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What up, gangsta? The hardcore rap of the '90s

Monday, February 16, 2004

By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rap may have been nothin' but a New York thing for most of the '80s, but the West Coast was about to rise up, and it didn't sound anything like the Eagles.

In 1988, the New York hip-hoppers were sucker-punched by the Left Coast with the release of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," ushering in a more decadent era that produced countless imitators and added fuel to rap's critics.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration

Click photo for larger image.

Bustin' rhymes series

Part One: From Kool Herc to 50 Cent, the story of rap -- so far

Today: What up, gangsta? The hardcore rap of the '90s

Tomorrow: Diversity training: The gangsta alternatives

Led by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, N.W.A. (N - - - - z With Attitude) reported on and exalted gang life -- from street violence to drugs to the denigration of women. N.W.A. issued brutal anthems like "Gangsta Gangsta" and "[F] Tha Police," which declared, "A young n - - - - on a warpath/And when I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath/Of cops, dyin in L.A." Even the FBI took notice, issuing them a stern warning to watch their step.

"Even though N.W.A. said 'gangsta,' they were speaking about a mentality that plagued the inner streets, the ghettos," says Sway Calloway of MTV News and the "Wake Up Show." "When they said 'F the Police,' it was just a common sentiment that was shared by youth in Los Angeles at the time, because, when you look back now, there was a lot of corruption in that police department. They spoke about what took place in their community. I saw it as rap about reality, not so much gangsta rap."

"When N.W.A. came out," says Bakari Kitwana, author of "Hip Hop Generation," "mainstream black political leaders were not talking about paramilitary policing in black communities and high incarceration rates. A lot of that stuff was still under the radar. When N.W.A. came out with 'F the Police,' it was very striking. What you're seeing is a snapshot of a generation of young people locked out of the mainstream and having no vehicle to channel their rage and their dissatisfaction with the failure of society to bring them up in a respectable way."

The outrage started with the name and worked up from there.

"The fact that they would use the n-word as they used it, at that moment in hip-hop, it was groundbreaking, and it wasn't a cliche," Kitwana says. "Now, 15 years later, it's a cliche. Hip-hop in that regard has become a parody of itself, even when it's not trying to be."

Reed Saxon, Associated Press
Ice T is one of the most ironic examples of outlaw culture being assimilated into the mainstream, he now plays a cop on NBC's "Law & Order."
Click photo for larger image.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Ice T

Money battles within N.W.A. sent Ice Cube on his way to a solo career, taking a lot of the "Attitude" with him. Ice Cube made his peace with the East Coast by teaming up with Public Enemy's Bomb Squad to produce "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" and expanded into film with "Boyz N the Hood," launching a new career that seems to have no limit.

Although he started out on party rap, the talented and intelligent Ice T toughened up his act considerably with 1991's "O.G.: Original Gangster," a chilling take on street life -- meant as a caution -- that also introduced his rock band, Body Count. A year later, Ice T hit with the most controversial song in the history of rap, "Cop Killer." Arriving in the wake of the Rodney King incident and just before the L.A. riots, it was written from the perspective of a man out to "get even" for police brutality. Ice T claimed he was playing a character in the song. "I ain't never killed no cop," he said at the time. "I felt like it a lot of times."

Ice T became Public Enemy No. 1 to police and watchdog groups calling for a boycott. The song was removed from his album and eventually he was removed from Warner Bros. Records. In one of the most ironic examples of outlaw culture being assimilated into the mainstream, Ice T now plays a cop on NBC's "Law & Order."

Ice Cube came straight out of Compton, eventually leaving N.W.A. for a solo recording career and starring roles in films.
Click photo for larger image.

As for Dre, he was never considered Cube's match as an MC, but it's not a stretch to call him rap's greatest producer. A 1992 landmark, "The Chronic" established Dre's Death Row Records and the emergence of his G-funk sound, rooted in a cool '70s funk-soul groove and sampling the likes of Parliament, Isaac Hayes and Donny Hathaway.

Snoop Dog, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls

"The Chronic" also introduced rap's next superstar. Unlike the aggressive '80s rappers, Snoop Dogg had a lazy drawl that made him sound like a close friend of the chronic indeed. Along with the weed, he was also into the "Gin and Juice," preferably behind the wheel. Snoop could never be accused of playing a role -- not when he was arrested for his alleged connection in a drive-by shooting during the making of his 1993 debut, "Doggystyle."

"Doggystyle" became the first debut ever to hit the charts at No. 1, and singles like "Murder was the Case" and "What's My Name?" took it to four times platinum. If you're wondering why they're saying "my shizzle's gone fazizzle" in an Old Navy commercial, you can trace it back to "Tha Shiznit" on that record. As for the murder case, he was cleared, and though he hasn't matched the success of "Doggystyle," Snoop has yet to fazizzle. As a side note, he's become a peewee football coach, adding a new twist to his pimp image.

Biggie Smalls, or the Notorious B.I.G., went gold in 1994 with the ominously titled "Ready to Die" that revealed a super-size talent. But in 1997, he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles.
Click photo for larger image.

Snoop was sharing the West Coast spotlight with a more energetic rapper on his way to building an even more energetic rap sheet. Tupac Shakur, born in jail as the son of a Black Panther, was a side rapper and dancer in the Digital Underground who went solo in late 1991 with "2Pacalypse Now" taking on political and gangsta themes in an angry, poetic style. Then Vice President Dan Quayle called for a ban on the record, declaring "it has no place in our society"

Tupac's film career was in full swing when his second record came out, but by the time his third record, "Me Against the World," hit the charts at No. 1, he was serving time for sexual assault. Chuck D once said of Tupac, he was "someone headed in a speeding car toward a brick wall for somebody's entertainment."

Tupac found an East Coast rival in Biggie Smalls, or the Notorious B.I.G., a street hustler from Brooklyn. Biggie was aligned with record executive Sean "Puffy" Combs, who made him the focus of his new Bad Boy label. Building his hype with guest spots on Mary J. Blige singles, Biggie went gold in 1994 with the ominously titled "Ready to Die," a debut that revealed a super-size talent, an MC who was dark, funny and adept with a rhyme.

But Biggie's career was troubled. There were brushes with the law, a car accident that left him briefly disabled and an accusation by Tupac that Biggie was partly responsible for an attack on him. Tupac also taunted him with the song "Hit 'Em Up," on which he claimed to have slept with Biggie's wife, Faith Evans.

Tupac Shukar's life seemed to mirror the angry, poetic style of his lyrics. He was shot to death in 1996, and his murder is still unsolved.
Click photo for larger image.

In September 1996, the same year of his fourth CD (and Death Row debut), "All Eyez On Me," Tupac was shot and killed coming out of a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. As for Biggie, six months later and three weeks before his "Life After Death" dropped, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting in L.A. -- thought to be a retaliation for Tupac's shooting. Both deaths are unsolved, but both careers are thriving. In fact, Tupac's "Resurrection" recently hit No. 2 on the charts -- it features a duet with Biggie.

A year after the shooting, Combs, who had the golden touch as a producer for rappers such as Biggie and pop groups such as TLC, produced his own solo debut, "No Way Out," which borrowed the Police's "Every Breath You Take" for the tender Biggie tribute, "I'll Be Missing You." The song and record seemed to own 1997, even if nobody was ready to declare Combs a top-notch MC. He is credited, though, for one of rap's hedonistic anthems, "All About the Benjamins."

"The gangsta thing became a pose," says Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America." "It became like wrestling very quickly."

Ice Cube, one of the godfathers of gangsta rap, would say in 1998, "Hip-hop's not what it was when I got in it. Now people are in it for the money and the fame. It ain't about having skills or trying to say something to make any kind of difference, and that's what makes it frustrating."

Wu Tang Clan, DMX, Jay Z

Of course, there was more to the gangsta scene than the Biggie-Tupac drama. There was a New York empire known as the Wu Tang Clan, which became the biggest group of the decade in more ways than one. Wu debuted in 1993 as a loose collection of nine smart and menacing MCs working their hardcore raps over spare beats, with plenty of martial arts themes. "Enter the Wu-Tang" set the groundwork for solo careers for Wu members Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, RZA, Genius, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, among them. After a slow build with the debut, the second Wu record, "Wu Tang Forever," debuted at No. 1 and introduced Cappadonna.

None of the Wu members individually would match the intensity or star power of two East Coast MCs who would step into the Biggie-Tupac void: DMX and Jay-Z.

With his fierce presence and even fiercer voice, DMX came off like one of his pit bulls. An abused street kid from Baltimore, DMX debuted at No. 1 in 1998 with "It's Dark and Hell is Hot," and all of his subsequent records hit No. 1 as well. "And Then There was X," featuring "Party Up (Up in Here)" sold more than 5 million copies. DMX's work balances gangsta style with a fiery spiritual side.

To Nelson George, DMX is a prime example of the lines in rap being blurred. "I don't there's such thing as positive or negative hip-hop. Take DMX: Some people would say he's negative, but I think he's made some really interesting records that are about the complexity of guilt. He's an interesting artist because he feels guilt and remorse, something that hip-hop is not big on."

No MC seems more comfortable on the mike than Jay-Z, another of rap's best and more complex characters. A hustler from the projects in Brooklyn, Jay-Z has proven to be adept as both rapper and entrepreneur. He's a pure freestyler who combines the gangsta bravado of Biggie with an easy pop sense and the upbeat vibe of a "consciousness" rapper. He's one of the few who could get away with a line like, "I dumbed down for my audience, doubled my dollars." Rather than signing with a label, Jay-Z formed his own Roc-A-Fella Records, with Dame Dash, and in 1996 released "Reasonable Doubt," a classic that tells his back story with humor, cockiness and flow.

Through his nine records, Jay-Z has worked with the finest producers -- Timbaland, the Neptunes, Just Blaze, etc. -- to become one of hip-hop's most respected hit makers. As an example of rap's potential, he rose from ghetto drug dealer to "CEO of the R-O-C," where he's broken rappers such as Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek, launched a fashion line, worked for charity and wooed Beyonce. Jay-Z says "The Black Album," a career-peaking effort that debuted at No. 1 in December, will be his last record, but there are millions of fans who are hoping that isn't so.

"I think Jay-Z is at the top of the game," says Todd Boyd, who teaches a course on hip-hop at the University of Southern California. "I love Big ... but there's not a large enough body of work there. When you look at Jay-Z's body of work, you're talking about three of the best albums in the history of hip-hop -- 'Reasonable Doubt,' 'Blueprint' and 'The Black Album' -- not to mention the amazing commercial success while maintaining street cred. So he's got something for the masses and true hip-hop heads. Jay-Z is untouchable."

Jay-Z found a worthy rival in Nas, a very wordy street poet and son of world musician Olu Dara, who also issued a classic debut in 1994's "Illmatic." He lost some of his street cred with subsequent poppy records, but regained it when he struck back at Jay-Z's taunt on "Stillmatic" and followed with the acclaimed "God's Son."

Reflecting on the hardcore style of rap's gangstas and street reporters of the '90s, Nelson George says, "What was really serious was the fact that crack was overwhelming all these neighborhoods. That was really serious. The actual records about what was going on with crack was just a symptom. People say, 'Look at these evil rappers'..... No. They were writing about the fact that kids had automatic weapons and crack was turning girls into crack hos and undermining the police in those cities as well, turning cops corrupt. All of those records were the result of a nasty period in American cities, and Americans wanted someone to blame."

Tomorrow: 'Alternative rap,' the Dirty South and Slim Shady.

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.

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