With the recent theater release of the biopic film, Straight Outta Compton (2015), which details the formation, epic rise to fame and eventual dissolution of the 1980’s “gangsta” rap quartet, N.W.A, West Coast hip hop has once again found itself in the spotlight. Many observers and hip-hop aficionados would contend that N.W.A. is a seminal group in the creation of West Coast hip-hop, and even of “gangsta” rap writ large. Formed by four friends who grew up in the violent, impoverished city of Compton, California, in one of the most blighted districts of Los Angeles County, N.W.A. became famous primarily for its raw, hard-hitting, and often obscene lyrics, which celebrated a gangster lifestyle that was full of guns, drugs, and “hos.” At times, the songs of N.W.A. even advocated violence toward police officers.
For many black urban youth in Southern California and beyond, the lyrics of N.W.A. spoke to several things: the animosity they felt toward a social system that appeared to have completely disenfranchised them, the “realness” of the N.W.A. lyrics, which portrayed a realistic (if a bit exaggerated at times) picture of life in the “hood,” and the promise of the material aspects of the American dream, which could be achieved through gangbanging, pimping, drug dealing, robbery, and other crimes. However, while West Coast hip-hop is often publicized as a gritty art form that merely reflects the hard realities of life in an urban ghetto, multiple ethnic studies scholars, social justice activists, and concerned citizens have proven that this music form creates a hazardous social blueprint that actually perpetrates the myriad social ills that plague the black community, and moreover, presents African-Americans as promiscuous, violent, money-hungry criminals.
When considering the social effects of West Coast hip-hop, it is interesting to observe what became of the four original members of N.W.A.: Andre Young (“Dr. Dre”), O’Shea Jackson (“Ice Cube”), Eric Wright (“Eazy E”), and Antoine Carraby (“DJ Yella”). While the success of N.W.A. as a group did not necessarily mean a lifetime of prosperity and fame for all its members—DJ Yella has largely faded into obscurity, finding a new career as a pornographer, and Eazy E passed away in 1995, due to complications from AIDS—the mainstream success of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who both went on to careers in music production and film, points to the way in which hip-hop and rap music, and particularly West Coast rap, has firmly entrenched itself in American mainstream culture, and has provided a ladder of opportunity for impoverished black urban males who have a gift for lyricism and a convincing “street resume.” Indeed, the success of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, as well as other rappers not from the West Coast, such as Jay Z, have led many (Price, 2005; Rose, 2008; Winters, 2013) to cynically speculate that these men made themselves rich by exploiting popular cultural tropes about the “hardness” and criminal aptitude of African-Americans, and have denounced this as blatantly irresponsible. While the former members of N.W.A, as well as other “gangsta” rappers often respond to such criticism by retorting that they are simply rapping about the “way things are” in ghetto America, the glorification of drugs, guns, and gangbanging in these lyrics has led many to speculate that young black people (and some white and Latino people) look to these lyrics as an example for how they should live their lives. For example, when a young black man who is born into poverty and sees few real opportunities for upward social mobility in front of him, save for the stories of wealth accumulated through a life of crime, which appears to be proven by the current lucre and success of former and current gangster rappers, it stands to reason that he may well arrive at the conclusion that if he imitates the early lives of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, he too may end up like them one day, with acceptance into the upper echelons of mainstream American society and all the material benefits that go along with that. While defenders of gangster rap proclaim that it is an example of “art imitating life,” it would seem that, almost three decades following the rise of N.W.A and the subsequent popularity of West Coast hip-hop, that life has begun to imitate art.
Recent scholarship on hip-hop culture and the social impact of rap music has observed that much of the success of hip-hop is largely due to the cynical promotion, on the part of (mostly) white record industry executives and marketing professionals, of an image of black men as tough, callous, violent, and always on the lookout for the next way to make an easy dollar. As Rose (2008) mentions, “black ghetto gangsta-based sales are the result of marketing manipulation and the reflection not only of specific realities in our poorest black urban communities, but also of the exploitation of already-embedded racist fears about black people.” In short, gangsta rap, whether it hails from the West Coast, the East Coast, or the “Dirty South,” is a post-Civil Rights era form of “blaxploitation” entertainment. Given that, even in this seemingly socially progressive day and age, most regions and individual neighborhoods in the United States are racially homogeneous, and sharply stratified by socio-economic status, it would seem that many middle and upper-class white youth have their first exposure to African-Americans through the medium of rap music. Often, white, Asian, and Hispanic youths who hail from the middle classes of American society do not have their first “real-life” social encounter with an African-American until they enter college, or the workforce. When a person has had no other exposure to black people in the first twenty years or more of their lives, save for what they see and hear in rap and hip-hop music, it stands to reason that some of these non-black individuals would have a very negative impression of African-Americans, fostered by the popularity of this genre of music.
Other scholars, on the other hand, do not take such a negative view of hip-hop, and claim that it is a form of black self-empowerment, with its roots in the formation of black churches in the United States. Scholars of this ilk also state that by taking ownership of negative black stereotypes, and capitalizing upon them, often becoming wealthy in the process, that rappers such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are in fact, visionary, and turning a disadvantage into a marked advantage. As Price (2005) observes, “Hip hop culture shares the same spiritual sources derived from the black church tradition. The strong tradition of creative black preaching and quality music are sources for rap music. The rapper integrates the two elements of the black church in rap music: preaching and music.” As can be observed in the playlist that accompanies this paper, it is difficult to understand the connection between old negro spirituals and “F*** tha’ Police,” one of the best-known songs by N.W.A., so this argument seems a bit specious.
The emergence of West Coast hip-hop and “gangsta” rap in the 1980’s, which started with the success of N.W.A., proved to be a veritable cultural juggernaut, with rap eventually becoming the definitive form of “black music” in the United States. However, the social effects of its lyrics and glorification of a hedonistic “gangster” culture appear to have done far more harm to the black community than good.
- Price, R.J. (2005). “Hegemony, Hope, and the Harlem Renaissance: Taking Hip Hop Culture Seriously.” Convergence 38 (2), 55-64.
- Rose, T. (2008). The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk about Hip Hop and Why It Matters. New York: Basic/Civitas Books.
- Winters, J. (2013). “Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God.” African American Review 46 (11), 183-185, 200.