GANGSTA RAP MADE ME DO IT
Growing up a white male in middle class suburbia I listened to a lot of music. I spun my dad’s Zeppelin records and made pop punk and hardcore bands with my friends. One genre however that managed to elude me was Gangsta Rap. Sure I could rap the verses of “Party and Bullshit” in Roger’s backyard while we were all drinking his dad’s beers, and of course my friends and I would obnoxiously blare N.W.A. while driving around in my mom’s car. But the subtle nuances and cultural influence got lost in translation behind the chauvinistic raunchiness. So I decided to give myself a Gangsta Rap reboot of sorts. Naively I wrote “Gangster Rap” on a page in my notebook and stuck my headphones in. I fully submerged myself in the genre for weeks to try and understand the hype as well as help me think differently towards other musical genres.
What I found was this.
In the late 80s and early 90s a new form of storytelling gripped America. Some people saw it to be grotesque, while others beautiful, and just like any good art it was shrouded in controversy. It’s hard for us to imagine a time when hip-hop culture wasn’t as mainstream as it is now- just as it’s important to remember that Led Zeppelin was the heaviest thing anyone had ever heard when they first came out- but Gangsta Rap broke barriers. The lower class finally had a voice; one that people wanted to hear. As this art form has continued to capture the attention of people all over the world, the passion has been reignited by Hollywood through movie magic, such as the 2009 film Notorious that chronicled the martyrdom of The Notorious B.I.G. and the current box office smash Straight Outta Compton, the story of N.W.A.
“Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood, and it’s still all good.” – The Notorious B.I.G.
The biggest controversy around Gangsta Rap is the adverse implications the genre has had on societal issues, specifically the influence on youth. The argument is consistently made that listening to violent lyrics and supporting music that often has malicious tones, perpetuates those ideas in our society. A quick Google search will turn up limitless articles condemning the culture.
Brent Staples, a black author who has been outspoken about the effects of rap music on popular culture, wrote one such article. In August of 1993, as the debate about rap raged on, the New York Times published an editorial by Staples titled “The Politics of Gangster Rap”. In it Staples argues that the music is encouraging African American youth to idolize people who have been deemed criminals while engaging the listeners in a world where broken homes are normal. The atmosphere created in the rhymes of these Gangsta rappers, like Big L, Ice-T, and anyone else mentioned in this article, is a world where hustling is the best job a man could want.
“In the streets, middle-class normalcy for blacks is viewed as an inferior state of being,” Staples wrote. “The news and entertainment industries are often in complicity with this attitude. That’s unfortunate because cultural ideology is powerful, especially in the lives of the young. It determines how we see them, how they see themselves and, to a large extent, what they aspire to become.”
Staples, and others who argue the detriment of Gangsta Rap, both angered, ill-informed parents and well-read scholars alike, do have facts supporting them.
“And the streets to a player is the place to be. Got a knot in my pocket, weighing at least a grand. Gold on my neck, pistols close at hand. I’m a self-made monster of the city streets, remotely controlled by hard hip-hop beats.” – Ice-T
WebMD published a study in March 2003 that showed teens who consistently spend time watching the violence and sexuality being depicted in rap music videos are more likely to exhibit the behaviours themselves. The study concluded that those subjected to the videos would be over two and a half times more likely to get arrested; twice as likely to have multiple sexual partners; one and a half times more likely to get an STD, use drugs or alcohol; and three times more likely to hit a teacher, than those who did not watch rap videos.
What studies like this fail to illustrate is the demographics that Gangsta Rap is targeted at tend to already be at high risk of committing illicit behaviours.
“I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death. Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined. I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.” – Nas
Dr. Amal Saleeby Malek has a PhD in Human Sciences from Notre Dame University in Louaize and has published numerous studies and articles on language and education. She wrote a chapter called “Violence in Lanugage: Is Rap Music Causing Violence in America?” where Dr. Malek concludes that, “To say that rap music causes violence is a misdiagnosis.” She continues, “People concerned should look at the root of the problem and rap is nobly a symptom of this illness. Rap is one way in which people express themselves, and thus reflects a certain economic and social aspect of reality. The answer to ending gang violence is not in limiting the artistic expression in rap music. Although it has an influence on the public who listens to it, rap is not the reason for society’s troubles. It is rather the consequence of those troubles.”
However, one quintessential thread of the rap tapestry is “bitches”. Gangsta Rap music has thrown a wrench into the machine that is, evolving gender issues. The way they talk about women is ruthless and definitely adds to the hard persona of being a gangsta, but to what avail? The argument made by the rappers basically boils down to poetic licensing. Ice Cube addressed N.W.A.’s lyrical disrespect toward women in a recent interview with Rolling Stone: “If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us. If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn’t be jumping to the defense of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that’s men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.”
“Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model? To a kid lookin’ up to me, life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.” – Ice Cube
Maybe my journalistically trained mind has become hypersensitive to women’s issues after media has spotlighted them, with Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby and the whole slew of other men who have been accused of assaulting women. Dr. Dre has had a rocky past of getting rough with women and recently he issued a public apology directed at the women he assaulted. From the same Rolling Stone interview Ice Cube was quoted in, Dr. Dre attempts to explain himself after he made his public apology, “I was young, fucking stupid. I would say all the allegations aren’t true – some of them are. Those are some of the things that I would like to take back. It was really fucked up. But I paid for those mistakes, and there’s no way in hell that I will ever make another mistake like that again.”
While his motives remain mysterious, the timing was well placed for a PR boost. One of the women he assaulted, Dee Barnes, is a journalist and female MC. She responded to the apology in an article published on Gawker: “The hypocrisy of it all is appalling. This is bigger than me, and bigger than hip-hop. This is about respect and awareness,” Barnes wrote. “No one wants to see their heroes criticized.”
Regardless of his past, Dr. Dre’s new and final album Compton has seen critical success after its release on August 7. The all-star roster of featured rappers draws in from all corners of the genre. The album was announced with only a week’s notice but still the hype was everywhere. The sound is new yet nostalgic, contemporary yet retro, crass yet smooth. In the final track “Talking To My Diary” Dre reminisces about the early days of N.W.A. Compton was produced as a soundtrack for the city that gave the world so much Gangsta Rap.
“Blame it on Ice Cube, because he says it gets funky, when you got a subject and a predicate, add it on a dope beat and that’ll make you think.” – Dr. Dre
One week after Dre released his final album, the new movie chronicling the life of his former group, Straight Outta Compton, hit theatres- hard. I had to go to the theatre three times to finally get in after the first two showings were sold out, and over a week later tickets were still low at theatre in a remote corner of Ottawa, Ontario. Overall the film is phenomenally put together. The popularity of the movie highlights the continuing influence Gangsta Rap has on our culture, decades after the OG rap music bubble burst and people are still going crazy for it. Although it does make you wonder, which parts of history were rewritten? What if Eazy-E had a say in the movie? As I mentioned before, the plot stays far away from any gender issues. However the argument could be made that it was not the reality these young guys were facing on a day-to-day basis, both them and the women of Compton were more worried about gun violence and a little misogyny was the least of their problems. Very similar in both content and production to Notorious and the fictional Hustle & Flow (2005), Straight Outta Compton tells the West Coast side of the story, featuring the playas of N.W.A. (Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and occasionally Arabian Prince) along with some of their contemporaries, Tupac Shakur, The D.O.C., Suge Knight, Warren G, and the infamously laodicean Snoop Dogg.
“Indeed, agreed proceed to smoke weed. Never have a want, never have a need.” – Snoop Dogg
The most important part of the film, relating to our current societal turmoil, was the feeling of helplessness when put up against police. As many teenagers do, I had a few run-ins with the police when I was growing up. Some of them were deserved, but most of them were not. My friends and I will never forget the night we got pulled off of Corey’s driveway in our sleepy middle-class town and slammed onto his front lawn by the PD Tactical Unit, guns and the whole shebang, because apparently we were brandishing a weapon. We were teenagers walking around past 9pm and targeted without just reason or evidence. I’m well aware that our experience that night was much milder than what minorities in low-income neighbourhoods are faced with on a daily basis, but I will always remember the utter uselessness of trying to sensibly talk to a police officer with a gun. Watching Straight Outta Compton, I could almost taste the suburban grass in my mouth.
North America has had a tumultuous year, to say the least, in dealing with police brutality. Sickeningly similar to the unjust beating of Rodney King and following riots, we, as a global community, have been coping with the fallout of the cold blooded murders of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and unfortunately so many others, with little to no repercussions for their murderers. Straight Outta Compton is doing well for the Black Lives Matter cause. The most powerful, poignant and influential part of rap music (and journalism for that matter) is keeping authority in check, and speaking up for those who can’t.
“The silly mothafucka pulls out a deuce deuce, little did he know I had a loaded twelve gauge. One sucka dead LA Times front page.” – Eazy-E
So what is it about Gangsta Rap that people love? The way the words fit together like puzzle pieces makes you think about language and how we use it. It’s a lot easier for anyone to memorize their favourite rapper’s verse after listening to it a few times than nailing a guitar riff or drum fill, because words come naturally to all humans. The element of escapism is real and present, many rappers have come under fire for fabricating street stories, but who doesn’t want to feel like a powerful gangsta riding the talent from nowhere to now here? The subtle nuances need to be observed, each neighbourhood has a feel and each artist has a message, Gangsta Rap has a wide spectrum with Biggie on one side, N.W.A. on the other and Snoop Dogg somewhere in between. The violence is what makes it exciting, similar to an action movie, and the beef between artists, disses and calling each other out, keeps the story fluid. And not to forget the shock value, the rebellious teenagers blaring music their parents hate because of the raunchy hardcore lyrics.
“It’s not about a salary it’s all about reality.” – KRS One
After three weeks of listening to nothing but Gangsta Rap from the late 80s and early 90s, my music senses were revitalized, and I felt like I was ready to release my own mix. The immersion made listening to folk music or indie rock songs the aural equivalent to inhaling a big breathe of fresh air after chewing mint gum. In contrast to the graphic lyrics and heavy beats (although not completely unlike some of the metal and hardcore bands I frequent) the soft sounds of a guitar playing sweet melodies in my head were as welcome as a family member coming home from a long vacation in a foreign land. I did not understand the struggle. I still don’t, and probably never will. But now I can appreciate it. Watch out for “Slingin’ Words Like Crack Rocks” a phresh demo coming this fall from MC GriffDAWG.
Griffin J. Elliot
“The world is yours.” – Nas