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
In contrast to most “Gangsta Rap” which tends to depict realistic urban life on inner-city streets, Mafioso rappers tell stories from the perspective of organized crime more associated with Italian mafias or South American Cartels. The subject matter can include self-indulgence, materialism, killings, drug dealing, drug trafficking and other luxuries of a mobster, while making numerous references towards notorious crime organizations of the Italian underworld, including the Gambino crime family and Cosa Nostra. Fantasized and fictional narratives told by Mafioso rappers are often adapted versions of classic crime thrillers, most notably Bonnie and Clyde, Casino, The Godfather, Goodfellas, King of New York, Once Upon a Time in America and Scarface. Another trademark feature of Mafioso rap is the idolizing of high profile organized crime figures. These crime kingpins range from legendary gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Bugsy Siegel, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, John Gotti and to the drug lords of Latin America (including Pablo Escobar).
Rap flows often weren’t as angry or aggressive as in other versions of gangsta rap. The image had more of a cool calm collect kingpin that could order your murder. Instead of just speaking out against police, the antagonist would often be the F.B.I.
Mafioso leaned heavily on the Boom Bap sound throughout the 90s. It would commonly sample jazz music but was not limited to it. Throughout the 90s it didn’t feature a melody or commercial sound at all. It relied heavily on the rapper’s ability to create a cinematic narrative to engage the listener. It was music much more for people that pay attention to lyrics as opposed to listening sonically.
Origins – Kool G Rap
Kool G Rap is often credited as the first rapper to infuse his lyrics with mafioso 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.
Kool G Rap is regarded as the first rapper to make the mafia lifestyle a major theme in his lyrics. With epic tales, chronicling the crime underworld of drug trafficking and the luxurious pleasures of the high-end illegal business. Kool G Rap inspired the related Mafioso rap phenomenon of the mid-1990s, which later achieved mainstream success and great critical acclaim with albums such as Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, AZ’s Doe or Die, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. At the sub-genre’s zenith in the mainstream, mafioso rap inspired albums such as Nas’ It Was Written, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, and P. Diddy’s No Way Out, which all went on to become multi-platinum commercial successes.
Although not a Mafioso themed album, Notorious B.I.G.’s debut Ready to Die in 1994 was also a big influence on the subgenre as it focuses on the drama and dangers of his life as a low-level drug dealer. The album also featured a strong narrative from the intro of his birth, the many stories told reflecting the “hustler” lifestyle, and last song where his stress leads to him committing suicide.
Resurgence in the Mid 90s
Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
Released in August of 1995, the album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (OB4CL) was loosely 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.”
OB4CL popularized street-related, Mafioso rap on the east coast. While this style was originated in the late 1980s, it didn’t completely permeate the hip hop world until the release of OB4CL in 1995. References to Cuban Linx could be heard heavily in following years with several notable changes in hip hop culture.
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. A known fan of the Wu, Tupac Shakur began to refer to himself as Makaveli and gave his Outlawz crew new names, albeit with a militaristic, dictatorial theme.
In regard to Raekwon’s innovation of the gambinos, Method Man later affirmed “Raekwon started that. Rae always had that mobster mentality, always liked to watch gangster movies and read mob books and stuff like that, you know? So he pretty much knew the names of the cats and what they was about. He polished his whole style like that.” Ghostface Killah also touched base on the gambino influence stating “We done took that to the highest peak. We bonded as a tight family, so niggas is starting to try and do that right now. Everybody thinking they have a strong family. We opened up the door for a lot of niggas. The shit was just crazy on how it came together.”
Junior Mafia – Conspiracy (100)
The Junior M.A.F.I.A. was led by Notorious B.I.G. and included notable members such as Lil’ Cease and Lil’ Kim. The group released their debut album, Conspiracy a few weeks after OB3CL in August of 1995. It contained hard-hitting rhyme topics mostly addressing guns, money, and sex. Conspiracy gained some positive reviews, but received criticism for some of its group members not showing enough individuality. Although more in line with the traditional Gangsta Rap some of the songs included mafioso themes and the group name also included the word mafia.
Az – Doe or Die (100)
Doe or Die is the debut studio album by rapper AZ, released October of 1995 on EMI Records. The album incorporates fictitious tales chronicling the underworld lifestyle of organized crime with cinematic narratives depicting a mobster’s ascent to fame and wealth. As opposed to taking on a complete kingpin identity, the album is grounded closer to the street reality of the “hustler” lifestyle however, it emphasizes aspirations to one day have immense riches and power. Further emphasizing these themes, the cover of Doe or Die portrays AZ as an honoree of an elaborate mob funeral. Within the cover, a stylish portrait of AZ is surrounded by flowers, while the body of the rapper is buried in a casket that contains large amounts of dollars. In addition, the liner notes and the back of the album features images of AZ counting money, drinking expensive wine, and smoking cigars.
Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt (250)
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.
During the recording of Reasonable Doubt Jay Z had already been selling drugs for a long time and was higher up the ladder than most rappers had ever been allowing his music to feature a higher level of authenticity than other Mafioso rappers. Also, Jay Z was still active in the drug game during the recording of the album and only left after it was clear that he was finding success as a rapper.
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 (200)
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.
Following the moderate sales success of his acclaimed debut album, Illmatic (1994), Nas chose to focus his efforts in a more mainstream direction. Primarily produced by Trackmasters, 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 (150)
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 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/mafioso rap as it crossed over to the commercial mainstream. Bridging the gap between the gangsta/mafioso 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.
Decline in the Late 90s
Before the late 1990s, gangsta/mafioso 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. Picking up these additional influences strayed New York rappers from continuing the mafioso themed albums. 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. For artists such as Raekwon, AZ, Jay Z, and Nas that were staples in the subgenre, their subsequent music would make occasional references or have mafioso themed songs but pre-dominantly have abandoned the style.
The Firm – The Album
The Firm was a supergroup that featured rappers Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, and Nature and were one of the first acts to sign to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label founded in 1996. Despite a cast of currently hot rappers and producers such as Trackmasters and Dr. Dre, their album simply titled “The Album” released in October of 1997 was considered a criticial and commercial disappointment. It contained tracks that had a strong mafioso theme as well as songs that were more crossover friendly but appeared to disappoint both audiences. Afterwards the Firm was disbanded and it became rare to see heavy mafioso themed rap albums. Dr. Dre addressed this in his song Forgot About Dre rapping, “Y’all better listen up closely, all you niggas that said that I turned pop; or The Firm flopped, y’all the reason that Dre ain’t been getting no sleep.”
Modern Mafioso Rap
In more recent years, Mafioso rap has seen somewhat of a re-emergence with albums such as; Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, Jay-Z’s American Gangster, Rick Ross’s Deeper than Rap and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. Similarly, in recent years, many rappers, such as T.I., Fabolous, Jadakiss, Jim Jones, Red Cafe, Max B and Cassidy have maintained popularity with lyrics about self-centered urban criminal lifestyles or “hustling”.
Critics & Controversy
Mafioso rap was never criticized as much as general gangsta rap due to the fact that it didn’t have a full mainstream crossover appeal. Even for popular artists that utilized the style, many of their hit songs did not feature the style heavily.
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.
Gangsta Rap – Hardcore rap that reflects gang culture.
Classic/Popular Mafioso Rap Albums
Some Classic/Popular Mafioso Rap Songs
List of Notable Mafioso Rappers and Rappers with Mafioso names
- Big L – Who often referred to himself as “Corleone”, after the Corleone family from The Godfather.
- Capone – Taken from Al Capone
- N.O.R.E. – He is also known as “Noreaga” which is derived from the former Military General of Panama, that was known for drug running in the U.S. Manuel Noriega.
- French Montana – Whose surname Montana used from Tony Montana from Scarface
- Freeway – derived his stage name from the former drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, to whom he has no connection
- Junior Mafia
- Notorious B.I.G. – Who took the alias “Frank White” after Christopher Walken’s character in the 1990 film King of New York.
- Lil’ Cease
- Lil’ Kim
- Kool G Rap – Who is often cited as the founder of the sub-genre, and has stated that the “G” in his name stands for Giancana, which is the last name of Chicago based Italian-American gangster Sam Giancana.
- Rick Ross – derived his stage name from the former drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, to whom he has no connection
- Scarface – Taken after the character Tony Montana’s nickname made famous in the 1983 film Scarface.
- Terror Squad
- Fat Joe – (Who often referred to himself as “Don Cartagena”. The album cover to Don Cartagena depicts Fat Joe in an outfit reminiscent of Al Capone.)
- Big Pun – (In several songs he declared “I’m the one and only son of Tony Montana” and made a lot of mafioso references.)
- The Commission – Hip Hop supergroup that was supposed to be comprised of Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Lance ‘Un’ Rivera, Lil Cease, and Charli Baltimore. The idea was abandoned after Biggie’s death.
- The Firm – Based on the 1993 movie of a law firm that works for a Chicago mafia family
- AZ – Whose name he took from Manhattan drug dealer Azie Faison. His name is pronounced “AZ”. He also has an alias by the name of “Sosa, from the movie “Scarface”.
- Cormega – Original member of The Firm before being replaced by Nature
- Foxy Brown – Whose name she took from Pam Grier’s character based on the 1974 blaxploitation film Foxy Brown
- Nas – Who, during this period, took on the alias Nas Escobar after the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
- Ghostface Killah
- Raekwon – (Mafioso alias is Lex Diamonds)
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