Why We Need (Real) Gangsta Rap Right Now

We got T.I. at a time when we really need Tupac and Cube.

By Eric Arnold Sep 13, 2010

The story is an all-too-familiar one: On Labor Day weekend, a Guatemalan immigrant named Manuel Jamines was shot in the head and killed by LAPD officers. The police claim the man charged at them with a knife, but at least one eyewitness says he was unarmed. The killing has inflamed long-simmering tensions between the police and immigrant and minority communities in Los Angeles, resulting in protests and arrests. Adding fuel to the trash-can fires are reports that the officer was involved in at least two previous shootings.

Jamines’ story comes as part of what seems an unending line of police violence against black and brown folks, from Oscar Grant in Oakland to Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit to systematic racial profiling in Brooklyn. At a time like this, when calls for police accountability are rumbling from grassroots activists coast to coast, our movement for justice needs a soundtrack. It needs music created from the same inner-city streets whose residents have borne the brunt of police brutality since before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. It needs gangsta rap.

Some critics have hastily written gangsta rap’s obituary. But in 2010, the genre remains a commercial force; what has declined is its gravitas as protest music. Once outspoken on the subject of police violence, in recent years, hip-hop broadly has been all but silent on politics of any sort, at least from a mainstream perspective. Back in the days, gangsta rappers faced off against label executives in corporate boardrooms over freedom of speech; now they entertain marketing meetings over energy drink endorsements.

This change didn’t happen overnight. And it didn’t happen on its own. The de-fanging of gangsta rap has paralleled the corporatization of hip-hop–and the resulting de-politicization of what was once an inherently political art form.

As a musical genre, gangsta rap has always been both acclaimed and reviled. Seemingly both inherently contradictory and inherently controversial, since its emergence in the late 1980s, the genre has been at or near the center of cultural debates around violence, crime, sexism, drugs, censorship, police accountability and inner-city socioeconomics. It’s also been at the center of music industry profits. Ever since NWA’s double-platinum album "Straight Outta Compton" in 1988, gangsta rap has accounted for a substantial part of all U.S. music sales. Its mainstream breakthrough took place in 1993, when Dr. Dre’s three million-selling "The Chronic" resuscitated a moribund music industry still reeling from Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the decline of grunge. It has remained a Billboard mainstay ever since.

Though music sales overall are down since the 1990s, many gangsta-identified artists have continued to post huge numbers: Tupac Shakur has sold an incredible 75 million albums to date (including nine million copies of "All Eyez on Me"), many of those sales coming since his still-unsolved murder; 50 Cent’s "Get Rich or Die Tryin’ " sold six-times platinum in 2002; T.I. released five platinum albums and eight platinum singles between 2003 and 2008; Game released two albums that entered the Billboard charts at number one in 2005 and 2006; Young Jeezy’s U.S. sales totaled more than 2.5 million units between 2006 and 2008; in 2008, Lil Wayne’s "Tha Carter III" sold 1.1 million copies its first week of release. On and on it goes.

Freedom of Expression or Menace II Society?

Gangsta rap’s commercial success once existed in tension with its role as a flash point in the culture war. It has been faulted for glorifying sexism, violence, and illegal drugs; and high-profile legal cases involving rappers, from Tupac of the 1990s to today’s T.I., have garnered significant media coverage over the years, fueling perceptions of young black men as thugs while overshadowing the broader political, socioeconomic and historical context.

" ‘Gangsta rap’ was a reaction of white journalism and never a description of the performers themselves," says author and historian Cecil Brown. Noting that police brutality has long been a theme within hip-hop, he says, "This need to express one’s condition by using electronic technology is not different from using the medium of the work song to express slave oppression."

The controversy around gangsta rap fittingly began with its willingness to address police violence against African Americans. In 1989, in response to the N.W.A. song "Fuck tha Police," the FBI notified police departments nationwide about the group’s planned tour dates and sent a warning letter to its label, Priority. In 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticized Tupac Shakur for anti-law enforcement lyrics on his "2Pacalypse Now" album, saying such content "has no place in our society."

That same year, the Tipper Gore-led Parents Music Resource Group and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas mounted a campaign against "Cop Killer," a song by rapper Ice-T’s Afropunk outfit Body Count. Gore compared the song to antisemitism in Nazi Germany, yet neglected to mention that it addressed systemic racism, albeit using profanity and graphic descriptions of violence to express outrage at injustice. After meeting with Time-Warner executives, Ice-T "voluntarily" decided to pull the song from the album.

The "Cop Killer" backlash created a chilling effect across the pop culture landscape, resulting in the censoring of major-label rap albums by artists who weren’t gangsta, but just political, including Paris’ album "Sleeping with the Enemy"–which contained the allegedly seditious song "Bush Killa"–and KMD’s "Black Bastards"–whose cover featured a Sambo-like figure hung by a noose.

Pro-censorship efforts against gangsta rap were next taken up by onetime civil rights activist C. DeLores Tucker and Bill Bennett, a former drug czar with strong ties to the law enforcement community. Their campaign specifically targeted Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Death Row records for promoting negative stereotypes, yet ultimately failed to stem the genre’s rising popularity.

Ironically, Tucker overlooked social commentary–by the same artists she vilified–on issues like teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the prison-industrial complex. An interesting postscript to the Shakur-Tucker saga is the 2010 inclusion of Tupac’s "Dear Mama" to the National Recording Registry. The Library of Congress called the song "a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference."

Corporate Thuggin’

Meanwhile, the main profiteers from the genre’s enduring commercial success have been white record label executives. And as the economic viability of gangsta rap has increased, the amount of sociopolitical commentary in it conspicuously decreased.

On its 1992 debut, Cypress Hill rapped about police terrorism on "Pigs." But after selling double platinum and crossing over to white audiences, the group’s message shifted from justice to self-medication through weed. Its members became "Insane in the Brain"–and sold even more records. Nestled among tracks on Dr. Dre’s "The Chronic" was "The Day the Niggaz Took Over," a fiery commentary on race, rebellion and reaction to police abuse. Six years later, Dr. Dre’s follow-up, "Chronic 2001," riffed on adultery, ecstasy use, and car bombs, yet was completely devoid of political sentiment. In 1994, Ice Cube responded to the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King with "We Had to Tear This Motherfucker Up"; a decade later, the same guy who once defiantly declared, "fuck the police/comin’ straight from the underground" starred in the forgettable family comedy "Are We There Yet?"

The notion of Ice-T playing a TV cop or Ice Cube acting in a remake of a Cary Grant film wouldn’t be so hard to stomach had other street-credible artists taken up their spots on the political front lines. But the last truly socially-conscious hip-hop album to earn gold certification–500,000 units sold–may have been Mos Def’s "Black on Both Sides" in 2000, a far cry from the heady days of 1988 to 1991, when Public Enemy and BDP totaled three platinum and three gold albums cumulatively.

If hip-hop once stood at the forefront of the fight for social justice, post-millennial gangstas like Jay-Z, Game and 50 Cent see themselves as CEOs. In the last decade, the biggest nationwide trend in rap–besides corporate shilling–has been the emergence of thugged out, materialistic and apolitical Southern artists like 3-6 Mafia, who garnered an Oscar for 2005’s "Hard Out Here for a Pimp," and Young Jeezy, whose company is called "Corporate Thugs Entertainment."

Still, even in an era of corporate thuggin’, activism among rap artists persists, quiet as it’s kept. There was Jay-Z’s endorsement of Barack Obama, David Banner’s response to Hurricane Katrina and Bun B’s involvement in Haitian earthquake relief and immigration issues. Master P, Big Boi and Xzibit were all outspoken about the BP oil spill. The important difference is that mainstream rappers who speak out nowadays do so outside of the recording studio.

Why is this? Besides the fact that major record labels have convinced the rest of us that political rap doesn’t sell, even hip hop media, it seems, would rather cover T.I.’s latest arrest than focus on injustice. In 2008, Papoose and Game were among the many rappers who recorded tributes to Sean Bell, only to be dissed by hip-hop website XXL.com, which complained, "Bell has become a marketing tool."

An actual example of gangsta-ness being used as a marketing tool might be Reebok’s ill-conceived and thankfully abandoned "9 Shots" campaign for their G-Unit clothing line–an attempt to brand 50 Cent’s bullet wounds. Perhaps Reebok should instead issued a limited-edition Aiyana Stanley-Jones sneaker. Or instead of "Lollipop," Lil Wayne’s number one hit could be a song about the New Orleans police who murdered Katrina refugees and then tried to cover it up.

Some smaller artists are defying industry and media indifference to the tragic reality of police violence. After Oscar Grant was killed by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009, within a day, rapper Mistah F.A.B. and singer Jennifer Johns recorded an Internet-only tribute, entitled "My Life." Within a month, several other Bay Area underground artists, including AP.9, Ise Lyfe and Beeda Weeda followed suit with their own Grant tributes.

Not a single upper-echelon rapper has seen fit to address the situation in rhyme, however. Likewise, the Stanley-Jones shooting resulted in very few peeps from Motor City emcees, gangsta or otherwise–a notable exception being "R.I.P. Aiyana Jones," by Silo Sh3llz, who openly questioned why the rap community had remained silent over the senseless killing of a 7-year-old girl. At this writing, the video had received just 350 views on YouTube, while the idiotic, cliched "ShawtBusShawty" has clocked over 5 million views.

One can only hope that Jamines’ death–the latest incident of excessive force by the LAPD–will pull Ice-T, Snoop Dogg or Ice Cube away from Hollywood long enough to return to a subject they’ve spoken on at length before. They may not need to keep it gangsta, but certainly they could keep it real.