Golden Age Gangster Rap and Alternative Hip Hop Music
Hip Hop Ya Don't Stop!
I remember the first time I picked up the album by NWA. It was called "Straight Outta Compton"; on the cover was a horde of rough-looking thugs, dressed mostly in black, looking down at you, one pointing a gun at your dome (we might assume); one of the rappers from the group put out his own album showing the same gang, displaying a flag with skull and crossbones on it (the theme of the flag with the skull and cross bones was continued in Eazy's music video, "We Want Eazy"). If all that wasn't ominous enough, the title song of "Straight Outta Compton certainly was: Rough beat, which fully captured the underground sound, truly gave you the feeling that these were the happenings and the men of the underworld; then a strange buzzing sound and droning horn, somewhat reminiscent (but more chaotically terrifying) of Public Enemy's anti-music sound; then the opening lyrics: "Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf-cker named Ice Cube. From the gang called N-ggas With Attitudes". The sound and lyrics inspired images of a gang of thugs marching the streets, terrorizing the community, and no one was exempt from the havoc. Then the retreat to the shack, where AK 47s and Uzis and 9mm's were scattered about, where they could get drunk and high and cook up the next plot or the next gang assassination. It could have been the Beastie Boys, but at least the Beastie Boys played the role of comics. This crew seemed deadly serious. The next song on the album proved to be even more forceful, with a political undertone, and to which any minority in a poor neighborhood could relate. It was called "F-ck the Police": "Some police think they have the authority to kill a minority". Though violent and possibly offensive, it spoke of defense against police brutality and portrayed the police on trial for their offenses. The gang was the Ruthless Villain, Ren; The Gangsta Gangsta, Ice Cube; Eazy M-F'n E; DJ Yella and Dr. Dre, the producer. The sound and lyrics were angry and cynical, to say the least. And it would be a trend that lasted for decades. This was the late eighties and Gangster Rap is still popular today in 2012.
And the list goes on: Gangsters, pimps, prostitutes: This was the subject matter. The Geto Boys came along to add pure psychosis to the mix. Rap was pushing the boundaries and exposing the truth; including acts whose program consisted of pornographic imagery, such as The 2 Live Crew from Miami. Of course, we can't forget Tupac Shukur with his hard driving thug life and politically charged lyrics that inspired re-examination of social issues and desperation facing the ghetto communities across the country.
Such groups and artists like NWA were musical reporters of sorts, exposing the reality of such places as South Central Los Angeles where drug dealing, gangs, and murder had become prevalent and a part of life in such areas. In many ways, we can say they just presented the public with facts, in a creative and musical way.
Hard on the heels of these acts, and almost at the opposite extreme, were a new breed of rap act which I can only term "hippy". Commonly, they are referred to as Alternative. These acts included De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. The rappers in these groups had colorful names like Trugoy the Dove, which was really his favorite snack, yogurt, spelled backwards. They were mellow, story tellers, and seemed to be smoking something. But they were innovative: Grandmaster Flash said of De La Soul that they were just "different".
So, Hip Hop was expanding and had changed significantly since the days of "Yes, Yes Y'all" and the party songs.
There was a long era of Gangster Rap but Hip Hop continued to evolve. Arguably one of the most unique and innovative rappers to drop heavy bombs in the late nineties was a poor kid from Detroit named Marshall Mathers who went by the stage name, Eminem. His deft and imaginative, intricate, phrasing and use of lyrics and vocal skills were unique and unmatched. He was the first white rapper to show pure street skills on the mic, and had an important story to tell that was yet another instance of Hip Hop exposing the truth of existence in the underbelly of America. He might have outdone the psychos that preceded him, but he left a cultural mark that was some of the most thought-provoking material ever produced. Eminem made America face itself. He spoke of the terror of poverty, the abuse of a crazy pill-popping mother and the manipulative mind games of an insane wife. But he never hesitated to expose his own inward and outward torture.
And this has been the value of Hip Hop from the beginning: It has been an unapologetic public dialogue on what America rarely wants revealed. It is the time keeper, the jester, the one that always wants to bring up what no one wants to hear, but, nonetheless, should be heard.