The Birth and Development of Hip-Hop and Gangsta Rap

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The culture of hip-hop and gangsta rap music first appeared out of a street culture that was prevalent in the neighbourhood of South Bronx in New York around the 1970s, and this has developed to be one of the most powerful forms of cultural expression in the global stage. What was once just a small sub-culture representing ghetto and African-American subculture is eventually one of the most significant and widespread phenomenon that the world has ever seen. Today, in every corner of the world, it is easy to come by a group of artists or performers who identify themselves with the hip-hop and gangsta rap. In comparison to other genres of music, hip-hop and gangsta rap are currently considered as the most prominent genre of music mainly because it is not restricted to a particular social class, location or culture. Instead, it is evident across every social and cultural framework, as well as across every group. The main reason behind this is that people no longer look at hip-hop and gangsta rap as a form of entertainment but as a stage of expression, especially among the oppressed and rebellious category of individuals. It is because of its deviant nature that hip hop and rap are frequently referred to as the art of the misfits.

For a very long time, critics have often interpreted hip-hop and gangsta rap music as condoning or a genre the encourages violence, drug use and abuse, profanity, and delinquency, a perspective that fortifies existing structures of power that most of the Whites preserve more political, social and economic influences than the Blacks. However, looking deeper into the origins of this form of music, it is easy to understand that there is much more to the genre than violence, profanity and drugs. The founders of the music style looked at it as a way of communicating matters that affected their society and a way of expressing the challenges that many Blacks were facing during the 1970s (Mose 2013, p.248). Though the music was and still is associated with Black identity, the music has significantly evolved and commercialised that anyone anywhere can easily associate and relate to the lifestyle of hip-hop and gangsta rap. This paper illustrates the origin and history of hip-hop and gangsta rap music by assessing the effects of post-colonialism and how it led to the advent of this form of art. This understanding will create a foundation for understanding the unique features linked with hip-hop and gangsta rap music. Besides this, the paper will address the evolution of the cultural expression that was mainly African-American in this genre of music and how it has evolved through and impacted by economic, social and technological changes in the society to the global rap music that is present in this current generation. Viewing hip-hop and gangsta rap music from this lens will help in critically examining the conceptualisation and evolution of the culture by taking into account the continuing impact of post-colonial issues relating to power, domination and resistance in the African-American cultural expression in music.

The Birth and Evolution of Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap Music

Comprehending the historical framework that influenced the experience of African-Americans and the progress of hip-hop and gangsta rap music is essential in analysing the genre as a resistive art. In the early 17th century, colonialism started in America characterised wits enslavement of the Africans by the English and this continued till 1865 when the 13th Amendment was passed in the United States’ Constitution. The period that came after the abolition of slavery was a time when Black Americans faced discrimination from the White Americans through acts of violence, disenfranchisement and economic exploitation as well as through a system that was legally and socially imposed to create racial segregation (Southern 2005, p.38; Young, 2016, p.42). This system offered distinct but equal facilities and services for the White and the Blacks in America hence creating a ridge between the two communities where the former enjoyed the privileges of living in the country while the latter only received blames, incarceration and oppression in various contexts.  The inadequacy of economic opportunities and limited mobility to the inner city significantly contributed to the state of professional dispossession whereby many African Americans were precluded from participating in occupations of need or meaning because of the aspects that stood outside the direct capabilities of a person or even community as a whole (Whiteford 2000, p.201). This circumstance triggered numerous social problems that affected Black Americas and many Africans in America in this era believed that having a black skin was a social cost (Russell-Brown 2004, p.108). Therefore, many Black Americans grew up and lived believing that they are social and economic rejects in the society.

Despite rap being a relatively new genre in the music world, the music style of hip-hop and gangsta rap originated from a rich legacy of African Americans who used music and art performances with the aim of cultural insurrection and social criticism (Pyatak and Muccitelli 2011, p.51). Hip-hop and gangsta rap developed as part of this tradition and as a means of confrontation that Black Americans used to call responsiveness to the political, economic and social challenges prevalent in the communities and the post-colonial practices characterised by racism that served to uphold these circumstances. The roots of rap music are traceable back several eras to African griot culture of telling stories using drumbeats and scarce musical arrangement (Keyes 2004, p.141). However, modern rap music started as early as the 1920s with like of Bessie Smith who used rapping styles in creating blues or around 1960s with the advent of spoken-word performances by individuals like the Last Poets, Gill Scott-Heron, and David ‘Pigmeat’ Markham (Dyson 1993, p.87). Nevertheless, the current hip-hop and gangsta rap music are credited to the South Bronx neighbourhood of New York City around the 1970s that sprouted alongside creative performances like disk jockeying, break dancing, and graffiti as part of the street hip hop (Forman 2000, p.67). The music and career of rapping grew from the idea of being a master of ceremonies or MC in street events, or even house parties where a person would introduce the DJ and entertain the crowd. From this, many MCs started integrating short rhymes into their recitals as a way of amusing people, and with time this developed into what is currently accepted as rapping (Chang 2017, p.49). Therefore, rap music started as a way of entertaining people with little rhymes before it found its voice in becoming a culture. 

Violence and Political Expression in Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap Music

Though rap music had its origins in New York City, a momentous outbreak of hip-hop and gangsta rap came from Los Angeles in the late 1980s with the advent of hardcore rap that aimed at confronting political and social oppression among the black community (Kubrin 2005, p.364). The new development in the 1980s came with a new turn in rap music, people no longer looked at it as a way of just entertaining house and street parties, but instead many young black individuals saw this as a chance to narrate their experiences and outlook on the gang culture, criminal activities, drug use and abuse, and the ‘street way' of upholding living in the inner cities (Kubrin 2005, p.364). One of the popular songs that triggered the new movement of hip-hop and gangsta rap that talked about living as a black person in the United in the 1980s is the song ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. The lyrics of the song highlighted the dark image of living in America in the forgotten neighbourhoods. Part of the lyrics was as follows:

It's like a jungle sometimes

It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under

Broken glass everywherePeople pissin' on the stairs, you know they don't care

I can't take the smell, can't take the noise

Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice

Rats in the front room, roaches in the back

Junkies in the alley with a baseball batI tried to get away, but I couldn't get far

'Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car

Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge

I'm trying not to lose my head

It's like a jungle sometimes

It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under

As it is evident from the lyrics, the African Americans were on the verge of giving up to play by the rules that always sidelined their needs in the country. This song served as a wake-up call to young African Americans in the United States who lived in the similar conditions and perceived that they had the opportunity to commercialise this art while using it as a political outlet and tool.

Communities such as Watts and Compton in Los Angeles were hot-beds for gangs and criminal activities, and these locations served as the face of what black oppression looked like and its outcomes (Clay 2003, p.1349). It is from these neighbourhoods that the famous American hip-hop and gangsta rap group known as NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) was born. Many rappers during this era of 1980s perceived hip-hop and rap as a form of political poetry, and these included individuals like KRS-ONE and Public Enemy who used music to expose lifestyles in the ghettos in a dramatic manner as seen in the lyrics above but subtly touched political topics (Hess 2005, p.296). Therefore, hip hop and rap was just another form of narrating the ugly side of being black in the United States through the presentation of stories in a blunt language (Blanchard n.d.). The birth of NWA altered the topography of hip-hop and gave it the gangsta meaning by adding a new dimension beyond street poetry and adopting a somewhat pornographic language. Gangsta rap started embracing pejorative phrases and integrated them into the whole song. NWA's influence suddenly opened doors to the new wave of hip and rap that aimed at fighting back the oppression in the society.

The Iconic NWA and Gangsta Rap

The NWA group consisted of five young black males hailing from South Central, Los Angeles. Despite the fact that all of the members significantly contributed to the group's success, three, in particular, played vital roles in the popularity of the group's discourse and influence on hip-hop and gangsta rap culture. The three were Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E who were all from middle-class homes in South Central; a community with high rates of gang violence, poverty and drug use and abuse in the 1980s (Lena 2006, p.481). Ice Cube was the poet in the group and wrote most of the lyrics where he regularly expressed life in the black community and how it contrasted to the lives of the whites (Harrison 2008, p.1783). Most of his lyrics explained the hierarchical system of lives in the ghettos across the United States. One of the songs ‘Boyz N the Hood’ is an example of this where the rapper talks about the mentality of thug life that many gangsta raps tried to emulate later.

Eazy-E, on the other hand, was rather explicit when it came to explaining the daily life of a young black man in the United States' ghettos either as a gangbanger or a drug dealer (Harrison 2008, p.1784). He mainly used nonchalant language and apathetic tone, which offered the rap culture a new glimpse of self-representation in music. In the same song, ‘Boyz N the Hood' Eazy-E narrates his life as a gangbanger and the life that he sees in his society where most people are unemployed, and all they do is indulge in drugs and get arrested. Dr Dre was a household name in the group, and he was also the producer in most of the songs by the group. His rapping style was gangsta hardcore without bounds. Dr Dre's influence in the group was to tell the struggles of living as a jobless black man in the streets of Los Angeles where the police constantly harassed them for being black and jobless in a society that never gave them any opportunity (Harrison 2008, p.1784). The group’s most famous and controversial song ‘Fuck the Police’ is a protest gangsta rap music that protests about police brutality and racial profiling. The lyrics are hardcore rap that justifies violence against the police. Part of the song’s lyrics by Ice Cube is as follows:

Searchin' my car, lookin' for the product

Thinkin' every nigga is sellin' narcotics

You'd rather see, me in the pen

Than me and Lorenzo rollin' in a Benz-o

Beat a police out of shape

The lyrics highlight the struggles of the African Americans who were constantly and ruthlessly profiled, brutalised and incarcerated for no significant reason but for being young black men in a society that never offered them any form of support (Oredein 2013, p.156). Such lyrics played crucial roles in influencing the later development of hip-hop and gangsta rap music as the attitude and some of the lyrics are later encountered in groups like Bone-Thugs and Harmony, Kanye West and The Game. (Harkness 2013, p.162) mentioned that the group caused psychological unsettlement mainly because they took everything that was always used against African Americans as the term ‘niggers' by the Whites and unified it with the community of black people who defined it as they saw it fit.

Economic, Social and Technological Changes

Since the NWA and the 1980s hip-hop and gangsta rap music, the nature of rap music has gradually been changing particularly concerning the main themes addressed in the music lyrics. The hip-hop music has been changing in a drastic pace, and the first change was witnessed in the 1990s when it shifted from gangsta rap to violence music where many black rappers shifted from singing about the issues that affected them in the society to battle against each other (Morgan 2004, p.208). An excellent example of this was the feud between the famous West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG that ended with both rappers dead in the year 1996 (West, Martin and Wilkins 2009, p.44). Though NWA's influence is not directly evident in such a circumstance, it is the voice that they had given young rappers that altered the primary aim of hip-hop and gangsta rap music. Many feuds developed since then and despite the fact that most African America rappers maintained the culture of hip-hop and gangsta rap which was narrating their lives in the ghetto, they commercialised the hip-hop as a tool to earn money while creating ‘beef' among each other as seen in the feuds between Ja Rule and 50 Cent, as well as Jay-Z and Nas (Söderman 2013, p.372). It was the attitude and character started by NWA that influenced these type of music.

The change from rapping about fighting the law enforcement officers to fighting against each other for fame can be attributed to the commercial success that many musicians received from their music. The commercial success thus puts pressure on the authenticity of street hip hop which was vital for gangsta rap (Berlatsky 2013, p.66). The violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG signalled the dangers of gangsta music and many aspiring rappers started retracting themselves from the dangers of gang affiliation and turned to making popular music that would fit in the pop-culture. By the late 1990s, technology had altered production and promotion of rap music and this led to the birth of many mainstream gangsta rappers like Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Master P who mainly talked about the issues in their lives and becoming more socially relevant by producing content that would help them sell in both domestic and foreign markets (Burns 2008, p.58) By 21st century, the themes in hip-hop and gangsta rap music was different from the themes in the first generation of hip-hop and gangsta rap music. Most of the rappers developed an interest in projecting their image as successful black males focusing on materialism and hedonism. Success in the new age has been in the form of expensive cars, promiscuous women, and expensive jewellery.

Theoretical Approaches to Popular Music

As the structure of hip-hop and gangsta rap music changed, so were the ideas and presentation of the African-American culture. Currently, the hip-hop and rap music is no longer dominated by African Americans as it was in the 1980s. Instead, it has everyone from every culture, always trying to fit in perspective created by the founders of the genre. Though current popular rap music is considered a global phenomenon that addresses issues in different cultures, many new rappers still try to emulate the attitude set by the original hip-hop and gangsta rappers (Bynoe 2006, p121). It is because of this that it is still evident many mainstream rappers try to present themselves as anti-law individuals who struggled to make it in the music industry through criminal behaviours such as participation in gang activities and drug use and abuse. The lyrical content in the rap music has changed, and this can be owed to the fact the oppression of the African Americans is not as prevalent as it was in the 1980s.

Suddenly, hip-hop was no longer gangsta, but instead, it became a playfield of commercialised artists who saw the opportunity of rapping without necessarily paying attention to the content (Travis 2012, p.170; Jenkins 2013, p.). The shift and development of hip-hop, as well as the disappearance of gangsta rap, is due to the fact most of the rappers today grew up in oblivion of what the founding MCs went through to be heard, and therefore, listening to the like of Ice T and NWA is like reading a fairy tale (Saucier and Woods 2014, p.271). This is to mean that many new rappers only embrace the idea of gangsta rap and easily portray it in their lyrics but are ignorant of what it entailed. The new generation of consumers of hip-hop and rap music appreciate fun music and promotes commercialisation of the music genre, and this has affected the idea behind hip-hop as an African-American tool. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the oppression is no longer there and some rappers easily identify with the situation as it was and they carry the influence of NWA (Nyawalo 2013, p.463). An example is Kendrick Lamar with songs like ‘Fuck Your Ethnicity’ that maintains the same image of the location he grew up in which is the same as NWA, Compton Los Angeles (Connor 2017, p.460). It shows that at least the influence of NWA on hip-hop and gangsta rap is evident and relevant today.


There has always been constant blame placed on hip-hop and gangsta rap music for the prominence of violence in the contemporary society. However, as this paper highlights, hip-hop and gangsta rap music is a symptom of postcolonial cultural oppression of the African Americans. Thus it is never the cause. To explicitly understand hip hop and gangsta music, it is essential to perceive it as the by-product of the historical, political, economic challenges faced by African Americans and the role it plays as a voice for the oppressed by the American political and social system. One of the most influential hip-hop and gangsta rap group is NWA, and this is because they decided to attack these issues head-on instead of subtly representing the problems in poetic music. It is this form of resistance that continues to influence contemporary rap music as many people look at this music form as an opportunity to discuss social issues.


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August 01, 2023

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