Fans of hip-hop usually pinpoint the east coast – New York and Philadelphia especially – as centres of ‘conscious’ and politically radical music. The politicised music of N.W.A. is well known, but anti-police and anti-authority sentiment is very common across mainstream California rap. Yet gangsta rap in its initial period, from the middle of the 1980s to the middle of the 1990s, doesn’t have this reputation. The aim of this article is to question that image and add a few major examples – leaving out NWA but not their members’ solo work – of west coast gangsta rap as music of resistance. It’s also well worth talking about what rappers are doing in the present, and what they might create in resistance to the Trump presidency.
An early example is Ice Cube, whose album Death Certificate was a partly horrifying, partly brilliant radical piece of work which presented the death of ‘Amerikkka’ in its cover art – throughout Ice Cube speaks loudly, advocating the black nationalism of the nation of Islam. A memorable line? ‘Turn him over with a spatula/now you got, Kentucky fried cracker’. He attacked Korean shop owners and made homophobic and sexist remarks on the album, but it’s a stunningly politicised work like none other.
Ice Cube’s more famous and wealthy NWA comrade, Dr. Dre, released the trailblazing album The Chronic in 1992. In his autobiography Mo Meta Blues, hip-hop legend Questlove pinpointed this album as the start of commercial hip-hop – to some the beginning of the end. Yet Dre, staggeringly, included a song called ‘The Day the N****z Took Over’ that openly discussed the 1992 LA riots, which were a response to the violent attack of a black man, Rodney King, by local police. This song is generally menacing, but has a multiplicity of perspectives – from the fearful white news presenters to the black man interviewed on TV who said the police brutality told him ‘in other words you still a slave, even if you got money you still ain’t shit.’ It is slightly surprising that this was allowed to be released on a major label, but it’s an incredible song.
Another guy worth mentioning is Mac Dre. In his song ‘Punk Police’ he mocks the police who are trying to get him for something petty [ok, he ended up in jail so who knows the truth] and gives an equally incisive (but less aggressive) critique of the police. In the same year he went on to record an ep ‘Back N Da Hood’ where all of his lyrics were performed over the phone from Fresno County Jail. This is direct resistance to the state in a way, continuing to express himself musically even without his freedom.
Let’s talk now about Tupac’s ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’. It’s an expression of community solidarity, and a threat to anti-black authority: ‘we might fight amongst each other but I promise you this/we’ll burn this bitch down get us pissed.’ He goes on to state this unity in a less oppositional way: ‘It wouldn’t be LA without Mexicans/black love brown pride and the sets again’; ‘gang signs being shown n***a love your hood!/but recognise and it’s all good’. His line ‘I love Cali like I love women’ takes on extended meaning as Tupac surrounds himself with women in the video. They are not objects, but occupy the position usually reserved for the friends and crew of rappers. Also Tupac’s (flawed) advocacy for women on songs like ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ and ‘Brenda’s got a Baby’ is important – his resistance and call for black unity does not entirely exclude women, even if it is primarily male.
Tupac’s politics is an article in itself, but here it’s part of a picture – and importantly on the seminal anti-trump track ‘FDT’ Nipsey Hussle repeats Tupac’s line about Mexicans and black and brown pride. This is still current, 19 years later. YG also says on this track ‘When me and Nip link, that’s Bloods and Crips/Where your L.A. rally? We gon’ crash your sh**’. YG is a rapper who famously aligns himself with the bloods, so this alliance is symbolic. Donald Trump saw himself as the law-and-order candidate, and that factor has continued into his presidency– he’s targeting Mexican migrants, but his crime policies will surely make life even harder for black people in America.
In step Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 and To Pimp a Butterfly were both astonishingly honest albums that combined gang themes with political ones; something which has always been done. Staples’ music videos are a particularly stark view of black American relations with police and the state – and white society in general.
Staples and Lamar are the shining examples of mainstream rap speaking openly and sometimes aggressively to power – yet ‘conscious’ rap doesn’t tend to be associated with California. The dichotomy between ‘gangsta’ and ‘pro-black’ forms is meaningless, and ignores how much directly political content there is in the west coast rap scene, past and present. How will rappers talk about Trump’s America? Maybe the average reader isn’t salivating at this question, and it’s a problem borne of a terrible situation, but there is a strong lineage for California rappers to follow – and perhaps one that will bear political fruit.