Now that it seems to be waning, I’ve been able to do a lot of thinking about the last 25 of “gangsta.” I consider to be among the most toxic thought-viruses ever devised.
It’s easy to point fingers about what’s gone wrong in the past- and I know it’s an easy target. It’s easy to say that if America hadn’t bought into this destructive fantasy, it might have just been another one. But gangsta rap actively fed this delusion, it engaged constantly in trying to prove that the outrageous claims made by rappers were absolutely real- that this was truly “life in the ghetto.” While at some stage or another, this movement might have represented a genuine identity, or illustrated a genuine problem, I believe it did more to spread that problem than it did to ameliorate those problems. The problems with this movement were in the subtext.
Gangsta rap screwed up America’s image of poverty- glorifying poverty and crime not just to those who lived in it, but also to people who had little to no actual exposure to it. It created a generation of people who felt validated by failure, who idolized poverty and exploiting others to evade poverty, and a generation who felt weak and “white” when they succeeded. They could only claim to be “hard” so long as they didn’t achieve any legitimate success, or at least as long as they didn’t leave whatever place they considered to be the “ghetto.” This generation failed to understand the fiction of the entire genre- taking the message of music completely out of context and feeling threatened by it. This was fed by the recording industry, who saw an easy cash cow in exploiting anxiety about black culture the way that the film industry had before in blaxploitation- which you could easily consider to be the origin of the entire “gangsta” movement. I see gangsta rappers as a generation of people who bought into a similarly screwed up fantasy created in films like “Superfly.”
Anybody who went to public school in the 90s will tell you- the new kids in school, the poor kids, the troubled kids, anybody who felt vulnerable in general, clung to being “hard.” They tried to fake gangsta- or even more unfortunate, the succeeded at becoming gang members. They were the target audience of gangsta promoters who sold records which competed with each other to depict the most graphic and senseless violence possible. The movement capitalized on middle america’s fear of black people, and they did it so well that black america jumped on board- who wouldn’t want to be feared?
Gangsta rap was a humongous step backwards for America’s black culture because of the unfair and ridiculous depiction of black people that dominated television for nearly 20 years. It also nearly destroyed rap by damaging the art form to such an extent that among many circles it was accepted that “rap” should be separated from “hip hop.” After 20-25 years as a movement, the damage the movement caused is still readily evident.
A generation of musicians and filmakers wrote, rapped, and sang about fighting a lack of opportunity. A lot of this was well founded, and relevant to some audience at the time. The trouble is, a lot of people who did not have this problem- a lot of middle class people , espoused the ideas and the lifestyle portrayed to them. I believe this was because it was simply easier for a generation to believe that they were being persecuted than it was to believe that they were just losers.