By Gabriel Assouline
I was 13 years old when I got my hands on a taped copy of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle. It got into my hands from my brother via our older cousin in Miami Beach, the same cousin that had force fed us Miami Bass music and 2 Live Crew a few years before. From the moment I put that tape in my walkman until I Was 20 years old, gangster rap became the center of my universe and the soundtrack to the next 10 years of my life.
And so, as the title of this article goes, The Source magazine became my holy grail of gangster rap news. I remember going to the store before school every day at the beginning of the month checking for the latest issue. The Source was based in New York and had a tradition of focusing on East Coast rap however once in a while, I would glance at the magazine stand and see a palm tree or a low rider on the cover and I was lucky enough to be treated to a story on a West Coast rapper. Needless to say my nights were spent plastering pictures from The Source (and Vibe and Rap pages etc..) on my walls, calling a 1-800 phone service numbers in the states where one could hear snippets of rap releases and jotting down my own raps.
West coast gangster rap became my definition of cool. It also set the standard for what was cool as well as what was innovative and funky in music and pop culture during the early and mid nineties creating a legacy that is strong until today.
Why did it resonate so much? Why did Gangster rap become a leading musical and cultural force? And why were its biggest fans young white suburban kids?
For me personally, gangster rap made its way into my life and filled in the blanks for an adolescent trying to find his place in the world. It helped me, like countless others, assert myself and come out of my shell. Without knowing it, I started to pattern my look and attitude after the rappers I loved. While staying true to myself, I got an inevitable confidence boost by dressing and dancing like my favorite rappers. I even started DJ’ing and eventually producing in my infinite quest to make music a la DJ Quik.
Above all else gangster rap became mainstream because it was good. The producers making the music were talented and resourceful, digging up old disco and funk songs that no one from my generation knew and mixing them with drums that made the final product sound new and innovative. The talent to come out of California in the early 90s was unprecedented, producing classic albums and launching the careers of many present day moguls.
Gangster rap benefitted from timing as well since it reached mainstream status when Gen Y (or X)ers hit adolescence. The angst of gangster rap mirrored the angst of adolescents trying to figure out who they were. It was the soundtrack to our lives, like a bigger brother imparting knowledge and experience and encouragement. A continual pep talk from a street person that I would likely never come across in my everyday life. (Rappers’ attitudes towards women, as derogatory is they were, helped as well – It was much easier to brush off getting rejected by a girl when the mantra you could always resort to was “We don’t love these Hoes”).
As negative as rap music seemed and as violent as it was, looking
back, it almost seems comical and naive. There was also a serious dichotomy between the music and the message. Happy, melodic and fun instrumentals overlapped with sometimes angry, defiant boastful and hateful lyrics. In the 90s the main problem in America WAS gangster rap. As kids we knew that these bad guys were not really bad guys. Sure there was gang violence in parts of the US but the world wasn’t as fucked up as it is today & so we could dream and pretend we were Mc Eiht in Menace II Society or Tupac trying to get around.
And dream we had to. This was a time way before Youtube, when rap videos could only be seen on Rap City, a 30 minute daily rap video show. Rap had very little radio play, even less so if it was West Coast rap (I grew up in Montreal, Canada). The lack of immediate access only added to the Mystique and fascination: the meaning behind names, the neighborhoods and cities they were from, the way they dressed and the melodic nature of the music gave these rappers comic book superhero status – only they were real, just beyond reach. And so the quest for information continued, from asking my cousin to send me tapes of radio stations in Miami to obsessively reading the liner notes to each album and studying the art.
While the 90s represented the rise to mainstream status and dominance of rap music, and I must point out that I am a huge fan of rap in general, the early 90s (91 -95) belonged to the West Coast. Despite all the strong rap artists to emerge from the East during that time, the early 90s were the only time when some of the biggest new york stars, from Notorious BIG to Masta Ace, Erick Sermon and Big L were tapping into the west coast sound.
The golden age of west coast rap brought on a series of classic albums and superstars that donned the covers of mainstream magazines. Today, we notice the emergence of a new crop of west coast artists attempting to reach pop star status. The question remains if these artists (Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy etc…) will develop their own L.A musical sound or simply rely on the safe hit making formulas used too often in music these days. One thing is for certain, the era those of us old enough to have experienced knew will never be reproduced.
Many of the artists that led the culture have now faded into obscurity, some have changed styles to fit the current trend while others have continued to evolve their sound while staying true to the melodic G funk/P funk roots. As for me, I’ll keep playing this music that represents much more than just a nostalgia trip and keep singing the praises of its creators.
TOP 10 GANGSTER RAP ALBUMS