By Fabian Großeloser
The persistence of mythical staples in defining the character of a people, the related narratological tropes, seem ever present in the cultural output of American civilization. Hollywood movies, folk songs and works of visual art making use of these elements are known the world over and are still being produced to this day. Contemporary story-telling basics like the underdog story and the rags-to-riches narrative have their roots in the harsh living conditions of the early days of colonialization and the consequent focus on self-reliance and hard work that so heavily defined the day to day existence of early American settlers.
One often thinks of movies and literature when considering such cultural reflection. However, another medium in which it is just as easy to find cultural and societal markers is music. While the field of music is highly diverse, it can serve as a strong indicator of its creator’s values and sensibilities as well. This goes beyond the aforementioned long-lasting mythological influences and often extends to at the time current phenomena as well, be it the change of popular sensibilities in the era of romanticism, the escapism of early 20thcentury American melodrama or the culture of rebellion and resistance of the 60’s and 70’s. One particularly recent genre that serves as a good example of both types of cultural influence and reflectivity is that of “Gangsta rap”.
Gaining mainstream attention in the 1980’s due to the success of artists like Ice-T and the group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitude), Gangsta rap is a highly controversial music genre. Its songs usually feature lyrics endorsing violence against law enforcement, substance abuse and sexism. While such abrasiveness might seem shocking at first, when one considers the cultural circumstances surrounding the genre’s origin, its emergence becomes much more understandable. Furthermore, when more closely examining some of genre’s more prominent works and artists, it becomes clear that Gangsta rap is a genre of music that is heavily influenced by and permeated with core American cultural ideals and values, some of which date back to the colonial period. Gangsta rap songs employ standard American themes such as the importance of self-reliance, a flagrantly exaggerated boasting, like that employed by folk heroes, distrust of authority, vigilante or frontier justice, and the concept first articulated by Robert Warshow of the gangster as a tragic hero.
The idea of achieving success through one’s own hard work is a core aspect of the American Dream. This is a common theme of many Gangsta rap songs, in which the singer usually refers to the humble circumstances of their origin (usually the “hood”) and then boasts about his self-achieved success. In his song X Gon’ Give It to Ya (2003), rapper Earl “DMX” Simmons emphasizes the struggle associated with his success. Referring to the rap business, he claims “It’s not a fucking game” near the beginning of the song, immediately implying the hard work necessary to become successful as a rapper. Later in the song he goes on to claim “Ain’t never gave nothing to me / But every time I turn around / Cats got they hands out wanting / something from me”, which refers to his self-made nature, claiming that nobody helped him get where he is today. Another good example of this element in a Gangsta rap song can be found in Curtis James “50 Cent” Jackson III’s song In Da Club(2003). The song’s bridge consists of the following: “My flow, my show brought me the dough / That bought me all my fancy things / My crib, my cars, my pools, my jewels / Look, nigga, I done came up and I ain’t changed”. This passage also encapsulates multiple facets of the idea of the self-made man. In the first three of these lines, Jackson states that he gained considerable material success due to his skill as a rapper and then continues to claim that this has not changed him, implying that he is still loyal to his roots. This is then later compounded in verse two, where he goes on to call out his detractors as merely jealous of his success: “I’m that cat by the bar toastin’ to the good life / You that faggot-ass nigga tryin’ to pull me back, right?”. This focus on personal success achieved on one’s own is typical of the from-dishwasher-to-millionaire mentality of the American dream. Through their own talents and prowess have these two artists, according to these songs, made it in the rap business, the struggle of which is emphasized by Simmon’s song, the success by Jackson’s.
The use of boasting about one’s ability to emphasize and rationalize success is a narratological device that has been used since early colonial times. Tall Tales, such as the stories of Davy Crockett, Mike Fink and other similar characters frequently feature their protagonists boasting about their skills and deeds. While these Tall Tales are usually exaggerated to fantastical and often comical degrees, their use of boating is comparable to that of Gangsta rappers like Jackson. Both use it to emphasize that the only thing that helped them overcome their adversity is their own skill and wit, not any higher power. This is an essential part of the American frontier mindset, which saw unlikely heroes rising to the occasion without outside help. And while such exuberant ambition and drive are certainly prominent traits of the frontier which can be found in Gangsta rap, it is not the only one.
One of the main reasons for the considerable amount of controversy that the genre of Gangsta rap attracted in the 1980’s and 1990’s was its often very aggressive lyrics, endorsing violence, especially against law enforcement. Not only is law-enforcement generally mistrusted in Gangsta rap songs, it is often treated with malice and cast in the role of an antagonist. One very explicit example of this theme is the rap group N.W.A.’s appropriately titled protest song Fuck Tha Police (1988). Before even looking at the song’s lyrics in detail, one should consider its narrative framing.
Before the song proper begins, the intro emulates the beginning of a court case, specifically “the case of N.W.A. versus the Police Department”. In it, Andre Romelle “Dr. Dre” Young plays a judge who, using copious amounts of slang and cuss words, introduces all the group’s rappers and orders them to speak as though they are witnesses in court. This at first humorous seeming framing device carries much symbolic significance. By staging their own musical mock trial, N.W.A. clearly states that they see conventional judicial procedures as inadequate to enforce justice. They also make a mockery out of the very law enforcement they oppose so much.
Almost every verse of the song is filled with references to violence against police officers. While shocking on the surface, the rappers do justify their actions by painting police officers to be violent, corrupt and bloodthirsty criminals themselves, serving as the justification for their described acts of frontier justice. This aspect of the song has gained new relevance in recent years with the multiple cases, especially in regards to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is succinctly summarized in the following series of verses, sung by Lorenzo Jerald “MC Ren” Patterson: “Reading my rights and shit, it’s all junk / Pulling out a silly club, so you stand / With a fake-ass badge and a gun in your hand”. These lines show that the members of N.W.A. do not respect the laws that are being enforced and consider them unfair and that they do not respect the police’s conventional symbols of authority. The law as it is being enforced is inadequate to protect the group against the real criminals, who are police officers.
While this hatred of police officers is obviously a reaction to the, to this day, persisting problem of racism by white police officers in the US, distrusting authority and needing to take justice into one’s own hands is a very typical trait of American heroes. The very attainment of independence from England, which was considered an unjust higher power that did not deserve its status and was fond of abusing it, was accomplished through war, an act of violence. This helped the idea of justice through violence and rebellion enter the country’s consciousness and cultural output, which is evident even in the US’s national anthem, which is a war song that mentions the aftermath of battle and rockets as weapons of war. Frontier heroes usually solved their problems using violence and without being able to enlist the help of any form of law enforcement because doing it this way was reflective of the harsh and often unregulated frontier lifestyle. Later, heroic Wild-West outlaws gained mainstream attention to a point where their impact is still perceivable in popular culture to this day. Mainstream Hollywood is filled with action heroes who must take matters into their own hands, usually by killing their enemies themselves. Considering that the majority of Gangsta rappers are African American, an ethnic group that has experienced heavy discrimination by law enforcement, the reason for this trope’s predominance becomes clear. Because the very people who are supposed to protect their livelihood and wellbeing are those who endanger it, Gangsta rappers see themselves forced to do it themselves, using the same means their perceived oppressors do. This idea of opposition to cultural norms and standards through elicit means is another staple of the American character, which is exemplified by the character type that served as the namesake for Gangsta rappers: The gangster.
The gangster is a contemporary form of the classic outlaw, a tragic anti-hero who makes a living through illicit means, solves his problems without the help of authorities in violent ways and, while essentially a self-made man in terms of his criminal career, is tied to others by family or ethnicity. Originally, this character was stereotypically associated with the Italian Mafia, but since the 1970’s, a new, modern form of usually African American Gangsta character has emerged, most notably in rap music. Although the Gangsta is a re-contextualization of the classic gangster as described by Robert Warshow, there are similarities to be found between the two, which tie them together as an essential part of the American psyche. While some of the traits of Warshow’s gangster were already discussed in this essay, namely his self-reliance in his quest for success and outlaw-approach to problem solving, he is a much more complex character than a mere criminal.
Warshaw describes the gangster as a “man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge” (583). This sentiment is very applicable to the Gangsta rapper. Many of them often mention cities or city-associated locations such as the proverbial “hood” in their songs. The “City’s language” in the Gangsta rapper’s case could refer to the specific type of slang that is used within their usually city-based scene and finds its way into their songs. All three of the previously mentioned songs contain numerous examples of this, such as gatfor gun, bubfor champagne, Xfor ecstasy, cribfor house or apartment and the almost universal use of the derogatory term nigga when referring not just to others but to oneself. The latter can also be considered a form of continued African American emancipation, as it represents a minority group claiming a term as their own which was originally intended as a tool of abuse against them, showing an implicit sense of racial community and unity against a common enemy: The white man.
Another quintessential aspect of the gangster according to Warshow is the idea that “one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing” (585) because otherwise all that is left for one is death. The path of every gangster is one of trying to assert oneself in the struggle for success, which “automatically arouses hatred” (Warshow 585). In the context of the Gangsta rapper, this concept is very much relevant as murders within the scene are still tragically common, with cases occurring as recently as June 2018, when rappers Jahvante “Smoke Dawg” Smart and Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo “XXXTenacion” Onfroy were shot and killed. The dangerous and violent nature of this lifestyle is often referenced in Gangsta rap songs, one notable example being Jackson’s “Many Men (Wish Death)” (2003). The song is based on a real-life incident in which Jackson was shot nine times at close range. In this song, Jackson refers to many Gangsta rap tropes, some of which were already discussed in this essay, like distrusting authorities (“Crooked-ass crackers will give my black-ass a hundred years”), boasting about one’s achievements (“I’m the underground king and I ain’t been crowned”) and taking justice into one’s own hands (“’Til I bust a clip in your face, pussy, this beef ain’t over”). However, one of the most interesting lines of this song is the following: “I’m like Paulie in Goodfellas, you can call me the Don”. This line, a reference to the 1990 gangster film Goodfellas, shows that there is a clear awareness of the link between the classic gangster and the Gangsta rapper, and consequently between the Gangsta rapper and the American character.
There are many more instances of American values and ideals that can be found within Gangsta rap, including religion, equality and the embracing of innovation and technology, which will have to be excluded from this essay for the sake of brevity. However, despite having to be restricted to a relatively narrow focus, this essay provided an overview of how contemporary genres of music reference and are influenced by sometimes centuries-old tropes and conventions. In this example, ideas from a nation’s mythology and values find their way into modern music in a re-contextualize form and the persona of the Gangsta rapper as it is described in the genre’s music serves as an intentional evolution of a classic American character type.
Jackson III, Curtis James “50 Cent”. “In Da Club.” Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Shady Records, 2003
Jackson III, Curtis James “50 Cent”. “Many Men (Wish Death).” Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Shady Records, 2003
N.W.A.. “Fuck Tha Police.” Straight Outta Compton, Ruthless Records, 1988
Simmons, Earl “DMX”. “X Gon Give It to Ya.” Cradle 2 the Grave, Def Jam Records, 2002
Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, 1948