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The Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural Tensions in Gangsta Rap

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 34, Number 2, June 2006
pp. 244-257 | 10.1353/rah.2006.0021

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Reviews in American History 34.2 (2006) 244-257

David A. Canton

Eithne Quinn. Nuthin' But a "G" Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. xiii + 251 pp. Notes and index. $62.50 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

Since 1994, the body of scholarship on hip-hop music and culture has grown considerably. Historians, journalists, and musicologists have provided multiple perspectives on hip-hop music. The "hip-hop generation," those born between 1965 and 1984, are researching and offering a wide range of courses on hip-hop music in universities and colleges across the nation. Similar to rock-and-roll music, hip-hop started on the margins of American popular culture and has evolved into a billion dollar industry. In spite of the numerous controversies in hip-hop music—such as the use of the term "nigga," the promotion of violence, and the negative images of black women in videos—hip-hop remains at the center of American popular culture, and one can see its influence across the globe. During the 1990s, Republican and Democratic politicians and some black leaders blamed, not all hip-hop music, but gangsta rap for all of the black communities' social problems: drug use, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, gang violence, and high school dropouts. Even though these problems existed in the black community prior to gangsta rap, this music and culture has provided a convenient target to avoid addressing the causes of the real problems of black America: racism, sexism, and poverty.

In 1988, Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson) of the rap group NWA (Niggaz with Attitude) wrote the song "Gangsta Gangsta," and it shocked America with its violent, sexist, and obscene lyrics. "Gangsta Gangsta" ushered in a new genre of hip-hop music called gangsta rap, which became identified with Compton, a predominately black and Latino working-class and working-poor neighborhood in Los Angeles. Prior to 1989, New York City rappers had dominated the entire hip-hop industry. Some artists used violent lyrics that are associated with gangsta rap. For example, many hip-hop writers contend that South Bronx emcee KRS ONE's (Knowledge Rein Supreme Over Nearly Everyone One) 1987 single "Criminal Minded" was a predecessor to West Coast gangsta rap. However, due to hip-hop's marginal status in American popular culture, KRS ONE's debut album Criminal Minded never obtained any national headlines. Although violence, sexism, and obscene lyrics have always been a part of American popular culture, what made gangsta rap intimidating was its lyrics. The lyrics were not from the imagination of or the words of a college-educated, middle-class, white, male screenwriter, nor were they from an innocuous catchphrase, such as "I'll be back" from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, the 1980s popular action film. The lyrics came instead from the minds of what many white Americans considered to be the most violent and threatening segment of America—"young angry inner city black men."

Another event that popularized gangsta rap was NWA's 1989 song "F*** the Police." This controversial song informed Americans about police brutality in South Central, Los Angeles. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent a letter to NWA warning them about the violent content of the song. In 1991, most Americans had witnessed the horrific beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. While the video had shocked most white Americans, African Americans in Los Angeles were not surprised. The Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992 had demonstrated the social utility of gangsta rap, which can provide critical commentary on America's racial and class contradictions, while it can also glorify some of the worst attributes of this society's lust, violence, sexism, homophobia, and greed.

Eithne Quinn's Nuthin' but a "G" Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap critically examines the political, social, and cultural tensions in gangsta rap. Quinn suggests that scholars must avoid using a pedestrian binary oppositional analysis of gangsta rap, where one explores the positive and negative lyrics of the music. Relying on the theories of British cultural studies scholars Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, Quinn argues that black cultural studies scholars must investigate the...

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