I assert that the gangsta narratives of hip hop music provide an outlet for the angst of underprivileged youth. It does not perpetuate notions of violence and crime as much as it reflects that we live in a violent and crime ridden world.
It was political genius. Former president Nixon had already declared a war on drugs in 1971 which enabled him to create the DEA in 1973. By declaring drug abuse a threat to national security in 1981 Ronald Reagan made room for the vicious enforcement of drug laws and by having his first lady begin her campaign to “just say no” his administration won the opinion of the people. After that drug use and drug solicitation were demonized and the cruel punishment against drug offenders was condoned by the public.
For an inner city Black youth, the arrival of drugs was an opportunity to achieve the unachievable: to become wealthy and powerful. It is no surprise that drugs thrived in the ghetto. However, the trap had already been set. The ghettos were filled with Black and Latino youth and, therefore, they were the most prominently affected. The concept of drugs and Black and Latino people became synonymous and this allowed for the support of police harassment and abuse of Black and Latino youth (whether they were involved with drugs or not). Because of the political actions taken in the 70s and 80s, the American public supported the ‘protection of national security’ and in connection the aggressive actions of law enforcement. This created the opposition between those seeking to ‘protect and serve’ and Black and Latino youth. The two quickly became arch enemies. There begins the story of gangsta rap.
The Birth of Gangsta Rap
Gangsta Rap begins with Schoolly D. On the mainstream aspect Ice-T is sometimes credited as being the father of Gangsta Rap; however, he himself states:
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 “6 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 “6 in the Mornin’.”
– Ice T, Ice T Speaks
Schoolly D, a native Philadelphian, began the style of Rap music that would later become Gangsta Rap with his song Gangsta Boogie. His endeavor was not to create a subgenre of Rap, he was doing what all Hip Hop artists do: translate the world the world around them into art. Schoolly D’s world was all about selling dope, getting girls and pulling 8’s. That’s what he rapped about. Ice T, having a familiar experience on the west coast wanted to create a West Coast PSK. One that offered the same unfiltered description of street life but from a West Coast perspective. That’s when Gangsta Rap hit the mainstream.
Gangsta Rap Narratives
Gangsta Rap narratives are urban, gritty, unfiltered, and (of varying degrees connected to the rapper) true. However, not every Gangsta Rap song is some autobiographical anecdote. Some of them are fictional narratives of what could happen, which is no more than a writer writing a story that never really happened but that is connected real life events and subject matter that make it plausible. That being said, over time, certain themes and symbols have been developed.
Some of the themes that are often heard in Gangsta Rap narratives are the conflict between Black youth represented by the rapper or Corner Boys and the Police who represent the systems of oppression. When viewed through the underlying meaning, it is no surprise that Gangsta Rap made into the mainstream. As with any art, people do not have to have the actual experiences in order to relate to the angst of the charaacters. The same is true with Rap music. The character in the narrative (which may or may not be the rapper himself) is in a struggle with the established customs and beliefs. This character is seeking to make it by any means necessary and against all opposition. It’s a classic underdog story. Who doesn’t root for the underdog??
The problem is that we as fans and listeners only appreciate those narratives given by those who have actually lived the narratives they rap about. For Hip Hop heads and fans, we feel an artist isn’t keeping it real if they, themselves, have not directly participated in the activities they rap about. As a born and raised BBoy (Bronx Boy), I can remember looking out the window, sitting on the front stoop, or standing on the fire escape and seeing that lifestyle being lived out on the street. It was my world even though I did not actively live it myself. Even Tupac himself admits that his time selling drugs was short lived and he was encouraged by the true dope boys to not bother because he could do other things.
The other side is that in the mainstream, the assumption is that these gangsta rappers have lived, do live, and glorify that lifestyle. In that view these artists are demonized for speaking their truth. However, Gangsta Rap exists and it has a following and it serves the ultimate purpose of Hip Hop: to give voice to the voiceless. Without these narratives, America might have continued to ignore these individuals and the environments in which they were living. Without these voices, the major mainstream efforts to reduce the violence and crime associated with gang culture might never have happened.
I submit to you that the 2 major purposes of Gangsta Rap narratives are to bring to light the reality of a disenfranchised group in our society that would normally go ignored and to rebel against the forces of oppression that keep them there. That is why the narratives are filled with violence, crime, and a drive for material success. It is because material success is what America has promised its citizens and violence and crime is what many of them get.
Hip Hop, like life, is not perfect and flawless, actually it is quite flawed but it reflects the true flaws that exist in our society. It speaks for those who would otherwise be ignored because they are already ostracized from mainstream society because of their inability to relate to or align with the avenues of mainstream society. Yet, they are the greatest truth of our society, because they reflect the values of our society. The Gangsta Rap narratives are about those in our society who have to find their own avenue to the same ends that we all are encouraged to strive towards. Don’t hate the player; hate the game.
I’m not just sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man