During the early 90s, Hip-Hop saw a gradual change in subject matter. While the majority of 80s Hip-Hop consisted of raps about partying, women, and later on in the 80s, the state of the disenfranchised in urban ghettos; the 90s saw an angrier tone. Rappers from negative circumstances decided to speak about the criminal activity they had to engage in to survive those circumstances. Even if they didn’t speak about themselves personally, they spoke about the gangsta lifestyle , which was fascinating to a young broke ghetto kid looking up to the only people in their neighborhood that had money; the hustlers. America became fascinated with these ghetto tales, and the rappers would become the news reporters of these hoods, speaking about what’s really going on from the criminal’s perspective. From gangsta rap you were able to get an understanding of how the downtrodden live, the stress that comes with it, and why they resorted to doing heinous acts in order to make ends meet. Early storytellers of this kind of life included N.W.A, Schooly D, Krs-One, Ice-T and much more. Their ability to actually speak about what was considered at the time to be taboo subjects showed other rappers that they can speak about their personal turmoil in the street life as well.
This music changed the world and captivated many. Violence just sells, that’s why we have action and horror movies. The great thing about street rap though is that not only were people able to tell their stories but there were requirements to being this sort of artist. For one you had to be lyrical, it kind of went hand in hand because your words were so important, and many artists were being so descriptive and utilizing imagery. From the street corners came the battling and the competition of who’s the best M.C. where a brutal loss in that arena may lead to you parting ways with your garments. The golden era had a lot of this music. Whether in the East Coast : Notorious B.I.G, Nas, Jay-z, Wu-tang Clan,M.O.P, Mobb Deep etc., West Coast: Tha Dogg Pound, 2pac, E-40, CMW, Ice Cube, etc., or Down South: UGK, 8 ball and MJG, the geto boys, Master P, etc. we were able to hear the stories of ghettos all around the U.S. The popularity of gangsta rap was at an all time high during the mid 90s to early 2000s, which lead to high record sales and basically set the financial foundation for the longevity of Hip-Hop. A record label like Death Row records generated more than 400 million dollars in sales making straight gangsta music. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a gangsta rapper to go gold or platinum the first week during that time. In 2003 50 cent went diamond with Get Rich or Die Tryin and that album was as gangsta as it gets.
During the mid to late 2000’s we started to see a change. While there were always conscious Hip-Hop artists, the rise of Kanye West and artists like Kid Cudi saw artists making less threatening music that was more inclusive of other genres production wise. Kanye would be in the forefront of this movement, as his music gained popularity. I believe the specific time that marked the decline of gangsta rap was when Kanye went against 50 cent in a sales record battle in September of 2007. The competition was marketed beautifully and it felt like we were about to witness a heavyweight boxing match. Ultimately Kanye would beat out 50 cent in the sales battle. Younger fans were just happier listening to Kanye speak about “The good life” and loved the experimentation of sounds rather than a hardcore violent rap album. Add in the overall decline in music record sales in general, then it became almost impossible for a gangsta rap album to do great numbers after 2007.
Trap music on the other hand which would also be considered gangsta rap saw a surge in popularity during the late 2000’s as well. While trap music has been good for popular singles , it still hasn’t been as financially successful as other rap albums with less aggressive content. At the moment , Hip-Hop is the complete opposite of the 90s, the conscious and non-threatening rappers are the ones selling out arenas and going platinum. Currently the mark for monetary success in rap is crossing that 100,000 mark during the first week of sales. The individuals that are consistently able to meet that for the most part are not gangsta rappers. Among the list of consistent artists is Big Sean,Wale, Drake, Kanye (of course), Kendrick Lamar, and J.Cole. Even the trap music of this current era focuses more on Drug usage, and repetitive catchy hooks then the story telling, lyrical gangsta rap that we’re used to. In short there’s been a change of the guard.
So Is gangsta rap dead? No it’s not dead , it’s just not nearly as successful as it used to be. Because Hip-Hop has such street origins, there will always be room for an individual from the hood to tell their story. Although Street rappers are no longer doing Drake numbers, they’re still able to get a core fan base and make adequate show money while spewing aggressive content. Artists like Schoolboy Q, Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Pusha T and more recently YG have even reached mid-level success with their gangsta music. They are some of the few gangsta rappers that are still doing decent numbers. Ultimately,what it comes down to is that the conscious and less threatening rappers have just made better music in the last ten years or so. Those rappers are the ones that seem to have the better lyrical ability. Street rappers started lacking in creativity so it made it easy for other rap forms to thrive. I believe Nas said it best in the song “Can’t forget about You” from his Hip-Hop is dead album; he states ” Heinous crimes help record sales more than creative lines”. Gangsta rappers started becoming caricatures at one point and they lacked growth. At one point artists started receiving record deals based on their street credibility alone and not their artistry. That made for a bunch of repetitive street rappers that just spoke of violence without being the least bit clever. This increased sensationalism was a big mistake because it caused gangsta rap to get stale, and younger fans wanted more.The golden era’s aggressive rap was different, creative, and prolific. Now the most prolific artist in the game is Kanye West.
Gangsta rap is necessary and without it, rap wouldn’t be the same but the bottom line is gangsta rappers have to step it up!