Veteran Eminem listeners may recall a certain skit from his Marshall Mathers LP album (the first one), in which an exasperated Steve Berman “explains” Dr. Dre’s album successes: “he’s rapping about big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s (40 oz. beer bottles) and bitches”. Such is the foundation of the genre known as gangsta rap, the topic of this week’s Lesson.
True to Berman’s note, the genre was advanced in the 80s by Dre and other forerunners. Revolving mostly around the aforementioned aspects of the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle, with a few bits on violence and other ‘substances of note’ thrown in, early tracks are rather odd in today’s light: check out Ice-T’s 6 in the Mornin’. Despite being widely regarded as the first gangsta rap track the world saw, its violent subject matter is belied by a simple drum beat and almost childish vocals, miles off the pace of today’s cop-killa lyrics. Other classic tracks included pretty much all of NWA’s seminal Straight Outta Compton album, the eponymous track thereof being a classic piece of gangsta material.
Come 1992, Dr. Dre (a former NWA member) released triple-platinum mega hit The Chronic, with such huge tunes as ‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang‘ featuring Snoop Dogg (who came to Timepiece a couple years ago, as it happens), and a couple of years later, the world-famous duo of Notorious B.I.G. and 2pac rose to prominence. Either of these last two could (and do) have many whole articles devoted purely to their hits, but my personal picks would be ‘Who Shot Ya?‘ and ‘Hit ‘Em Up‘ respectively – here, you can easily hear the more modern and rough gangster edges to lyrics and instrumental alike. Definitely check out more of all three – 2pac in particular was an impressively prolific artist.
‘Ghetto qu’ran’ perhaps deserves special mention for getting 50 Cent shot nine times
Come 2000 – after the deaths of both Biggie and Pac – things get murky, and people start calling people posers for claiming some things are or aren’t ‘real’ gangsta rap, but there are arguments for saying the genre lived on. 50 Cent in particular brought a very modern take on what still dealt with the same topics as gangsta rap in his earlier tunes. ‘Ghetto Qu’ran‘ perhaps deserves special mention for getting the rapper shot nine times, while later in his career, forming G-Unit with such dark tracks as ‘G’d Up‘ ensured a focus around the same themes as the genre’s forerunners.
In the end, there’s no final word on what is and isn’t ‘gangsta’, but as Wikipedia’s page on the genre points out, such albums are still being criticised for the same things:
“The subject matter inherent in gangsta rap has caused a great deal of controversy. Criticism has come from both left wing and right wing commentators, as well as religious leaders, who have accused the genre of promoting crime, serial killing, murder, violence, profanity, sex addiction, homophobia, racism, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, street gangs, drive-by shootings, vandalism, thievery, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, disregarding law enforcement, materialism, and narcissism.”
Hell of a way to sell a record.