T attracted a lot of media attention for the Cop Killer controversy.
His next album, Home Invasion, was postponed as a result of the controversy, and was finally released in 1993. While it still contained gangsta elements, it was his most political album to date. After that, he left Time-Warner 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 Fuck?" in 1994.
G-funk and Death Row Records
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 also began the subgenre 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 at 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), now known as Snoop Dogg, 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 and influential 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 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.
New York City Gangsta Rap
Meanwhile, rappers from New York City like Black Moon (Enta Da Stage, 1993), Wu-Tang Clan(Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993), Mobb Deep (The Infamous, 1995), Nas (Illmatic, 1994) and the Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die, 1994) pioneered a grittier sound known as East Coast 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. It is widely speculated that 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". Although Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records fared better than its West Coast rival, it continued to lose popularity and support of the hip hop fan base with a more mainstream sound, and challenges from Atlanta and, especially, Master P's No Limit stable of popular rappers.
Southern and Midwestern gangsta rap
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.
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 were less 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 acclaimed album E 1999 Eternal. Their fast, harmonizing vocals (coupled with their fast rap delivery) changed the limitations of gangsta rap.
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 signalled 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").
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. Although some of these artists are seen as gangsta (Jay-Z being a notable example), many of these artists are considered to be less gangsta than 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.