The 1973 album Hustler's Convention by Lightnin' Rod and Jaren Clark featured lyrics that deal with street life, including pimping and the hustling of drugs. The Last Poets member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin delivers rhyming vocals in the urban slang of his time, and together with the other Last Poets members, was quite influential on later hip hop groups, such as Public Enemy. Many rappers, such as Ice-T and Mac Dre, have credited pimp and writer Iceberg Slim with influencing their rhymes.
Rudy Ray Moore's stand-up comedy and films based on his Dolemite hustler-pimp alter ego also influenced gangsta rap and are still a popular source for samples. Finally, blaxploitation films of the 1970s, with their vivid depictions of black underworld figures, were a major inspiration as well. For example, the opening skit on Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle is a homage to the famous bathtub scene in the 1972 film Super Fly, while the rapper Notorious B.I.G. took his alias "Biggie Smalls" from a character in the 1975 film Let's Do It Again.
Tracy "Ice-T" Morrow, was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1958. As a teenager, he moved to Los Angeles where he rose to prominence in the West Coast hip hop scene. In 1986, Ice-T released "6 in the Mornin'", which is often regarded as among the first gangsta rap songs. Ice-T had been MCing since the early '80s, but first turned to gangsta rap themes after being influenced by Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D and his 1985 album Schoolly D, often considered to be the originator of gangsta rap. In an interview with PROPS magazine, Ice-T said:
Here's the exact chronological order of what really went down: The first record that came out along those lines was Schoolly D's "P.S.K." Then the syncopation of that rap was used by me when I made "6 in the Mornin'". The vocal delivery was the same: '...P.S.K. is makin' that green', '...six in the morning, police at my door'. When I heard that record I was like "Oh @#!*% !" and call it a bite or what you will but I dug that record. My record didn't sound like P.S.K., but I liked the way he was flowing with it. P.S.K. was talking about Park Side Killers but it was very vague. That was the only difference, when Schoolly did it, it was "...one by one, I'm knockin' em out." All he did was represent a gang on his record. I took that and wrote a record about guns, beating people down, and all that with "6 in the Mornin'". At the same time my single came out, Boogie Down Productions hit with Criminal Minded
, which was a gangster-based album. It wasn't about messages or "You Must Learn", it was about gangsterism.
In 2011, Ice-T repeated in his autobiography that Schoolly D was his inspiration for gangsta rap. Ice-T continued to release gangsta albums for the remainder of the 1980s: Rhyme Pays in 1987, Power in 1988, and The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say in 1989. Ice-T's lyrics also contained strong political commentary, and often played the line between glorifying the gangsta lifestyle and criticizing it as a no-win situation.
Schoolly D's debut album, Schoolly D, and especially the song "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?", would heavily influence not only Ice-T, but also Eazy-E and N.W.A (most notably in the song "Boyz-n-the-Hood") as well as the Beastie Boys on their seminal hardcore hip hop-influenced album Licensed to Ill (1986).
Boogie Down Productions released their first single, "Say No Brother (Crack Attack Don't Do It)", in 1986. It was followed by "South-Bronx/P is Free" and "9mm Goes Bang" in the same year. The latter is the most gangsta-themed song of the three; in it, KRS-One boasts about shooting a crack dealer and his posse to death (in self-defense). The album Criminal Minded followed in 1987, and was the first rap album to have fire arms on its cover. Shortly after the release of this album, BDP's DJ, Scott LaRock was shot and killed. After this, BDP's subsequent records were more focused with the inadequate rationale removed.
The first blockbuster gangsta rap album was N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, released in 1988. Straight Outta Compton would establish West Coast hip hop as a vital genre, and establish Los Angeles as a legitimate rival to hip hop's long-time capital, New York City. Straight Outta Compton sparked the first major controversy regarding hip hop lyrics when their song "Fuck tha Police" earned a letter from FBI Assistant Director, Milt Ahlerich, strongly expressing law enforcement's resentment of the song. Due to the influence of Ice T and N.W.A, gangsta rap is often credited as being an originally West Coast phenomenon, despite the contributions of East Coast acts like Boogie Down Productions in shaping the genre.
In the early 1990s, former N.W.A member Ice Cube would further influence gangsta rap with his hardcore, socio-political solo albums, which suggested the potential of gangsta rap as a political medium to give voice to inner-city youth. N.W.A's second album, Efil4zaggin (1991) (released after Ice Cube's departure from the group), broke ground as the first gangsta rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard pop charts.
Aside from N.W.A and Ice T, Too Short (from Oakland, California), Kid Frost, and the South Gate-based Latino group Cypress Hill were pioneering West Coast rappers. Above the Law also played an important role in the gangsta rap movement, as their 1990 debut album Livin' Like Hustlers, as well as their guest appearance on N.W.A's 1991 Efil4zaggin, foreshadowing the dominance of the genre in 1990s starting with Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
The Beastie Boys were one of the first groups to identify themselves as "gangsters", and one of the first popular rap groups to talk about violence and drug and alcohol use, though largely in a more humorous manner. They had started out as a hardcore punk band, but after introduction to producer Rick Rubin and the exit of Kate Schellenbach they became a rap group. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, their 1986 album Licensed to Ill is "filled with enough references to guns, drugs, and empty sex (including the pornographic deployment of a Wiffleball bat in "Paul Revere") to qualify as a gangsta-rap cornerstone."
The Beasties' 1989 album Paul's Boutique included the similarly themed tracks "Car Thief," "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun," and "High-Plains Drifter." In 1986, the Los Angeles-based group C.I.A. rapped over Beastie Boy tracks for songs such as "My Posse" and "Ill-Legal", and the Beastie Boys' influence can be seen significantly in N.W.A's early albums.
The New York rap group Run DMC is often credited with popularizing hardcore and confrontational attitudes and lyrics in hip hop culture, and were one of the first rap groups to dress in flashy, gang-like street clothing. Their stripped-down, rock-inspired beats were also important in establishing the early gangsta rap production style. The seminal Long Island-based group Public Enemy featured aggressive, politically charged lyrics, which had an especially strong influence on gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube. East Coast hardcore rappers like Rakim, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and EPMD also reflected the trend in hip-hop music in the late 1980s towards hard-hitting, angry, aggressive, and politically conscious lyrics, revolving around crime, violence, poverty, war and gunplay.
The Houston-based group known as the Geto Boys came out around the late 1980s and made songs containing both gangsta themes of crime and violence and sociopolitical commentary. The group notably released proto-mafioso rap music with the song "Scarface", a track centered on selling cocaine and killing rival gang members. The Geto Boys are also known for being the first rap group to sample from the movie Scarface, a film which became the basis for various mafioso rap samples in the 1990s. Furthermore, the Geto Boys, along with Jam Master J's and Erick Sermon's group Flatlinerz and Prince Paul's and RZA's group Gravediggaz, are often cited as pioneers of "horrorcore" rap, a transgressive and abrasive subgenre of hardcore rap or gangsta rap which focuses on common horror themes, such as the supernatural and the occult, often with gothic or macabre lyrics, satanic imagery, and slasher film or splatter film-like violence.
Ice-T released one of the seminal albums of the genre, OG: Original Gangster in 1991. It also contained a song by his new thrash metal group Body Count, who released a self titled album in 1992. Particular controversy surrounded one of its songs "Cop Killer". The rock song was intended to speak from the viewpoint of a police target seeking revenge on racist, brutal cops. Ice-T's rock song infuriated government officials, the National Rifle Association and various police advocacy groups. Consequently, Time Warner Music refused to release Ice-T's upcoming album Home Invasion and dropped Ice-T from the label. Ice-T suggested that the furor over the song was an overreaction, telling journalist Chuck Philips "...they've done movies about nurse killers and teacher killers and student killers. Arnold Schwarzenegger blew away dozens of cops as the Terminator. But I don't hear anybody complaining about that." In the same interview, Ice-T suggested to Philips that the misunderstanding of Cop Killer, the misclassification of it as a rap song (not a rock song), and the attempts to censor it had racial overtones: "The Supreme Court says it's OK for a white man to burn a cross in public. But nobody wants a black man to write a record about a cop killer."
Ice-T's next album, Home Invasion was postponed as a result of the controversy, and was finally released in 1993. While it contained gangsta elements, it was his most political album to date. After a proposed censoring of the Home Invasion album cover art, he left Warner Bros. Records. Ice-T's subsequent releases went back to straight gangsta-ism, but were never as popular as his earlier releases. He had alienated his core audience with his involvement in metal, his emphasis on politics and with his uptempo Bomb-Squad style beats during a time when G-funk was popular. He published a book "The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a @#!*% ?" in 1994.
In 1992, former N.W.A member Dr. Dre released The Chronic, a massive seller (eventually going triple platinum) which showed that explicit gangsta rap could hold mass commercial appeal just like more pop-oriented rappers such as MC Hammer, The Fresh Prince, and Tone Lōc. The album established the dominance of West Coast gangsta rap and Dre's new post-N.W.A label, Death Row Records (owned by Marion "Suge" Knight), as Dre's album showcased a stable of promising new Death Row rappers. The album also began the subgenre of G-funk, a slow, drawled form of hip hop that dominated the rap charts for some time.
Extensively sampling P-Funk bands, especially Parliament and Funkadelic, G-funk was multi-layered, yet simple and easy to dance to. The simple message of its lyrics, that life's problems could be overcome by guns, alcohol, and marijuana, endeared it to a teenage audience. The single "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang" became a crossover hit, with its humorous, House Party-influenced video becoming an MTV staple despite that network's historic orientation towards rock music.
Another success was Ice Cube's Predator album, released at about the same time as The Chronic in 1992. It sold over 5 million copies and was #1 in the charts, propelled by the hit single "It Was a Good Day", despite the fact that Ice Cube was not a Death Row artist. One of the genre's biggest crossover stars was Dre's protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg (Doggystyle), whose exuberant, party-oriented themes made songs such as "Gin and Juice" club anthems and top hits nationwide. In 1996, 2Pac signed with Death Row and released the multi-platinum double album All Eyez on Me. Not long afterward, his shocking murder brought gangsta rap into the national headlines and propelled his posthumous The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory album (released under the alias "Makaveli") (which eerily featured an image of 2Pac being crucified on the front cover) to the top of the charts. Warren G was another G-funk musician along with the now deceased Nate Dogg. Other successful G-Funk influenced artists included Spice 1, MC Eiht and MC Ren, all of them reaching decent positions on the Billboard 100, in spite of not being associated with Death Row.
Mafioso rap is a hardcore hip hop subgenre founded by Kool G Rap in the late 1980s. It is the pseudo-Mafia extension of East Coast hardcore rap, and is considered the counterpart of West Coast G-Funk rap. Mafioso rap is characterized by references to famous mobsters and mafiosi, racketeering, and organized crime in general (but especially the Italian-American Mafia, the Sicilian Mafia, African-American organized crime, and Latin American organized crime or drug cartels). Though some mafioso rap was more gritty and street-oriented, many other mafioso rap artists frequently focused on lavish, self-indulgent, materialistic, and luxurious subject matter, such as expensive drugs, cars, and expensive champagne. Though the genre died down for several years, it re-emerged in 1995 when Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon released his critically acclaimed solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.... 1995 also saw the release of Doe or Die by Nas' protégé AZ and the release of the album 4,5,6 by subgenre originator Kool G Rap. This album featured other mafioso rap artists MF Grimm, Nas and B-1. These three albums brought the genre to mainstream recognition, and inspired other East Coast artists, such as Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, to adopt the same themes as well with their albums Reasonable Doubt, Life After Death and It Was Written (respectively). Though Mafioso rap declined in the mainstream by the late 1990s, it saw somewhat of a revival in the mid 2000s with Ghostface Killah's Fishscale, Jay-Z's American Gangster, and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II. Similarly, in recent years, many rappers, such as T.I., Rick Ross, Fabolous, Jadakiss, Jim Jones, and Cassidy have maintained popularity with lyrics about self-centered urban criminal lifestyles or "hustling". Lil' Kim's mafioso album La Bella Mafia, released in 2003, was a commercial success, receiving platinum certification.
Meanwhile, rappers from New York City, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Papoose, Remy Ma, Onyx, Big L, Mobb Deep, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim, and the The L.O.X, among others, pioneered a grittier sound known as East Coast hardcore hip hop. In 1994, both Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. released their debut albums Illmatic and Ready to Die respectively, which paved the way for New York City to take back dominance from the West Coast. In an interview for The Independent in 1994, the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA commented on the term "gangsta rap" and its association with his group's music and hip hop at the time:
Our music is not 'gangsta rap'. There's no such thing. The label was created by the media to limit what we can say. We just deliver the truth in a brutal fashion. The young black male is a target. Snoop (Doggy Dogg) has gone four times platinum and makes more money than the president. They don't like that, so you hear 'ban this, ban that'. We attack people's emotions. It's a real live show that brings out the inside in people. Like I said, intense.
It is widely speculated that the ensuing "East Coast/West Coast" battle between Death Row Records and Bad Boy Records resulted in the deaths of Death Row Records' 2Pac and Bad Boy Records' The Notorious B.I.G. Even before the murders, Death Row had begun to unravel, as co-founder Dr. Dre had left earlier in 1996; in the aftermath of 2Pac's death, label owner Suge Knight was sentenced to prison for a parole violation, and Death Row proceeded to sink quickly as most of its remaining artists, including Snoop Dogg, left. Dr. Dre, at the MTV Video Music Awards, claimed that "gangsta rap was dead". While Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Entertainment fared better than its West Coast rival, it eventually began to lose popularity and support by the end of the decade, due to its pursuit of a more mainstream sound, as well as challenges from Atlanta and New Orleans-based labels, especially, Master P's No Limit stable of popular rappers.
After the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls and the media attention the murders generated, gangsta rap became an even greater commercial force. However, most of the industry's major labels were in turmoil, bankrupt, or creatively stagnant, and new labels representing the rap scenes in new locations sprang up.
Master P's No Limit Records label, based out of New Orleans, became quite popular in the late 1990s, though critical success was very scarce, with the exceptions of some later additions like Mystikal (Ghetto Fabulous, 1998). No Limit had begun its rise to national popularity with Master P's The Ghetto Is Trying to Kill Me! (1994), and had major hits with Silkk the Shocker (Charge It 2 Da Game, 1998) and C-Murder (Life or Death, 1998). Cash Money Records, also based out of New Orleans, had enormous commercial success beginning in the late 1990s with a similar musical style but utilized a quality-over-quantity business approach unlike No Limit.
Memphis collective Hypnotize Minds, led by Three 6 Mafia and Project Pat, have taken gangsta rap to some of its darker extremes. Led by in-house producers DJ Paul and Juicy J, the label became known for its pulsating, menacing beats and uncompromisingly thuggish lyrics. However, in the mid-2000s, the group began attaining more mainstream popularity, eventually culminating in the Three 6 Mafia winning an Academy Award for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle and Flow.
Midwest gangsta rap originated in the mid-1990s and rose to major prominence in the 2000s. However, in the 2010s a new form of gangsta rap known as drill emerged from the Midwest. Drill gained popularity by rappers such as Lil Durk, Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and Lil Herb. Midwest Hip Hop was originally distinctive for its faster-paced flow. This is evident in the styles of the earliest Midwestern rappers to release albums, Chicago's Twista and Cleveland's Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Bone Thugs, known for their fast, harmonizing vocals coupled with an ultra-quick rap delivery, would achieve major success with their critically acclaimed 1995 album E 1999 Eternal, which featured a major hit in the Grammy-winning "Tha Crossroads".
Houston first came on to the national scene in the late 1980s with the violent and disturbing stories told by the Geto Boys, with member Scarface achieving major solo success in the mid-90s.
The Chopped and Screwed genre was developed in Houston, Texas which remains the location most associated with the style. The late DJ Screw, a South Houston DJ, is credited with the creation of and early experimentation with the genre. DJ Screw began making mixtapes of the slowed-down music in the early 1990s and began the Screwed Up Click. This provided a significant outlet for MCs in the South-Houston area, and helped local rappers such as Big Moe, Lil' Flip, E.S.G., UGK, Lil' Keke, South Park Mexican, Spice 1 and Z-Ro gain regional and sometimes national prominence.
Narco-rap is a music scene, similar to the early underground gangsta-rap scene, that emerged in northeastern Mexico and southern Texas. Its lyrical content, popular among Latino youth, is violent and focuses on the power of drug cartels and the gruesomeness of the drug war in the border region. Narco-rap emerged in the urban area of Tamaulipas, a turf currently under armed dispute between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Narco-rappers sing about the life of mobsters and the reality of the cities under the cartel's rule. Some of the key players of the genre are Cano y Blunt, DemenT and Big Los.
Before the late 1990s, gangsta rap, while a huge-selling genre, had been regarded as well outside of the pop mainstream, committed to representing the experience of the inner-city and not "selling out" to the pop charts. However, the rise of Bad Boy Records, propelled by the massive crossover success of Bad Boy head Sean "Puffy" Combs's 1997 ensemble album, No Way Out, on the heels of the media attention generated by the murders of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G., signaled a major stylistic change in gangsta rap (or as it is referred to on the East Coast, hardcore rap), as it morphed into a new subgenre of hip hop which would become even more commercially successful and popularly accepted.
The earlier, somewhat controversial crossover success enjoyed by popular gangsta rap songs like "Gin and Juice" gave way to gangsta rap's becoming a widely accepted staple on the pop charts in the late 1990s. For example, between the release of The Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album Ready to Die in 1994 and his follow-up, the posthumous Life After Death in 1997, his sound changed from a darker, tense production, with lyrics projecting desperation and paranoia, to a cleaner, more laid-back sound, fashioned for popular consumption (though the references to guns, drug dealing and life as a thug on the street remained).
R&B-styled hooks and instantly recognizable samples of well-known soul and pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s were the staples of this sound, which was showcased primarily in Sean "Puffy" Combs's latter-day production work for The Notorious B.I.G. ("Mo Money, Mo Problems"), Mase ("Feels So Good"), and non-Bad Boy artists such as Jay-Z ("Can I Get A...") and Nas ("Street Dreams"). Also achieving similar levels of success with a similar sound at the same time as Bad Boy was Master P and his No Limit label in New Orleans, as well as the New Orleans upstart Cash Money label. While Souljah Boy sings in his raps, he has had some hard-hitting records.
Many of the artists who achieved such mainstream success in the 2000s, such as Jay-Z, DMX, then 50 Cent and G-Unit, originated from the gritty 1990s East Coast rap scene and were influenced by hardcore artists such as The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas. Mase and Cam'ron were typical of a more relaxed, casual flow that became the pop-gangsta norm. By contrast, other rappers like Eminem and DMX enjoyed commercial success in the late 1990s by rapping about ever-more macabre tales of death and violence, maintaining commercial relevance by attempting to be controversial and subversive, growing on the Horrorcore rap style born in the late 1980s [Insane Poetry - 12' Strokes Til Midnight 12" 1988] to early 1990's [Esham - Boomin' Words From Hell aka "Boomin' '90."].
The explicit nature of gangsta rap's lyrics has made it heavily controversial. There is also debate about the relationship between gangsta rap and real-world crime taking the form of a chicken or the egg scenario.
Critics of gangsta rap hold that it glorifies and encourages criminal behavior, and may be at least partially to blame for the problem of street gangs. Although this view is often stereotyped as that of white conservatives, it has been shared by members of the black community, most notably Bill Cosby.
Those who are supportive or at least less critical of gangsta rap hold that crime on the street level is for the most part a reaction to poverty and that gangsta rap reflects the reality of lower class life. Many believe that the blaming of crime on gangsta rap is a form of unwarranted moral panic; The World Development Report 2011, for instance, confirmed that most street gang members maintain that poverty and unemployment is what drove them to crime; none made reference to music. Ice Cube famously satirized the blame placed on gangsta rap for social ills in his song "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It".
Moreover, English scholar Ronald A.T. Judy has argued that gangsta rap reflects the experience of blackness at the end of political economy, when capital is no longer wholly produced by human labor but in a globalized system of commodities. In this economy, gangsta rap traffics blackness as a commodifiable affect of "being a nigga." In other words, gangsta rap defines the experience of blackness, in which he locates in gangsta rap's deployment of the word "nigga," in this new global economic system as "adaptation to the force of commodification." For Judy, nigga (and gangsta rap) becomes an ontologically authentic category for describing the condition of being black in the modern "realm of things."
Despite this, many who hold that gangsta rap is not responsible for social ills are critical of the way many gangsta rappers intentionally exaggerate their criminal pasts for the sake of street credibility. Rick Ross and Slim Jesus among others have been heavily criticized for this.