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Our Gangstas

Is gangsta rap getting more profound? Well...no.

Gangsta rap isn't dying easily. The lion's share of critics have long since tired of its formulas, most major record companies (cowed by the Charlton Hestons of the world) are doing their best to distance themselves from lyricists deemed irresponsible by everybody from Christian rightists to radical feminists, and inventive and increasingly popular hip-hop acts such as Spearhead and the Fugees are inching away from street stereotypes even as they're pushing their music in new and intriguing directions.

But a glance at the Billboard charts proves that hardcore outfits are a long way from extinction. The press is portraying the latest platters from R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Beatles as the big kahunas of the holiday record-buying season, but that's a Caucasian-centric view of the industry. When sales totals are tallied at the end of 1996, there's a better-than-even chance that recently issued platters by Snoop Doggy Dogg (Tha Doggfather), the late Tupac Shakur (The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, credited to Makaveli, a Tupac pseudonym) and the Westside Connection (Bow Down) will have stomped the hell out of Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain and given Paul, George and Ringo a run for their money. Gangsta groups remain shrimps when it comes to touring; in fact, Denver's largest promoters passed on the upcoming local date by the Westside Connection, featuring Ice Cube, Mack 10 and WC (see Feedback for more details). But when it comes to moving units, gangstas are still among the biggest players in the game.

The reason for the continued allegiance of a sizable number of music buyers to this form has little to do with artistic development, however. While Tha Doggfather, The 7 Day Theory and Bow Down often make entertaining listening, they don't take gangsta rap to a new level. Far from it: These three manifestos exemplify the creative cul-de-sac in which hardcore currently resides. If there's a way out, these artists haven't found it.

The best candidate for a birth year for gangsta rap is 1987, when Boogie Down Productions released the album Criminal Minded. On the album's cover, KRS-One, who subsequently evolved into one of the most conscious of rappers, posed with a gun--and throughout his lyrics, he used it. The cut "9mm Goes Bang" is only one example: In telling about a double murder, KRS-One barks, "They fell down on the floor but one was still alive/So I put my nine-millimeter right between his eyes." Straight Outta Compton, the 1988 album by N.W.A. (the group that gave us gangsta superstars Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E), took this imagery one step further. "Fuck Tha Police" was such an explicit call for revenge against the repressive Los Angeles Police Department that the FBI actually investigated the band, while "Gangsta Gangsta" found Ice Cube spouting an especially startling brand of ghetto wisdom: "Do I look like a motherfuckin' role model/To a kid lookin' up to me?/Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money."

From the beginning, the middlebrow masses found this type of verbal warfare hugely offensive--which, of course, it was intended to be. But there was more to the gangsta wave that swelled in N.W.A.'s wake than mere exploitation. Indeed, hardcore was, at least in the beginning, as aesthetically defensible as it was purposeful. The men who became gangsta rappers were quite literally disenfranchised: They were raised in an atmosphere of hopelessness, crime, addiction and poverty that gave them little reason to see America as the land of opportunity. But instead of capitulating to despair, they recast the iconography of the street--weapons, booze, weed, prostitutes and so on--as talismans of power.

This was a bold and adventurous ploy. Suddenly, the very elements of underclass life that came in for the most vigorous harangues from society at large were given a positive spin. In the view of these revolutionaries, dope dealing was an admirable profession; treating women like dirt was an indication of masculinity; mindless violence was a perfectly understandable response to life's disappointments; spending one's day swilling liquor and smoking dope was something to be proud of; and fighting the powers was more important than following the rules. Moreover, Martin Luther King was a sap. Malcolm X became the philosopher of choice, and his most famous aphorism--"by any means necessary"--the movement's driving force.

In short, gangstas turned their anguish into a very personal mythology. But as time wore on and hardcore rap became more prevalent, it became clear that most apostles of the genre didn't realize that myth is a narrative form that demands shape, structure, consistency and internal logic to make it work. They understood melodrama but fell short when it came to anything more significant than glorifying that which is routinely snubbed by the defenders of the status quo. Furthermore, a majority failed to invent fresh themes or lyrical concepts that would have allowed them to expand the scope of their sonic universe. Hip-hop production techniques became ever more innovative (whatever you think of Dr. Dre, you've got to grant that he has a great set of ears), but the words--the very foundation of the music--stayed mired in cliches.

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