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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

January 26, 2022: American Gangsters: Gangster Rap

[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]

On three telling stages in the evolution of the influential musical genre.

1)      Schoolly D (1985): Defining a genre or subgenre’s origin point is never simple nor straightforward, but no less an authority than Ice-T has defined Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D’s self-titled debut album as one such key starting point for the genre that would become known as gangster rap. And to elucidate that foundational definition I would highlight in particular one section of the final verse of that album’s most famous song, “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”: “Got to the place and who did I see/A sucker-ass nigga trying to sound like me/Put my pistol up against his head/And said, ‘You sucker-ass nigga I should shoot you dead’/A thought ran across my educated mind/Said, man, Schoolly D ain’t doing no time/Grabbed the microphone and I started to talk/Sucker-ass nigga, man, he started to walk.”

2)      Fuck tha Police” (1988) and “Cop Killer” (1992): As the shift from “Put my pistol up against his head” to “Schoolly D ain’t doing no time” indicates, gangster rap’s origins lay in a complex combination of genuine criminal threats and practiced performative poses. That combination has remained part of the genre ever since, but the balance between the two sides has shifted over time, and I would argue that with the rise of artists like N.W.A. and Ice-T it shifted more toward stories (and perhaps realities) of actual gangsters and criminal actions. Or at least, as these two successful and controversial songs illustrate, of the longstanding pop culture antagonism between such iconic gangsters and law enforcement. As Ice-T correctly noted in defending “Cop Killer,” pop culture has featured countless portrayals of such clashes, so much of the controversy was rooted in racism. But nonetheless, these songs did represent an evolution of the genre and its visions of gangsters.

3)      The “Bling Era”: There are various ways to contextualize one of the next main such evolutions, back toward more performative posing (this time frequently tied to celebrations of the success and wealth that the rappers had achieved). But I would argue that two tragic (and perhaps interconnected) murders within six months—the September 1996 killing of Tupac Shakur and the March 1997 killing of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls—played a significant role in this shift. After all, jail time is far from the worst possible consequence of the kinds of actions and stories gangster rappers had been highlighting since Schoolly D; I’m not for a second arguing that Tupac and Biggie’s songs caused their murders, but rather noting that violence and death are intrinsic elements to the worlds of gangsters. They’ve certainly remained core elements of gangster rap into the 21st century as well, but with ongoing shifts in how they’re portrayed as well as the realities of the artists portraying them.

Next GangsterStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?

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