The Astonishing Success of Gangsterism
“Being” and “Telling” Narratives in the Compton Based Gangster Rap
Unlike their late 70s and early 80s colleagues, who rapped about “knowledge, wisdom, and understanding as well as peace, unity, and having fun” (Johnson 1); the late 80s and 1990s rappers sung about the streets and the realities of living in a ghetto, as well as the hardships many African-Americans faced in a country where they felt they had no opportunities. Hence, it comes as no surprise how rap evolved to become a paragon of the gangster culture. Likewise, the streets of Compton, known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods at the time, gave the performers a myriad of symbols to draw from and create a picture of the “hood” they lived on. In 5 Grams Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs, Dmitri Bogdazianos signals how most of these rappers lacked opportunities and perspectives of living a decent life, which made them disregard life, choosing to execute the premise of “live fast and die young”, not caring to go to prison or even dying as those were the images they saw in their neighborhoods. (Bogdazianos 1).
These images can be viewed in both Straight Outta Compton by NWA and Gangster’s Paradise by Coolio, where the singers rap about what they see and do. A clear example of the “being” narratives where the performers speak about their first-hand experiences with the street gang violence. However, while the members of NWA seem to be comfortable with violence, and their lyrics seem to uphold the vision of violence as the way of living in the streets, Coolio shows a different portrait of the life at Compton, a portrait of someone who has to live and bear the violence without being part of it, which makes him susceptible to suffering the consequences of said violence. Therefore, this analysis aims to show two different narratives regarding gangsterism. On one hand the perpetrators and on the other, the victim. This reinforces Imani Perry’s argument in Stinging like Tabasco: Structure and Form in hip-hop compositions, where she says that there are two different forms of narrative in the gangster rap, the “being” and “telling” (Perry 91).
Moreover, NWA can be seen as those who are gangsters, while Coolio tells his experiences of living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Hence, the lyrical content of the song Straight Outta Compton is clearly an example of “being” narratives, because it focuses on the first-person gangster story. The whole song is based on the very first lyric “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”. The first part sung by Ice Cube is about using guns and street violence. The second part sung by Yo Ren is about himself being a villain. Last, the last part, sang by Eazy-E is about his attitude toward women and that how he does not fear the police, nor prison. Ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is an apology to gangsterism and how it is in control of the situations of the street. By rapping about their alleged deeds and boasting about their street credibility, the performers put themselves in a position of superiority against their potential enemies, warning them not to mess with them using threats of violence such as “until them dumb motherfuckers see clearly / that I’m down with the capital C-P-T /Boy you can’t fuck with me / So when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck /Coz Ice Cube is crazy as fuck”. In all, Straight Outta Compton is mostly about violence, nihilism, and aggression.
On the other hand, Coolio’s vision is more along the lines of the “telling” narrative, rapping about the violence in his neighborhood. The song itself has an eerie feeling, using church-like choirs and violin chords to elicit a sense of hopelessness. Also, Gangster’s Paradise’s lyrics makes explicit the reality of living in the ghetto without being part of a gang. Hence, Coolio, who was never part of those cliques, felt like an outcast in the culture he part of. Consequently, the song’s chorus “Been spending most their lives, living in the gangsta’s paradise” reflects said reality, where kids like the one he was are forced to live in a place that might be a paradise to others, but for those who want a stop to that violence, it can be hell. Therefore, the dichotomy between the “being” and “telling” narratives grows stronger, as there is a gap between those who want violence and those who do not, eliciting a feeling of anger and frustration due to their wish to change something they simply cannot. For this reason, although Gangster’s Paradise belongs to the gangster rap genre, it serves another purpose, identifying himself with those who suffer the consequences of violence, rather than celebrating the perks of living in a violent neighborhood. Likewise, it signals the pervasive nature of violence in Compton, a place where being acquainted with the wrong people could be a cause of death. For this reason, Coolio’s warning does not sound empty, as death becomes an everyday possibility “You better watch how ya talking, and where ya walking, / or you and your homies might be lined in chalk”.
Conversely, NWA shows a different scenario. They are a faithful portrait of the power of violence in Compton. In Straight Outta Compton, the performers show a no-frills depiction of the gangster’s life, a fast life where fear is regarded as a weakness and where money and street credibility are the only guarantees of living a better life. Nevertheless, in NWA’s song there is also a degree of comfort. They speak of violence naturally, as something normal and they do not seem pressured to escape such environment like Coolio might be. Hence, the contrast between Straight Outta Compton and Gangster’s Paradise shows us something of capital importance in this analysis. On one hand, being a gangster seems to be all fun and games, at least when you are on top, whereas being a spectator of the gang violence could be deadly. With those visions in mind, it is not hard to understand why a sizeable amount of the urban youth resorted to violence in those settings. Nevertheless, blaming rap for the violence in the streets as the mass media does seems dumb, given the fact that gangster rap is nothing but a reaction to the violence in the streets. For this reason, artists such as Coolio and NWA are a reflection of the society they live in. The artists have to look tough, act gangster and have an incendiary rhetoric about how they came from a poverty-stricken neighborhood and they rose to fame thanks to the power of their rhymes.
Like Imani Perry says, gangster rap is all about “keeping it real” (Perry 92), which means that they have to remain in-character, s if they were billboards of the realities of the street, even if they are now famous and make millions of dollars in revenues. According to Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton democratized rap and allowed the world to rush in (Chang 320). It was by the hand of NWA that the West Coast rap found a place in the mainstream, overturning transnational pop culture like a police car, gleefully set the offending thing on fire, then popped open some forties, and danced to their murder rap. Ultimately, NWA served as an inspiration to many prospective musicians who found themselves in similar situations and needed a way to express themselves and create a sound portrait of what they lived. All they needed was a pen, paper, and a voice to sing what they had to say. Mixers, microphones, and turntables could wait. However, although Straight Outta Compton and Gangster’s Paradise might seem dissimilar, they are not. NWA and Coolio came from the same streets, and they are likely to have lived similar experiences. What changes is the side of the sidewalk they walked. While Coolio spectated the violence, NWA depicted as something they do that gives them the respect of their peers. The impact of the gangster rap music is sensational, even until this day, where most of the rap artist we know today come from a gangster rap background, and while both songs were released 20 years ago, they are still valid and show how rap music has evolved, teaching us that rap as a music genre still has a long way to go.
Bogazianos, D.A. “Introduction.” 5 Grams Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs. New York: New York UP, 2012. Print.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005. Print.
Johnson, I.K. “B-boying and Battling in a Global Context: The Discursive Life of Difference in Hip Hop Dance.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 31 (2011). Print.
Perry, Imani. “3: Stinging like Tabasco: Structure and Form in Hip-hop Compositions.” Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.