Gangsta rap is a subgenre of hip-hop music which developed in the mid to late 1980s in America and which has subsequently become homogenized for mainstream audiences. The lyrics of many gangsta rap artists concern gang culture, inner-city violence, sexual promiscuity, drug use and a strong distaste for authority figures, particularly the police. As such, gangsta rap has been criticized by right and left wing commentators, and many in between, for the effects it has had on American youth.
Gangsta rap lyrics and imagery often make reference to acts of physical violence and more serious crimes including drive-by shootings and murder. The genre’s violent lyrics have been put under even greater scrutiny by the media since the fatal shootings of gangsta rap luminaries 2pac and the Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997 respectively. The combined effects of violent lyrics, imagery and media sensationalism has helped to make gangsta rap the most successful and mainstream subgenre of hip-hop.
Gangsta rap has been accused of encouraging misogyny due to the objectification of women in rap videos, album covers and lyrics. Many rap artists, including Eminem and N.W.A., have been taken to task for the overuse of derogatory words when referring to females. Women have also been sexually objectified in gangsta rap lyrics and are often portrayed as only being good for sex. New York-based rapper Slick Rick’s 1988 song ‘Treat Her Like a Prostitute’ is an example of this.
Promoting Drug Use
Many gangsta rappers have made records that openly promote and encourage the use of marijuana and other drugs, most famously Dr. Dre with his iconic 1992 album "The Chronic," which itself is a slang term for marijuana. Drug dealing as a means of making a living is also a recurring theme in gangsta rap music. In contrast, many rappers point out that drug dealing is purely a means to an end in a society where they feel cast aside and unable to get ordinary jobs.
Disregard for Authority Figures
Police brutality to African American teens has been combated by many gangsta rap artists with records that incite hatred for the police and most authority figures in general. N.W.A. gained international attention in 1988 for a record that took police brutality to task. This widespread attention helped to make gangsta rap a mainstream genre. Another noteworthy song is ‘Cop Killer’ by the group Body Count (which was fronted by gangsta rap pioneer Ice-T) which received many criticisms from the likes of then-president George H. Bush and Tipper Gore for disrespecting law enforcement officers.
Gangsta rap has many detractors but many writers have jumped to its defense. Gangsta rap, and hip-hop in general, has given black youths a platform to highlight social injustices and inequalities. Like socially conscious rap, the tales of violence and the obsession with material possessions in gangsta rap reveal societal issues that are central to African American life in big cities. In this sense, gangsta rap instigates a dialogue between African American youth and the rest of society. Rap lyrics should also be valued as literature, as they promote discussion and wordplay.
Michael Eric Dyson, author of "Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur," notes that for better or worse, gangsta rap is a banner under which many youths can find an identity that might have otherwise eluded them. Rappers such as 2pac promoted the notion of ‘Thug Life’ which sought to unite black youth. Likewise, the regional variations of gangsta rap music promote state pride and camaraderie among fellow rappers and fans. Just as rock music is a way of life for many people who get tattoos and piercings, gangsta rap is a way of life for many people and provides them with common ways of thinking and dressing.
- "That's the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader"; ed. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal; 2004
- "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America"; Tricia Rose; 1994
- "Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur"; Michael Eric Dyson; 2006
- Allmusic: Gangsta Rap
Based in Oxford, Tom Sterne has been writing music reviews and features since 2003. His articles have appeared in "The Oxford Mail," “Oxfordshire Music Scene” magazine and the Music In Oxford website. Sterne holds a Master of Arts in online journalism from The University of Sheffield.