from the vault: Coming full circle: the evolution of gangsta rap

Gangster rap is a term coined by the mainstream media to describe a certain genre of hip-hop that reflects the violent lifestyles of some inner-city youths. Gangsta is a corruption of the word gangster. The genre was pioneered around 1983 by Ice T with songs like Cold Winter Madness and Body Rock/Killers and was popularized by groups like N.W.A in the late ’80s’ After the national attention that Ice-T & N.W.A created in the late 80’s, gangster rap became the most commercially lucrative subgenre of hip hop (wikipedia).

Lately it is been floundering and in dire need of a rewiring. I write this as an opportunity for the entire genre to reinvent itself and to reaffirm that is it still viable and profitable.

It’s morning in the hoods of America
Straight Outta Compton, Crazy Motherfucker Named Ice Cube
From The Gang Called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I’m Called Off, I Got A Sawed Off
Squeeze The Trigger, And Bodies Are Hauled Off

NWA- straight out of compton

In 1988 NWA broke down the doors for gangster rap. At it’s purest it was a depiction of the realities of life in south central LA. It was raw, uncut, the black answer to punk rock and Elvis. Four guys from Compton were able to make White America take notice of what was going on. Yet without intent they also united black and white America behind the color green; 9 million sold of “straight out of Compton” without major airplay showed that there was money to be made in bringing the hood to America.

What followed was a flood of gangster rap. From those who witnessed to those who had participated in crime, everybody grabbed the mike to spit the truth. And a couple of things started to change from the original vision of NWA.

1. Gang affiliation started infiltrating the genre (most noticeable in the early ‘90’s via Snoop Doggy Dogg, who was/ is a Crip). This lead to the loss of independance in storytelling that had been visible in the work of NWA. Now you were telling your story, which of course means somebody else’s was not being told.

2. The celebration of wealth (in contrast to the celebration/empowerment of life that had been the dominant theme up until then via good time rap of Fresh Prince e.a or political rap of Public Enemy) started to take center stage, which in turn led to mediated tales of life on the streets being told. Characters like scarface (the movie) and the “pimp” got a polished rounding and struck a nerve with record buying public, thus even more pushing the tales that were being told in a certain direction.

3. Looking back, we can also see that, much like during the Mafia Castellammarese Wars in the 1930 in the US, when many bought “made men status” because there was a war going on and soldiers were needed (thus applying less strict rules to those who entered the organizations), cred was being sold by those who could give in on order to ensure that the one getting the affiliation would be more successful. Record companies and artists alike created a web of onscreen personas and off screen deals to ensure that the pie was big enough for all to eat of.
It worked. At it’s height gangster rap was the major genre in rap, commercially and artistically. Yet factors outside of its influence were about to bring it to its knees.

The end of street cred and the gangsta as we knew him

Picture this. You can flow a bit, and live in the hood. Maybe you’ve even dealt a little dope or hustled a bit to support yourself. You spot rap as a way out, so do some of the people in your crew. You make a record about your area and talk about the trials and tribulations you’ve been through. It’s a success. You are on MTV BET or what ever. The record company is happy, you are happy. Middle America thinks you are the reincarnation of Capone and for now you are content to keep sending out this image. Every now and then people would hear about rappers having beef (sometimes fatal) about reputations.

Those wanting to steal the throne would check somebody’s Gangsta. But because of technology and media being controllable and sender orientated, the record company and the artist are not forced to take these attacks to serious. As long as the major media transmit the image that you want nothing is in danger.

World 2.0

Well as we all know, shift happens. The first sign was the “Wanksta” track with which 50 cent ended the career of Ja rule to launch his own. 50 cent was one of the first artists to utilize alternative channels of communication to get the message out about Ja rule. He flooded the streets of New York with mix tapes, which were being bought and resold across America. In essence the mix tape was the you tube before you tube.

This plan was carried over in the age of 2.0. Rappers started making disstracks on youtube, challenging each other’s street cred and focusing mainly on showing off their (limited) wealth. The focus got lost from telling stories about what is going on to trying to eliminate the competition by discrediting them.

Basically every gangsta rapper has now become Motrin and a Motrin-Mom in one. .
So now the genre is occupied by people who’s image can be destroyed by anybody who grew up with them and has a grudge. This has lead to gangster rappers either going in hiding, on the offensive destroying others or creating alternative personas (that of someone with swagger, or that of a business man) in order to still be relevant and to capitalize on the need of a younger public to hear and buy these stories.

And after reviewing the downward sales figures of 50 cent, the major star of the genre, and those of non-gangster rap outfits Outkast or Kanye West, we can say that it has not worked. Kanye West outsold 50 cent in a first week album battle two years ago to become the biggest star in hip-hop, period. It was Ali’s phantom punch delivered to gangster rap.

Contextual rap
“I think you need a lot of context to examine anything.” -Augustus Haynes The Wire episode 2 season 5.

What does it all mean? This is the question that we need to ask in order to restore the genre. Strangely enough the answer came from two middle aged white guys. Ed Burns and David Simon, co-creators of the show the Wire. A former cop and journalist/teacher who‘ve spend more than 20 years in the ghetto of Baltimore.

At its heart the show is a modern ganster rap classic. It tells everything we would be expecting to hear from rappers. It’s got gangsters, corrupt cops and politicians. But is has more. It has context.

In five seasons it took me from the towers and drugs of West Baltimore, to political Washington, the white polish working class in the harbors, the empty class rooms of schools across Maryland and via the corrupt media desks back to the drug fields of West Baltimore. It showed me what it all means and how the dots are connected. That is also the power of gangsta rap. It has the allure. We all like the bad guy, we are fascinated by this archetype. So let’s use it to give people their medicine with it.

The so called “backpack rappers” like a Kanye West or Outkast do sell. They sell big time. But in my view they would lack the appeal to talk about the wider social issues, that a Jay-Z or DMX would have. Their starting point is the gritty tales of the criminal. That they take you on a social journey as well is gravy.

As I am writing about the state of American gangsta rap from my living room in Rotterdam- Holland, Tropa Elite is playing on the telly. A movie about corrupt cops in Brazil who are at the heart of a lot of violence in the city of Rio.

The world has gotten smaller for me and it has gotten smaller for those who want to get their story out. A kid in Brooklyn can start a blog or post vids on youtube to tell how his life is being affected by the stuff around him. An unknown rapper in Atlanta can spit crazy lyrics and become a hit on the web.

“I’ll tell you half the story, the rest you fill it in. Long as the villian win..”
Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt

But what they can’t do is create the context needed to understand the bigger picture. For that you need to live in more that one world. You need to be street, corporate, white, black, suburb, downtown, Rio and Compton. You need a bit of “gangsta”.

The above lyric is from Jay-Z on the track “dead presidents II” and it’s exactly half the solution. From hinting at stuff that is happening, rappers need to go to connecting dots and filling in the blank space, they need to shine light on the shadows.

Follow the money

Now why should they do all this you ask? Hip-hop is a young mans game and the kids wanna have fun. Well because there is money in it. Huge money.

Hip Hop is over 20 years old. Its listeners have grown up with it. The demographics are there to capitalize on. Yet there is no one talking to the 30+ about stuff they want/need now in the manner that they have grown accustomed to.

Sure we can all appreciate the brilliance of the “ Whisper Song” and like the shock rap or Mr. Mather’s.

But the more we learn the more questions we have. How do drugs get in the ghettos, how can an AK-47 from Russian factories end up on the streets of Compton? What’s the connection between the Mexican drug lords, Salvadorian left wing radicals and the brutal killing of a latino female in Maryland? Why is no one tackling the tales of drug use by US soldiers in Iraq, or the fact that gangs send their people to the army, so that they learn the use of weapons?

The need to understand the world around is the greatest market in the 21 century. More than that, people are willing to invest time and money in order to make sense of the world around them. If cash is king, then context is the new cash. I repeat, Context is cash.

And it is at this need-point that the current crop of gangsta rappers has an advantage over their younger challengers. The up and comers can talk about their short life or the good life. The older crew can talk about life.

So not only are they relevant, they have a shot at extending their careers for another 5-10 years. Springsteen wrote Born to Run about his own little world, he wrote the Rising, about the world at large. Both sold millions.

Ice Cube is a great example. His record “laugh now” has sold over 400.000 copies. He distributed it independently. With the average retail price of $ 10,- that amounts to gross turnover of $ 4000.000,-. Seeing as it was recorded in his own studio for less that $ 100.000,- and it sold without a major push by record companies, that a very healthy gross margin. And let’s face it, gross margin is what keeps us in business. It would be very interesting to see the breakdown of the buyers by age, but I’ll give you 5:1 it’s mostly 30 years and over.

Of course the record labels have to take a hard look at themselves as well. They need to cultivate talent differently. For all it’s fault’s, and there are many, the advertising world and it’s agencies take care of their creative. They make sure that the stimuli is there, that a understanding of the broader culture is there. That a creative filters this in his or her own way is their thing. The input is there. (P.S. if an ad agency or research company is looking for a new market, check out the music industry…and let me know when it pays of)

Why would you sign a major talent and then not help develop him to his full potential over time? That’s just bad business.

Final thoughts
NWA sold over 9 million of their album “straight out of Compton” without major airplay by bringing the hood to the world. You know what they called their brand of rap: Reality Rap. So we are back a square one, but with a shot of reliving success all over again.

The gangsta has the ability to hook us in with his tales of power and crime, but he is also able to school us on more once he has us. We need stop talking about us, and start showing how our lives are connected to you and the world. The means to communicate are there, the stories are there, and the audience is there.

But we do need to change how labels groom their talents past a certain age, we need to create corporate awareness about the demographic changes in hip hop buying audiences and start catering to them. And we need to tell our creative that they don’t need to chase a 15 year old to make money.

Feb 2nd 2009

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