• Thelma Khupe

Straight Outta Compton: The Rise and Demise of Gansta Rap

Pictured above, N.W.A.

Gangsta rap has played a pivotal role in the Hip-Hop industry. With its harsh and gritty context and its position as a political medium, the Hip-Hop subgenre sparked controversy as well as excitability from its listeners all across the globe. But as the sound of Hip-Hop evolves, gangsta rap's journey to archaism is still a relevant conversation in Hip-Hop music history.

Once Hip-Hop's most commercially lucrative subgenre, Gangsta rap was a sound that pioneered in the late ’80s and catalysed the success of American record labels Death Row Records and Ruthless records. The sound is usually characterised by its explicit use of language, often used to reflect the violent lifestyle of working-class, inner-city America. And names such as N.W.A., Tupac, Snoop Dogg and The Notorious B.I.G. are just a few notable ones that come into conversation.

The Rise

The genre first came to prominence in the mid-’80s after East Coast rapper Schooly D released this six-minute-long record:

"Got to the place, and who did I see?

A sucker-ass n***a trying to sound like me

Put my pistol up against his head

And said "you sucker-ass n***a I should shoot you dead"

This record was one of the first uses of the N-word in a rap song, explicitly depicting gang culture and violence as well as drugs and is often regarded as the inspiration for ‘In the morning’ by West coast rapper Ice - T, which was released shortly after. The West coast quickly became the nucleus of gangsta rap as Los Angeles rap group, NWA (N***a's with attitude) came to the forefront. In 1988, NWA released straight outta Compton, which triggered controversy, regarding one their most notable songs on the tape entitled ‘F**k the police'.

"F**k the police comin' straight from the underground

A young n***a got it bad 'cause I'm brown

And not the other colour so police think

They have the authority to kill a minority"

The song's lyrics drew plenty of backlash for accusing LA's law enforcement of racism and therefore raised the group's national profile. It also raised debate about America's first amendment rights; NWA, and therefore gangsta rap, became the voice of a community that was neglected and often ignored.

“It's a pivotal moment because it's one of the many moments where they stood up and they had the courage to say, ‘Freedom of speech applies to everyone in America, and we are not going to take this abuse. We're just not going to do it," - Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray

While gangsta rap was at the forefront of hip-hop, other forms of rap were equally bourgeoning around the same time, pioneered by rappers such as MC Hammer and The Fresh Prince. But Gangsta rap’s crudeness, rebellion and sometimes nihilism caught national attention and gained the genre a fan base of those who could relate to the harsh realities of America’s poor treatment of minorities, as well as an uncanny fanbase of suburban white teenagers who enjoyed the rebellion.

F**k the police - NWA:

Commercial Success

Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg

The Straight Outta Compton album was a booming, global phenomenon and went on to become certified triple Platinum. After Ice Cube's departure from the group, N.W.A's second album, 'Efil4zaggin', became the first gangsta rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard pop charts. This was followed by Dr Dre's debut solo album entitled 'The Chronic', which landed at number three on the Billboard 200 and went on to become certified triple platinum, subsequently landing Dr Dre a spot in one of the top ten best-selling American performing artists of 1993.

After several appearances on 'The Chronic', Snoop Dogg released his 1993 debut album, 'Doggystyle' which also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album made history as the fastest-selling hip hop album ever, after selling over 800,000 copies in its first week.

New York Rapper DMX was also at the forefront of gangsta rap's commercial success, with the release of his debut album ' It's Dark and Hell is hot'. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and his second and third albums were to follow suit. By December 1999, all three of his then-released albums including 'Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood' and '... And Then There Was X,', had all landed a number one spot on the Billboard 200.

The genre's commercial success essentially changed the course of protest music and rap music, with its explicitness and its brutal approach to holding American authorities accountable for socio-economic issues, police brutality and racial profiling. The genre was celebrated for more than just its sound and excitability; it was a political medium for young people that fell victim of government neglect, disadvantaged communities and overall mistreatment .

The Demise

Kanye West

Rappers such as DMX and Eminem continued the lineage of dark, macabre rap that had been introduced by Gangsta rap. But the death of Gangsta rap legends Tupac and biggie were pivotal moments in the hip-hop industry and initiated a stylistic change of gangsta rap, that eventually became more commercially successful. While references to drugs, violence and gangsta culture remained, this newer category of gangsta rap became characterised by R&B hooks and a more laid-back sound.

The pop-gangsta sound was a much more commercially popular sound and more suited to popular consumption, and gangsta rap as we knew it would slowly become archaic. The introduction to 2000's hip-hop saw the success of hardcore, gangsta rap inspired rappers such as Jay-Z, and 50 Cent. Their flow was typically more casual and less aggressive, but still held a lot of Gangstas raps fundamental characteristics.

Kanye vs 50 Cent

11th September 2007 saw one of rap history's most pivotal moments and history was made when Kanye West and 50 Cent went head to head in the release of their projects. This was one of the most profitable feuds in hip-hop history and marked a new era of its sound. 50 Cent's 'Curtis' represented what was essentially still an era of gangsta rap, of which Kanye's 'Graduation' was about to dethrone with his new era, modern-day rap that was representative of its younger listeners.

Kanye’s more experimental approach quickly solidified him as the new face of hip-hop and the pioneer of its new sound.

The introduction of new-age artists such as J Cole, Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar would, later on, solidify gangsta raps demise from its throne. Gangsta rap, once a chart-topping subgenre that globally dominated the Hip-Hop industry, was soon to be replaced by new sounding, less aggressive rap.

The comeback?

Chief Keef

Towards the 2010s, a new genre began to emerge: Drill. This new sound was pioneered by new age artists such as Chief Keef, Fredo Santanna and Lil Durk. And while it differs in sound and is typically more faster-paced in its flow, the lyrical context is still comparable to that of gangsta rap with its depictions of inner-city America's violence and neglect. Drill music's roots are an ongoing debate but to disregard gangsta raps' influence on new age hip hop would be somewhat disingenuous. Could drill music be the new gangsta rap?

By Thelma Khupe


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