The Political Work Done by Gangsta Rap

By: Luke Wiley


The term “gangster” was introduced in the early 20th century as a way to label individuals that were gang affiliated, typically given to immigrant or racial groups that participated in criminal activity in cities across the United States. However, as the century wore on, the marker underwent a subtle change in its makeup. The word was shortened to “gangsta,” a common term in African American Vernacular English. While the meaning behind the word and the activity suggested by it remained relatively the same, the groups associated with the term were markedly different. During the 1980’s, the term began to be associated with African Americans growing up in crime-ridden cities, most of whom were gang-affiliated with either the Bloods or the Crips. In this specialized context, the hip-hop subgenre, “gangsta rap,” was born. Pioneers of the genre include Schoolly D, Ice-T, and NWA, each being the subject of substantial media scrutiny for their lyrics. Gangsta rap of the 1980’s and 1990’s was characterized by its violent nature and criminal themes, as the label suggests. Despite the controversy that gangsta rap was the focus of, the subgenre was extremely commercially successful, transcending the context in which the music was created to reach people from all walks of life, specifically middle-class suburbia. While the artists performing gangsta rap may have become popular in the entertainment sector, their music also did important political work by highlighting the inequality that exists in the United States.

(Gets Boys, “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” 1992)

One of the most popular tracks by the Houston-based group Geto Boys gives examples of what one has to do in order to be a gangsta. With descriptions of various criminal activities, including murder, theft, and drug trafficking, one may think the song describes the typical life of an everyday thug. However, when J. Prince enters on the last verse, he raps from the point of view of the President of the United States, suggesting that he is the original gangsta. Despite his “democratically” elected position, the president’s gangsta status is bolstered by his exploitation of “you know who” in the “poor community.” As suggested by Robin Kelley, the gangstas of the cities know that the true original gangstas are the ones in positions of public power. By highlighting this notion, those in disadvantaged communities can better combat their social situation.

(Body Count, “Cop Killer” 1992)

Ice-T, a pioneer of gangsta rap and often labeled as the creator of the genre, understood the role that his music played in the social sector. On his album, O.G. Original Gangsta, Ice-T introduced heavy-metal band Body Count, who released the song “Cop Killer” on their debut self-titled album. Ice-T and Body Count attempted to bring this important political issue to a group that would otherwise not listen. Ice-T has said that the song is sung from the point-of-view of a person who is “fed up with police brutality” (Hang the MC), mentioning individuals like former LAPD police chief Daryl Gates and famously brutalized victim Rodney King. “Cop Killer” sparked significant media controversy, with condemnations coming from as high up as George H.W. Bush, the sitting president at the time. While the song itself is not gangsta rap, Ice-T’s political message embedded in the lyrics of “Cop Killer” was characteristic of his music in the 1990’s.

(Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise” 1995, dir. by Antoine Fuqua)

Coolio’s landmark track was featured on the soundtrack of the movie Dangerous Minds. While this musical commercialization disconnected the message from the larger hip-hop culture (Rhyme & Reason), Coolio’s track played an important role in both the film and society at large. Throughout the 1990’s, various performers and songwriters had romanticized the gangsta image. However, despite the seductive nature of the commodified gangsta, Coolio presented the general public with a realistic image of what the lifestyle was like. The ironic title, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” suggests that there is a blissful element to the gangsta experience. This irony is further highlighted by the music video, which takes place in a desolate school landscape; the setting is meant to be representative of the school that someone in a gangsta’s paradise would attend. Coolio’s plea to the public to realize that the gangsta lifestyle is not desirable is evident throughout the song and music video.


“Hang the MC: Blaming Hip-Hop for Violence” interview with Ice-T by Matthew McKinnon for CBC News

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