4. The Politics, Commerce, and Rage of “Thug Life”
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4 The Politics, Commerce, and Rage of “Thug Life” It is a central moral contention of Christianity that God may be disguised in the clothing—maybe even the rap—of society’s most despised members. —Michael Eric Dyson I ain’t a killer, but don’t push me. —Tupac Shakur I knew you was conflicted / Misusing your influence. —Kendrick Lamar Two months before Death Row Records released Doggystyle, the Source published cultural critic dream hampton’s interview with Snoop Doggy Dogg. The article’s first page features a large photograph of the ascendant rapper staring menacingly at the camera and gripping a silver pistol. He was, like his Death Row brethren, enacting the mark of crimi­ nality to bolster his credibility as a viable gangsta artist. However, the interview also imbues Snoop Dogg’s relationship to the cultural and po­liti­cal economy of crime in the late 1990s with considerably more authenticity than many of his other popu­ lar gangsta counterparts. As hampton recounted her drive around South Central with Snoop Dogg, she wrote, “At a stop sign a young brotha waiting for a bus recognized Snoop, a Long Beach Crip, and tied his red bandanna over his face. He pulled out a .22 and pointed it at Snoop Doggy Dogg, one of the most anticipated rap artists in hip-­ hop history. [The car] swerved slightly. Snoop told the Cross Colours rep who was driving . . . to ‘just keep on driving.’ He sang it in his laid back, distinctive LA twang, nuthin’ but a G thang, baby. He pulled out his two .380s uncocked both of them and stared at the Blood. The Blood kept his shit up until Snoop’s car and his .380s were around the bend.”1 While many gangsta rap pioneers enacted the mark of crimi­ nality to establish street credentials and move records, hampton wanted readers to understand that this young Long Beach native represented a new version of the mark of crimi­ nality. Here was a hugely successful rapper whose actual gang background contributed to his cultural heft and impacted his daily life. Snoop Dogg did not simply rap within the generic con- The Politics, Commerce, and Rage of “Thug Life” / 89 tours of the mark of the crimi­ nality, but he fully embodied them. Moreover, he appeared as calm and collected in the face of a Blood’s .22 as his musical persona was when confronting vari­ous existential threats. But on a different day, on a different corner, encountered by a different “brotha,” Snoop Doggy Dogg may have left the hip-­ hop nation before his star had a chance to truly rise. And this, of course, was to say nothing of his impending murder trial. During the early 1990s, many of the hip-­hop nation’s most prominent fig­ures encountered serious legal problems. In addition to doing time as an eighteen-­ year-­old Crip for selling crack to an undercover police officer, Snoop Dogg faced murder charges for the drive-­ by-­ shooting death of a former associate. Although the trialendedintherapper’sacquittal,itnonethelessprovided C. Delores Tucker and her allies with ample rhe­ tori­ cal fodder for their war against gangsta rap. It also, however, added significantly to Doggystyle’s commercial appeal. Snoop Doggy Dogg was a “genuine” gangsta. Dr. Dre also faced legal trouble, most notably for the 1991 physical assault of female rapper and hip-­ hop journalist Dee Barnes. The British expatriate and hip-­ hop pioneer Slick Rick was sentenced to three-­ and-­ a-­ half to ten years in prison for a 1990 drive-­ by shooting, and Public Enemy trickster Flavor Flav faced numerous legal troubles for assault and attempted murder during the early 1990s.2 Many hip-­ hop journalists characterized these artists’ legal problems as high-­ profile symptoms of a racist crimi­ nal justice system, yet mainstream media responded with characteristic commentary on the so-­ called gangsta lifestyle and noted its alleged encroachment on the lives of ordinary Ameri­cans.3 For example, a writer for the Wash­ing­ton Post wrote that Snoop Dogg and his contemporaries were “blurring the lines between the supposed fiction of ‘gangsta’ rap and the reality of today’s gun culture.”4 Elsewhere, the Charleston Gazette invoked an infestation metaphor with the headline “Rap Violence Moves out of Recording Studio, into Street,” while the Buffalo News led with “Controversial Hard-­ Core Rappers Who Act Out Their Anti-­Social Messages.”5 In its cover story on gangsta rap, Newsweek posed the following: “But for rap...