Gangsta rap is a subgenre of hip-hop music which developed during the late 1980s. Gangsta is a corruption of the word gangster. After the national attention that Ice-T & N.W.A created in the late 80's, gangsta rap became the most commercially lucrative subgenre of hip-hop.
The subject matter inherent in gangsta rap has caused a great deal of controversy. Criticism has come from both right wing and left wing commentators, and religious leaders, who have accused the genre of promoting homophobia, violence, profanity, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, street gangs, drive-by shooting, vandalism, thievery, drug use, racism, and materialism.
Some commentators (for example, Spike Lee in his satirical film Bamboozled) have 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, and acted in a stereotypically uncultured and ignorant manner for the entertainment of white audiences. Gangsta rappers often defend themselves by claiming that they are describing the reality of inner-city life, and that they are only adopting a character, like an actor playing a role, which behaves in ways that they may not necessarily endorse.
Philadelphia MC Schoolly D can probably be credited as the first rapper to use the word "gangster" in one of his songs. In his 1984 12" single "Gangster Boogie" he mentions it with "I shot call a with my gangster lean". He released the 12" single "P.S.K." (short for Park Side Killers) in 1985. 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. Schoolly D is often considered a pioneer in hardcore rap as well as gangsta rap. His fellow Philadelphian, Steady B, also helped pave the way for gangsta rap's popularity.
In 1986, 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. 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.
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.
The Beastie Boys, while never credited as gangsta rappers, were one of the first groups to identify themselves as "gangsters", and one of the first popular rap groups to talk about violence, drug and alcohol use. 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 Whiffle-ball 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 their early underground days, 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 N.W.A's early albums.
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. Eric 'Eazy-E' Wright was The founder of N.W.A. As well as Ruthless records. 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 FBI Assistant Director, Milt Ahlerich, 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. In 1990, former N.W.A member Ice Cube would further influence gangsta rap with his hardcore, socio-political solo albums.
The rap group Run DMC are often credited with popularizing hardcore and abrasive attitudes and lyrics in hip hop culture, and were one of the first rap groups to dress in gang-like street clothing. Their socially conscious lyrics and the influence of rappers like Kool G Rap and Rakim would later influence socially conscious gangsta rappers and hardcore rappers such as Ice Cube and Nas. Rappers such as Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, the group EPMD, and the seminal hardcore group Public Enemy would further popularize hard-hitting, aggressive, often socio-political lyrics, sometimes revolving around street violence, poverty, and gunplay. Aside from N.W.A. and Ice T, early West Coast rappers include Too Short (from Oakland, California), Kid Frost (who was an important Latin MC), and others from Compton, Watts, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco. Kool G Rap used 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. The group 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 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.
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 (All Eyez on Me, 1996) has endured as one of the most successful and influential 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.
Meanwhile, rappers from New York City, such as Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo (Live and Let Die, 1992, Black Moon (Enta Da Stage, 1993), Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993), Onyx (Bacdafucup, 1993), Mobb Deep (The Infamous, 1995), Nas (Illmatic, 1994), the Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die, 1994), and Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, 1995) 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 Entertainment 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.
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.
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 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. Ice Cube is seen to have contributed to gangsta rap's move towards conquering the pop charts, as he produced albums which included 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"), Mase ("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, such as G-Unit and Jay-Z, originated from the gritty East Coast rap scene and were influenced by hardcore artists such as the Notorious B.I.G and Nas. Mase, Jay-Z and Cam'Ron are also typical of the more relaxed, casual flow that became the pop-gangsta norm. Many of these artists are viewed as being rather illegitimately "gangsta" compared to their West Coast counterparts.
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.