Historian explores ‘gangsta’ rap origins in new book
Hip-hop subgenre exerts major influence on popular music
San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of History Felicia Angeja Viator has lived and breathed hip-hop for decades. As “DJ Neta,” she was a longtime Bay Area mobile DJ — one of the first female DJs in the Bay Area hip-hop scene. And though she’s long since retired her turntables, she’s kept a flame burning for hip-hop in her day job. The result: "To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America," her new book that caps off years of research and music fandom.
Gangsta rap, a style of rap with lyrics that often depict violence and activities related to street gangs, emerged in the 1980s with Los Angeles-based rappers like N.W.A. and Ice-T. Viator says she wanted to research the topic because there wasn’t a lot written about West Coast rap. And what was published often oversimplified its history. Scholars tended to place gangsta rappers in two categories, she says. Either they were modern-day minstrels making degrading music or they were victims of white record moguls who were cashing in on the talents and lifestyles of inner-city rappers. There was a deeper story to tell, Viator says — and we recently asked her to share some of it.
Why did gangsta rap flourish in Los Angeles?
For generations of African Americans, L.A. represented a promised land of opportunity, tolerance and diversity, especially in contrast to the segregated South and parts of the North, which had its own history of racial oppression and violence. L.A. had problems, too. There were constant reminders of inequality and the threat of racial violence, especially through policing.
What’s unique about L.A. is the stark contrast between the opportunities and advantages and the bigotry and racial violence. The fact that L.A. was the “black promised land” threw all the injustices into sharp relief. That’s the backdrop for the Watts Riots (1965), the 1992 L.A. Riots, and ultimately explains why this kind of hardcore rap emerged in L.A. rather than in a place like New York.
Looking at gangsta rap through a 2020 lens, it’s easy to dismiss it for the violence, the crime and the misogyny it glorifies. What made it revolutionary?
As late as 1990, the consensus was that hip-hop was going to go the way of disco. Music writers didn’t think it would survive. The artists who were topping the charts were Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Music critics and people in the industry saw these artists as the future of hip-hop — a watered-down version of itself.
What L.A. rappers did that was revolutionary was to make music for themselves. L.A. rappers made music that was sometimes violent, sometimes vulgar and always unapologetically black and militaristic in terms of its references to policing and institutions of white power. That sold.
They saved hip-hop by crossing over on their own terms. When hip-hop takes over the pop mainstream in 1992, it’s not Hammer and Vanilla Ice at the top. It’s Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” It opens the door later on for other artists to make music without compromise like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, the Creator.
Why does your book end before gangsta rap becomes more mainstream with the release of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” (1992) and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggy Style” (1993)?
The Rodney King verdict and the 1992 L.A. Riots were watershed moments. Being a cultural historian, I’m interested in how the public viewed these events while they were also experiencing the new 24-hour cable news cycle, music videos, the emergence of reality TV in the late 1980s, with shows like “Cops,” “America’s Most Wanted” and “The Geraldo Rivera Show.” This was the biggest urban uprising in American history. It’s televised. People are watching it in real time and the public looks to rappers for answers.
It collides with hip-hop music. It’s when American culture writ large changes because it is paying attention to black youth and hip-hop in ways it hadn’t before. I wanted to end the book at the moment when America is finally paying attention.
You really carved out a niche for yourself in terms of meshing your non-academic pursuits with your scholarly work. How did you make it happen?
It wasn’t easy. I was lucky in graduate school that my professors and advisers were supportive, but a lot of my classmates thought I was nuts. Some people thought I was throwing away my graduate degree and thought I wouldn’t get published or get a job.
I encourage my own students to research what interests them as long as it’s a viable topic and as long as they’re approaching it like a historian, social scientist or an anthropologist. If you’re using the tools of the field to study whatever you’re interested in, then study what you’re interested in. The only risk is if your own feelings get in the way and you end up celebrating something you should be asking tough questions about.
“To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America” was published by Harvard University Press Feb. 25, 2020.