Gangsta rap

Gangsta rap, also known as hardcore hip-hop refers to a subgenre of hip hop (rap music) which involves a lyrical focus on African American inner-city (ghetto) problems, and the violent lives and lifestyles of street-thugs and gangsters.

Although drug dealing and related violence have always been part of earlier hip hop's lyrical canon, these were rarely handled with a "hard edge," or with negative expression —hip-hop for the most part simply echoed the positive soul music of the 1970s. Gangsta rap, however, focuses upon, and often embraces, the crime lifestyles of drug dealers, thugs, and criminals of the street.

The term "Gangsta rap" is usually used to refer to music coming from the West Coast or the South hip hop scenes —East Coast hip hop artists and fans may tend to use the "hardcore hip-hop" designation —in tribute to modern rap's early roots in (largely East-coast) hip-hop. The subgenre is notable for being by far the most commercially successful strand of hip hop and achieved considerable chart dominance during the later two-thirds of the 1990s, when many artists 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 perceived 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 ghetto 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 have even criticized it as analogous to minstrel shows and blackface performance, in which African-Americans or whites, made to look like black caricatures, 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).

Gangsta rap in the 1980s

Los Angeles' Ice T is often credited as the first gangsta rapper due to his influential "Sixn' da Mornin'" and other aggressive, gritty recordings (like Rhyme Pays, 1987), though many other artists such as Philadelphia's Schoolly D (The Adventures of Schoolly D, 1987, and the song 'PSK'), Kool G Rap ("It's a Demo", "I'm Fly"), NWA and BDP's first album Criminal Minded are crucial to the foundations of the genre. Gangsta rap is usually credited as being an originally West Coast phenomenon, due to the influence of Ice-T and N.W.A., though Schoolly D, BDP and Kool G Rap are East Coast rappers. Other major influences include the pioneering hardcore work of politically-aware performers like Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988), Ice Cube (AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, 1990) and Boogie Down Productions (Criminal Minded, 1987), and the similarly "poetic gangsta" prose and poetry of Ice-T's namesake, Iceberg Slim, and the Lightning Rod album Hustler's Convention. Kool G Rap's epic tales helped inspire the related Mafioso rap phenomenon, which later achieved some mainstream success and great critical acclaim in 1995 (see 1995 in music) with albums like Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and AZ's Do or Die and Mobb Deep's The Infamous.

Hip hop moves west and gangsta rap appears

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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 hardcore hip hop artists, including most notably Ice-T, gained underground fame in the Los Angeles area during the early 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 bares virtually no resemblance to modern forms of gangsta rap. Aside from N.W.A. and Ice-T, early West Coast gangsta rappers include Too $hort (from Oakland, California) 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 the West Coast gangsta rap album Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. in 1989 (see 1989 in music). 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

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Dr. Dre's The Chronic
Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle
Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle
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Nas' Illmatic

In 1992 (see 1992 in music) 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 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. One of the genre's biggest crossover stars was Dre's protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg (Doggystyle, 1993), whose party-oriented themes made songs like "Gin and Juice" party anthems and top hits nationwide. New York City native 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.

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. 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

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, with 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 gangsta rap artists such as Da Brat (Funkdafied, 1994), and himself. Perhaps the most famous gangsta rapper from the South is Ludacris (Word of Mouf, 2001) who would became an enormously successful and extraordinarily prolific pop/gangsta-rap star for Def Jam in the 21st century.

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.

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 lay firmly outside of the pop mainstream. However, the rise of Bad Boy Records signaled a major stylistic change in gangsta rap, as it morphed into a new subgenre of hip hop which would become even more commercially successful and become completely absorbed into the mainstream musical fabric of America. 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 with 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. After Biggie's death, Bad Boy's Puff Daddy continued to bring pop and gangsta rap closer together : the references to guns, drug dealing and life as a thug on the street remained, but the production style changed from the early darker, sample-heavy sound to a cleaner, more upbeat sound that was fashioned for direct pop audience consumption. 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.

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 gangsta 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 featured 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 signing with Eminem's Shady Records and releasing the album Get Rich or Die Tryin', before launching numerous similarly styled affiliate artists such as Lloyd Banks and The Game. 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.

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