NWAWhat do you think of when you hear the term “gangsta rap”? Some love it, some hate it, but no matter what side you’re on, you have to admit that gangsta rap has had a great deal of influence on the world of hip-hop. Below we explore the definition and history of gangsta rap, and also take a look at some of the most popular gangsta rappers and songs.

First we look at the Dictionary.com definition of the word “gangsta”, which is “an aggressive type of rap music focused on gang culture and violence.”[1]  To further elaborate, the word “gang” has multiple dictionary definitions, including “a group of youngsters or adolescents who associate closely, often exclusively, for social reasons, especially such a group engaging in delinquent behavior.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary of “gangsta rap” is “rap music with lyrics explicitly portraying the violence and drug use of urban gang life and typically expressing hostility toward whites, women, and civil authority.”[2] Based on these definitions, it seems that the main criteria for defining gangsta rap is the lyrical content of the song.

About.com concurs, stating that “gangsta rap revolves around aggressive lyrics” that have come under fire for “misogyny and violent themes,” but also points out that gangsta rap is characterized by “trunk-heavy beats.”[3] Allmusic.com shares that gangsta rap is lyrically “abrasive, as the rappers spun profane, gritty tales about urban crime,” and also highlights the sound of the beats, describing gangsta rap as having “an edgy, noisy sound.”[4] Finally, Last.fm defines gangsta rap as “a sub-genre of hip hop that reflects the violent lifestyles of some inner-city youths.”[5]

According to Wikipedia, gangsta rap emerged in the mid 1980’s, originally with a few specific songs, such as “6 in the Mornin’” by Ice-T, and later as full albums like N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.” Many associate gangsta rap with West Coast hip-hop, however, many East Coast rappers also contributed to the genre, which is also sometimes referred to as “hardcore rap” by those in the East Coast. Additionally, in the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s popular gangsta rap artists began to emerge in the Midwest and Southern hip-hop scenes. Due to the explicit and often violent lyrics of gangsta rap, it was kept out of the mainstream during it’s early years, however, around the mid 1990’s it began to enter into mainstream radio and media, and has enjoyed much commercial success ever since.

The lyrical content of gangsta rap has been subject to much discussion and debate over the years. In one camp, you have those that are highly critical of gangsta rap, claiming that the genre promotes and glorifies “homophobia, violence, profanity, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, street gangs, drive-by shootings, vandalism, thievery, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and materialism.” [6]  In the other camp, you have those that argue that gangsta rap does not necessarily promote these concepts, but that the artists are simply using rap as a form of expression to describe the reality life for many people growing up in the inner-cities. Either way, gangsta rap has played a key role in shaping hip-hop as a musical genre and culture, and should be analyzed and studied for anyone who seeks to better understand rap and hip-hop.

Example Artists:
Some of the most well known gangsta rappers include: Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, N.W.A., Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., DMX, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Big L, Scarface, 50 Cent, among many, many more.

10 Example Gangsta Rap Songs:

1) Ice-T – “6 in the Mornin'” (1986)
“Ice-T was one of the creators of gangsta rap, building a hard-edged West Coast sound rooted in his own experiences hustling on the streets of L.A… With his blunt vocal delivery, narrative-style writing, and mesmerizing B-movie images, Ice-T was one of the earliest West Coast rappers to gain respect among the New York hip-hop set. As an artist, he set the stage for N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, and the Notorious B.I.G…”[7]

2) Eazy-E – Boyz in the Hood (1987)
“One of the artists responsible for making [the] era of [gangsta rap] so spectacular is Eazy-E, a gangsta rapper whose claim to fame was not the music, but in the way he presented it. With a career that would span almost a decade, Eazy became the mark of excellence in gangsta rap…”[8]

3) N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
“In 1988, with the double-platinum album Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A brought gangsta rap into the mainstream. The record was among the first to offer an insider’s perspective of the violence and brutality of gang-ridden South Central L.A. With songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” set in a chaotic swirl of siren and gunshot sounds, it also foreshadowed the 1992 L.A. riots.”[9]

4) Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)
“When Ice Cube left the notorious L.A. rap group N.W.A in 1990, he continued writing hard-hitting gangsta rap songs that pushed buttons in the media as well as among parents, politicians, and police…. With his powerful, rhythmic baritone delivery, Ice Cube has maintained a consistently high standing among critics and fans.”[10]

5) Snoop Dogg – What’s My Name? (1993)
“Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, with his lazy drawl and gangster persona, became one of the most commercially successful artists in all of rap. Alongside artists like N.W.A., Tupac, and Ice-T, Snoop epitomizes West Coast hip-hop.”[11]

6) The Notorious B.I.G. – Juicy (1994)
“Mammoth-sized rapper, the Notorious B.I.G…released just one album during his lifetime: 1994’s Ready to Die. Written by Wallace and produced by Sean Combs, it was a remarkable debut, distinguished by Wallace’s thick, commanding baritone and his slow, matter-of-fact rhymes about the hustler’s life he left behind for rap.”[12]

7) Mobb Deep – Shook Ones Pt II (1994)
“As golden age rap suddenly gave way to West Coast gangsta in the early ’90s, an East Coast variety of hardcore rap arose in turn, with Mobb Deep initially standing tall as one of New York’s hardcore figureheads…”[13]

8) Big L – Da Graveyard (1995)
“Big L, was an American rapper who made significant contributions to the New York City music scene in the 1990s as a member of the hip hop collective D.I.T.C. In February 1999, Big L was shot and killed before releasing his second album. Members of the hip hop community consider him to be one of the most skilled MC’s of all-time.”[14]

9) 2Pac – Hit ‘Em Up (1996)
“Tupac Shakur was one of the most dynamic, influential and self-destructive pop stars of the Nineties. The rapper’s husky voice described his stark contradictions, setting misogyny against praise of strong women, hard-won wisdom against the violence of the “thug life” — words he had tattooed across his torso. The critical and commercial successes of his music (as well as his modest achievements as an actor) were continually overshadowed by his legal and personal entanglements. In Tupac’s world, art and reality became tragically blurred, culminating with his 1996 murder in Las Vegas.”[15]

10) 50 Cent – Piggy Bank (2005)
“50 Cent was one of the biggest stars hip-hop produced in the 2000s, a muscled and menacing, yet imperturbably cool presence with a near-mythic backstory. The protégé of Dr. Dre and Eminem, 50 Cent made music that was both gangsta and good fun.”[16]

We hope this post helps you answer the question “What is Gangsta Rap?” Have any thoughts to share? What’s your definition of gangsta rap? Any other artists/songs that you think define the genre of alternative hip hop? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

And if you’re a music fan and want to check out some music on the other side of the hip-hop genre, check out this song list of Hopeful Music: 10 Songs to Cheer You Up. It’ll balance out your musical library!

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/
[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/
[3] http://rap.about.com/od/genresstyles/tp/HipHopGenreGuide.htm
[4] http://www.allmusic.com/subgenre/gangsta-rap-ma0000002611
[5] http://www.last.fm/tag/gangsta%20rap/wiki
[6] http://www.last.fm/tag/gangsta%20rap/wiki
[7] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/ice-t/biography
[8] http://www.eazy-e.com/eazy_e-biography.php
[9] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/n-w-a/biography
[10] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/ice-cube/biography
[11] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/snoop-dogg/biography
[12] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/notorious-b-i-g/biography
[13] http://www.allmusic.com/artist/mobb-deep-mn0000566430/biography
[14] http://www.last.fm/music/Big+L
[15] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/tupac-shakur/biography
[16] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/50-cent/biography


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