Gangsta Rap is a style/sub-genre of hip hop characterized by themes and lyrics that emphasize a “gangsta” lifestyle. The subject matter can vary but one common element is that the rappers refer to themselves as gangsters and/or thugs.
The genre evolved from hardcore rap into a distinct form, that focused on the harsh realities life in the street and gang culture. Many gangsta rap artists openly boast of their associations with various active street gangs as part of their artistic image, with the Crips and Bloods being the most commonly represented.
SOUND AND CONTENT
Gangsta Rap is a subgenre characterized more by the artists than the songs. If an artist has referred to themselves in song as a gangster or marketed their self as a gangster than he or she can be put into the subgenre but make music that differs from other gangsta rap artists. Due to this the styles of Gangsta Rap vary considerably from rapping styles, content, and production.
Some Gangsta Rap is referred to as “reality rap” meaning that it tells the harsh reality of the crime and violence in the streets. The difference between Gangsta Rap and other “reality rap” is that in Gangsta Rap, the rapper will often allude to himself as an active participant in the crime and violence. Sometimes this can be told with a story or just a braggadocio rap about how tough or threatening they are. The typical image of Gangsta Rap will often revolve around guns and shooting rival gang members or police. However, plenty aspects of life and content are addressed in Gangsta Rap. Rappers may rap about sexual encounters, losing friends or family to violence in the streets, the drug game, or various other reflections of experiences in the hood.
Conscious/Political Gangsta Rap
Although some Gangsta Rap embraces immoral behavior for shock value, some Gangsta Rap is a legit criticism of the government. For artists such as Tupac, the line between what would be Gangsta Rap and what would be viewed more as political rap is very blurry. Generally though, political rappers such as Paris and Public Enemy would make music from the position that they were moral activists fighting for a positive cause. Even if there music included violence they would describe themselves as militant, but never gangsters or criminals. Whereas Gangsta Rap has more of a message of vengeance and embraces the image of being the villain. Not only by referring to themselves as gangsters, criminals, and thugs but by cussing more, using the N-word more, and generally more disrespectful language.
Many of the most popular songs from Gangsta Rap artists are actually party songs such as Dr. Dre’s “Nothin But a G Thang”, Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice”, Tupac’s “California Love”, and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” These happier songs work well for the more casual audience that embraces the “gangsta” image for being cool and edgy, but don’t actually embrace songs that contain excessive vulgarity, violence, and/or misogyny.
G-Funk is the most popular subgenre of Gangsta Rap. It features a slow, drawled form of hip hop that extensively sampled P-Funk bands, especially Parliament and Funkadelic. G-funk was multi-layered, and included melody that was simple and easy to dance to. The lyrics were often delivered in a more laid-back fashion than most rap music and often implied that life’s problems could be overcome by guns, alcohol, and marijuana.
Mafioso Rap, is a hip hop micro-genre which first started in the late 1980s and later flourished in the mid-1990s. It is the pseudo-Mafia extension of East Coast hardcore rap. It is characterized by themes and lyrics that emphasize a “mafia” lifestyle. This includes self-indulgence, materialism, killings, drug dealing, drug trafficking and other luxuries of a mobster. Many of the rappers adopted aliases based off of legendary gangsters and make references towards notorious crime organizations.
Sound and Content Summary
Summary of Common Elements of Hardcore Rap Music
- Alludes to being affiliated with a crime family that can be referred to as a gang, thugs, mob, and/or mafia.
- Edgy content that reflects the criminal underworld
OGs – Original Gangsters (1985-1987)
The first Gangsta Rap record was 1985’s “P.S.K.” by Philly rapper Schoolly D. P.S.K. stood for Park Side Killers, a gang in Philadelphia. The first verse of the song was about picking a woman that turned out to be a prostitute and the second verse ended with him pulling a gun on somebody for stealing his rap style but then deciding to outrap the guy instead. The song is noted for featuring graphic sex, gunplay, buying and using drugs, and use of the word “nigga” which were all incredibly rare to hear in music. After P.S.K. Schoolly D continued to release songs around similar topics but never reached mainstream popularity.
The Beastie Boys were one of the first groups to identify themselves as “gangsters”, and one of the first popular rap groups to talk about violence and drug and alcohol use, though largely in a more humorous manner. Their 1986 album Licensed to Ill is “filled with enough references to guns, drugs, and empty sex to qualify as a gangsta-rap cornerstone.” In 1986, the Los Angeles-based group C.I.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. The Beasties’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique also included the similarly themed tracks “Car Thief,” “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and “High-Plains Drifter.”
Los Angeles rapper Ice-T was a big fan of the song and patterned a song named “6 in the Mornin” after the cadence of “P.S.K.” While Schoolly D name dropped a gang a gave a glimpse of gang culture in the song, Ice-T decided to make a grittier, more graphic Gangsta Rap song inspired by his own gang affiliation called “6 in the Morning” in 1986.
Boogie Down Productions
Around the same time, the New York crew Boogie Down Productions released the song “9mm Goes Bang.” In this gangsta-themed song KRS-One boasts about shooting a crack dealer and his posse to death in self-defense. The album Criminal Minded followed in March of 1987, and was the first rap album to have firearms on its cover. Shortly after the release of this album, BDP’s DJ, Scott LaRock was shot and killed. After this, BDP’s subsequent records were more socially conscious.
West Coast Dominance (1987-96)
Gangsta Rap became a full fledge subgenre due to its explosion of popularity in the late 1980s primarily from West Coast artists. It served as a direct reflection of the gang culture that existed in California with many of the rappers being actual gang members or affiliates. The song content could vary but often included the rapper embracing the villain role by bragging about making illegal money, disrespecting women, challenging police, embracing pimp culture or promiscuity, glorifying violence, and other various ways. Due to the increase of cusswords, gunplay, graphic sex, drugs, and popularity it became a controversial but wildly successful and influential style of rap.
After his underground hit “6 in the Morning,” Ice-T rose to prominence inspiring the Gangsta Rap wave that became synonymous with West Coast Hip Hop. Ice-T continued to release gangsta albums for the remainder of the 1980s: Rhyme Pays in July of 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.
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. Particular controversy surrounded one of its songs “Cop Killer”. The rock song was intended to speak from the viewpoint of a police target seeking revenge on racist, brutal cops. Ice-T’s rock song infuriated government officials, the National Rifle Association and various police advocacy groups. Consequently, Time Warner Music refused to release Ice-T’s upcoming album Home Invasion and dropped Ice-T from the label. Ice-T suggested that the furor over the song was an overreaction, telling journalist Chuck Philips “… they’ve done movies about nurse killers and teacher killers and student killers. Arnold Schwarzenegger blew away dozens of cops as the Terminator. But I don’t hear anybody complaining about that.”
Ice-T’s 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 a proposed censoring of the Home Invasion album cover art, he left Warner Bros. 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.
To end out 1987 N.W.A. released their debut album “N.W.A. and the Posse.” The album was successful but N.W.A.’s sophomore effort, “Straight Outta Compton” in August of 1988 really brought Gangsta Rap into the mainstream going triple platinum with no radio airplay. The songs were more savage than the Gangsta Rap before as it appeared to favor raising hell and humor over intellectual social criticism. Also, where Ice-T and KRS-One appeared to give a more balanced and suttle take on the gangster lifestyle, N.W.A. glamorized it in an overly aggressive loud delivery that really resonated across the country. For the first time, Los Angeles became a legitimate rival to the New York Hip Hop.
The album especially caused major controversy regarding the lyrics to the song “Fuck tha Police” which earned a letter from FBI Assistant Director, Milt Ahlerich, strongly expressing expressing law enforcement’s resentment of the song. Due to the influence of Ice-T, N.W.A, and Ice Cube’s early solo career, gangsta rap is often somewhat erroneously credited as being only a West Coast phenomenon, despite the contributions of East Coast acts like Boogie Down Productions in shaping the genre and despite Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D being generally regarded as the first gangsta rapper.
During this time, N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin in May of 1991, broke ground as the first gangsta rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Afterwards, Dr. Dre left N.W.A as well to form Death Row Records.
Ice Cube Solo
In the early 1990s, former N.W.A member Ice Cube would further influence gangsta rap with a string of four platinum albums featuring his hardcore, socio-political solo albums, which suggested the potential of gangsta rap as a political medium to give voice to inner-city youth. Another success was Ice Cube’s Predator album, released at about the same time as The Chronic in 1992. It sold over 5 million copies and was #1 in the charts, propelled by the hit single “It Was a Good Day”.
Death Row Records & G-Funk
Dr. Dre joined Suge Knight to create Death Row Records and started the dominance of the label with the release of The Chronic in December of 1992. The album became a massive seller going triple platinum and was the first explicit gangsta rap album that could hold mass commercial appeal just like pop-oriented rappers such as MC Hammer, The Fresh Prince, and Tone Lōc. The album established the dominance of West Coast gangsta rap, Death Row Records, and the new G-funk sound.
G-funk extensively sampled P-Funk bands, especially Parliament and Funkadelic. It was multi-layered, slow, synthesizer heavy sound that was simple and easy to dance to. Many of the songs strayed away from the typical violence of Gangsta rap and instead included a message that life’s problems could be overcome by guns, alcohol, and marijuana. The single “Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang” became a crossover hit, with its humorous, House Party-influenced video becoming an MTV staple despite that network’s historic orientation towards rock music.
One of the genre’s biggest crossover stars was Dre’s protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg who debuted in November of 1993 with Doggystyle. Snoop’s exuberant, party-oriented themes made songs such as “Gin and Juice” club anthems and top hits nationwide.
In 1996, 2Pac signed with Death Row and released the multi-platinum double album All Eyez on Me. Not long afterward, his shocking murder brought gangsta rap into the national headlines and propelled his posthumous The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory album to the top of the charts.
Warren G was another G-funk musician along with the now deceased Nate Dogg. Other successful G-Funk influenced artists included Spice 1, MC Eiht and MC Ren, all of them reaching decent positions on the Billboard 100, in spite of not being associated with Death Row.
Along with the rappers that have ties to G-Funk, Vince Staples is part of the new generation of rappers that is influenced by G-Funk. Being from the same area as Snoop himself, Staples has a sound that is lyrically in comparison to Gangsta Rap. His album, Summertime ’06, reflects the “challenges of racism, injustice, and violent fallouts in his childhood neighborhood.”
East Coast Gangsta Rap of the 90s
Kool G Rap
Kool G Rap is often credited as the first rapper to infuse his lyrics with the mafioso style gangsta rap and hardcore street content. This can be seen as early as 1989 in the song “Road to the Riches” where he makes a reference to Al Pacino ( who played Michael Corleone in [[ The Godfather]] and mobster Tony Montana in the 1983 crime drama movie Scarface).
Since his debut, he has used various references to mob movies in his lyrics, album covers, titles, and has directly sampled clips of mob films in his music. Rolling Stone says, “before Kool G Rap, New York didn’t really have the street rap that could hold its own against what artists such as L.A.’s Ice-T and N.W.A were churning out” and that “G Rap excelled at the street narrative”. His take on crime, violence, and the mafioso lifestyle ranges from remorse and contemplation to glorification.
In the East Coast, alternative acts such as the Native Tongues collective dominated the late 80s and early 90s but by the mid 1990s East Coast hardcore rap had re-established itself on top. Hardcore rap albums such as Nas’ Illmatic and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die achieved high critical success. These albums were not primarily gangsta themed but paved the way for a resurgence that included East Coast Gangsta Rap albums.
Gangsta Rapper Big L developed a strong underground following with his debut album in March of 1995 and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous album that debuted a month later went gold. However, the albums that truly competed with the West Coast dominance were Mafioso albums that featured a more organized crime, Italian Mafia inspired Gangsta Rap. The first of which outside of Kool G Rap’s music was Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx which debuted in August of 1995.
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
OB4CL popularized street-related, Mafioso rap that permeated the hip hop world. It loosely is composed to play like a film with Raekwon as the “star,” fellow Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah as the “guest-star,” and producer RZA as the “director.” The album refers to “Wu-Gambinos” in various occurrences; the term being a name for the ‘alter-egos’ of the rappers involved in Cuban Linx, and used on various later projects. The act of taking the name of a famous mafioso character, or creating one’s own, was first popularized by the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas with their adoption of the “Wu-Gambino” aliases, which appeared on this album. These alter-egos inspired an already dissociative hip-hop world to adopt new names and personae, from Nas’ Escobar moniker to Notorious B.I.G.’s Frank White counterpart, which he would go on to further utilize upon the release of OB4CL.
Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt
Reasonable Doubt is the debut studio album by American rapper Jay-Z. It was released in June of 1996, by Roc-A-Fella Records and Priority Records. The album contains gritty lyrics about the “hustler” lifestyle and material obsessions, but separates itself from other Mafioso rap themed albums as there as higher emphasis on analyzing how the lifestyle has affected his peace of mind similar to Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album two years before.
Songs address topics such as stress, regrets, questioning if the ends justify the means, friends becoming enemies, and arguing how selling drugs is not the “easy” way out when considering all the ills that come with it. Jay-Z later said, “the studio was like a psychiatrist’s couch for me” while recording Reasonable Doubt. Although other Mafioso rappers had some experience or connection to the drug game, often the personas they created were largely exaggerated.
Jay Z had a unique balance of being cocky, but playful and witty, even with heavy subject matter. His flow also exuded an effortless unaffected cool rarely heard in Hip Hop.
Nas – It Was Written
Released a week after Reasonable Doubt in July of 1996, Nas’ It Was Written is his second studio album and his only album that was primarily Mafioso themed. It is also Nas’ highest selling album of all time.
It was a departure from the Boom Bap of Illmatic and contained a more polished, mainstream sound relying heavily on sampled and looped funk grooves often found in G-Funk. The album features mafioso and gangsta themes, and marks the first appearance of Nas’s short-lived supergroup The Firm. However, his stylistic changes and increased mainstream success fostered accusations of selling out within the hip hop community.
It Was Written has Nas taking on the theatrical mafioso concept under the alias of “Nas Escobar” which was inspired by the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The album’s subject matter contains vivid cinematic storytelling of crime drama as well as a high focus on materialistic excess. It Was Written included more direct violence with Nas’ character being directly involved in shootouts and murders in a manner more in common with Gangsta Rap than the typical Mafioso themed albums. The stories are not only rich in detail but show a level of sophistication and complexity difficult to cram into 4-minute songs. Although the album had mixed reviews, it is a favorite by many due to the rare ability Nas showed to tell these fantastical mafia stories.
Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
Released 16 days after his real death, Notorious B.I.G.’s (Biggie) double album “Life After Death” dropped in March of 1997 on Bad Boy Records. The album featured a variety of songs and was certainly not entirely Mafioso themed but Biggie’s sophomore effort clearly delved into the subgenre more than ever before.
The album is a sequel to his first album, Ready to Die, and picks up where the last song, “Suicidal Thoughts”, ends. The intro ends with a flatline that begins the first song on the album “Somebody Gotta Die.”
Life After Death signaled a stylistic change in gangsta rap as it crossed over to the commercial mainstream. Bridging the gap between the gangsta rap and pop rap closer together. The references and rhetoric to violence and drug dealing remained, but the overall production style changed from the darker boom bap sound to a cleaner, sample-heavy, more upbeat sound directed towards the more mainstream audience. In his previous effort, songs were for one audience or the other but Life After Death initiated the transition towards appealing to both crowds in the same record as well as having songs specifically for the different crowds.
Early South and Midwest Gangsta Rap
The early 90s saw the success of Scarface and the Geto Boys from Houston. Their Gangsta Rap contained more horrorcore elements. The came out around the late 1980s and made songs containing both gangsta themes of crime and violence and sociopolitical commentary. The group notably released proto-mafioso rap music with the song “Scarface”, a track centered on selling cocaine and killing rival gang members. The Geto Boys are also known for being the first rap group to sample from the movie Scarface, a film which became the basis for various mafioso rap samples in the 1990s. Furthermore, the Geto Boys, along with Jam Master J’s and Erick Sermon’s group Flatlinerz and Prince Paul’s and RZA’s group Gravediggaz, are often cited as pioneers of “horrorcore” rap, a transgressive and abrasive subgenre of hardcore rap or gangsta rap which focuses on common horror themes, such as the supernatural and the occult, often with gothic or macabre lyrics, satanic imagery, and slasher film or splatter film-like violence.
Bone Thugs N Harmony
Formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1991, the group that would eventually go by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony recorded an album entitled Faces of Death in May of 1993. In November of that year they auditioned for Eazy in his dressing room leading them to be signed to Ruthless Records. Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Bone Thugs, known for their fast, harmonizing vocals coupled with an ultra-quick rap delivery.
Released in June 1994, the EP Creepin on ah Come Up was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s debut with Ruthless. The album’s subject matter was focused almost entirely on violent criminal activity and included two hit singles. After a slow start that saw the album’s success limited to gangsta rap audiences, it broke through to the mainstream. The EP marked a major change in style for the group, as they now fully embraced the G-funk common in West Coast hip hop of the time. Beats were supplied by DJ Yella, Rhythum D, and Kenny McCloud, and it was the group’s first collaboration with newcomer producer DJ U-Neek, who would craft the group’s signature sound by producing the majority of their next two albums. For over a year, Eazy-E nurtured their career, continuing to serve as their executive producer and teaching them the business skills he had taught himself over the years. The growing relationship was cut short, however, when Eazy-E died on March 26, 1995, from complications from AIDS. However, the group’s potential was already apparent, and Ruthless Records continued to support them.
In July of 1995, the group’s second album, E. 1999 Eternal, was released. The album generally saw positive reviews from critics as Bone had diversified its content and musical style. Critics were particularly intrigued by the album due to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s ability to reduce the banality associated with gangsta rap in their music at a time when the subgenre had become exceedingly cliché. A considerable portion of the album’s concept was built upon violent subject matter, yet they also incorporated deeper themes, as its songs dealt with more spirituality and occult mysticism. The album name originated from one of the street names of a corner that was a familiar hangout to the members. E. 1999 Eternal is the group’s most commercially successful album; it has since been certified 5x platinum by the RIAA.
Mainstream Decline in the Late 90s
Before the late 1990s, gangsta rap, while a huge-selling genre, had been regarded as well outside of the pop mainstream, committed to representing the experience of the inner-city and not “selling out” to the pop charts. However, the massive success and deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. signaled a major stylistic shift. The East-West rivalry had stopped, artists were collaborating more within the region and across regions in the peaceful aftermath. Also, the crossover success of Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me” and Biggie’s “Life After Death” influenced hardcore artists to make more crossover friendly music without being as heavily ostracized by Hip Hop fanbase. Moving forward most Gangsta Rap artists made subsequent music that would still reference gang culture but it became more suttle and commercial friendly.
Late 90s to Modern Gangsta Rap
Dirty South Rap
During the late 90s, southern Gangsta Rap merged with the new Dirty South subgenre being developed. Crews such as the New Orlean’s No Limit Soldiers, New Orlean’s Cash Money Records, Memphis’ Hypnotize Minds, Texas’ UGK, and Slip-N-Slide Records all played a major part in the advancement of Dirty South Rap.
50 Cent & G-Unit
In 2003 the emergence of 50 Cent and G-Unit put Gangsta Rap back into the forefront with 50’s debut “Get Rich or Die Tryin” in February of 2003. The album was certified 8x platinum and was followed up with G-Unit’s “Beg For Mercy” in November of 2003 that was certified 4x platinum. Over the next few years the G-Unit releases had less impact but remained a steady presence of Gangsta Rap in the mainstream.
Trap and Drill
Trap music contains plenty of Gangsta Rap elements but tends to focus on being around the drug game or club music. In the 2010s a new form of trap/gangsta rap known as drill emerged from Chicago that focused more on violence. Drill gained popularity by rappers such as Lil Durk, Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and Lil Herb.
Despite this decline, gang culture is still heavily permeated into the mainstream Hip Hop world and music that could be described as being under this subgenre still see good success. Acts such as Cardi B include gangster references in their music and appeal to a wide audience.
Critics & Controversy
The explicit nature of gangsta rap’s lyrics has made it heavily controversial. There is also debate about the causation between gangsta rap and violent behavior. A study by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, Calif., finds young people who listen to rap and hip-hop are more likely to abuse alcohol and commit violent acts.
Critics of gangsta rap hold that it glorifies and encourages criminal behavior, and may be at least partially to blame for the problem of street gangs. Although this view is often stereotyped as that of white conservatives, it has been shared by members of the black community, most notably Bill Cosby.
Those who are supportive or at least less critical of gangsta rap hold that crime on the street level is for the most part a reaction to poverty and that gangsta rap reflects the reality of lower class life. Many believe that the blaming of crime on gangsta rap is a form of unwarranted moral panic; The World Development Report 2011, for instance, confirmed that most street gang members maintain that poverty and unemployment is what drove them to crime; none made reference to music. Ice Cube famously satirized the blame placed on gangsta rap for social ills in his song “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It”.
Hardcore Rap – Rap characterized by anger, aggression, confrontation, and/or the uncensored reflections of street life.
G-Funk Rap – Gangsta Rap would smooth funk melodies and often more smooth melodic flows.
Dirty South Rap – Southern Hip Hop that combined hardcore rap styles with southern styles like screw techniques, bounce music, and Miami Bass.
Mafioso Rap – Gangsta rap that takes on a mafia/cartel persona.
Some of the key gangsta rappers and rap groups
- 50 Cent
- Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
- Geto Boys
- Jay Z
- Ice Cube
- Snoop Dogg
Some Classic/Popular Gangsta Rap Albums
- Ice-T – Rhyme Pays (1987)
- W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
- Dre – The Chronic (1992)
- Ice Cube – The Predator (1992)
- Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
- Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (1995)
- Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)
- 2pac – All Eyez On Me (1996)
- Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)
- 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
Some Classic Gangsta Rap Songs
- Schoolly D – P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)
- Ice-T – 6’ in the Morning
- W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
- W.A. – Fuck the Police
- Ice Cube – It Was a Good Day
- Geto Boys – Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me
- Dre – Nothin’ But a G Thang
- Snoop Dogg – Gin & Juice
- Bone Thugs N Harmony – Crossroads
- Tupac – California Love
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