U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gangsta Rap, Stamped From the Beginning and Intellectual History

Editor's Note

“How many brothers fell victims to the streets.” Life Goes On, 2pac

I grew up listening to Gangsta rap, though I was listening about a decade after it it came to prominence.  Of course, for many, the ideas espoused in Gangsta Rap were reaffirming rather than eye opening (though I grew up in Baltimore, I was a still a little white girl shocked by listening to 2pac). But the first critiques of police violence and incarceration I was exposed to came from N.W.A, Public Enemy, and 2pac. Same with my first exposure to the rhetoric of Black Power. I have often credited the work of Michelle Alexander with spurring my interest in incarceration early in college, but I think the credit should probably go 2pac. Much of his music critiqued incarceration and police violence, including changes

Cause both black and white is smokin’ crack tonight

And only time we chill is when we kill each other

It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other

And although it seems heaven sent

We ain’t ready, to see a black President, uhh

It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact

The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.”

These lyrics were almost certainly my first exposure to ideas that would come to define my intellectual life, though I had no idea at the time.

In Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi gives a brief overview of the ways in which rap contested Reagan era policies, particularly those surrounding the War on Drugs. Though his analysis is rather simplistic, and he’s certainly not the first person to make these arguments, the overarching nature of his analysis put in perspective the relationship between Gangsta rap and many of the prominent intellectuals writing and working now. How has Gangsta rap (and other forms of hip hop) informed scholarship and writing on incarceration, police brutality, and reparations?

This isn’t to say that scholars of Hip Hop Studies haven’t explores these ideas.  But I am thinking more in terms of how rap and its influences should be discussed more amongst those who do not study hip hop specifically, including intellectually. I am interested in exploring the ways in which hip hop and rap influenced currently work intellectuals.

Writers and public intellectuals like Jelani Cobb,  Ta-Nehesi Coates and MK Asante  grew up during the 1980s and 1990s as Gangsta rap was increasing in popularity. They also grew up in cities during the crack epidemic (Queens, Baltimore, and Philadelphia respectively) and the beginnings of the war on drugs, which are memorialized in songs by N.W.A, 2pac, countless other artists.

But these men weren’t just exposed to rap and hip hop-it was integral to the development of their work.  Cobb, Coates, and Asante all cite rap and hip hop as profoundly influential on their ideas and writings. In fact, Cobb’s book “To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic” explores hip hop as an aesthetic style. And in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, after Coates was asked“How much has hip-hop informed your voice as a writer?, he said

“it’s the biggest influence on my aesthetic as a writer. It actually influences the atheism in the book. One of the constant questions I get is “Why are you so depressing? Why are you so dark? What about hope?” But hope is not very important in hip-hop. I mean, there are certainly hopeful songs, but if you listen to Illmatic, hope is not a very important sentiment. Hope has very little to do with Mobb Deep. I remember when Nas said on a Mobb Deep song, “Shoot at the clouds, feels like the holy beast is watching us.” I don’t know if Nas would describe himself as an atheist, but the music has a very atheistic, dark feel to it. That shaped me a lot.”

The ideas espoused about hip hop by Coates, Cobb, Asante and countless others were not always the norm. Intellectuals and public figures like John McWhorter, Stanley Crouch, and of course Bill Cosby publicly argued that Gangsta rap and other forms of hip hop normalized slang and improper language usage, encouraged violence and drug use, and promoted sexism. There is certainly some validity to the claims regarding sexism, but these critiques can now be seen as an element of respectability politics, a philosophy that intellectuals like Coates have gone out of their way to discredit.

This isn’t to say that the influence of Gangsta rap is entirely generational. Nikki Giovanni, afterall, has a Thug Life tattoo in reference to 2pac (“the hate you give little infants fuck everybody”). But it would behoove intellectual historians to follow in Kendi’s footsteps and include Gangsta Rap and hip-hop amongst the intellectual influences important in the late 20th century.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. First off, thanks for this thoughtful post Holly.

    I wanted to make a few quick points:

    1. When reading your post I thought of a good book on hip hop and African American thought, titled “Black Star, Crescent Moon,” which links together hip hop with an internationalist point of view: https://www.amazon.com/Black-Star-Crescent-Moon-International/dp/0816675864

    It’s a good read and points to some ways we can think about hip hop broadly, and gangsta rap in particular, within an international frame of thought.

    2. Also, as a person who grew up with rap being part of the soundtrack of his youthful and young adult life, I really agree with you on the need to make gangsta rap part of intellectual history. But I’d expand just a little to include so-called “conscious” rap music. Such a field of rap is often seen as having a deeper message and stretches back to the early days of hip hop, starting with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” in 1982: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PobrSpMwKk4. You can detect a thread of modern racial uplift in this and other songs–African American performers, like intellectuals, activists, and politicians, proclaiming that black people are doing what they can to overcome social ills. “The Message,” after all, begins with talking about broken windows! Can’t get much more 80s domestic policy than that.

  2. I confess great ignorance with regard to both rap and hip-hop generally. I’m a middle-aged white guy who, when rap is discussed, thinks 1980s and early 1990s—Run DMC, Beastie Boys, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy, NWA, Salt-n-Pepa, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Snoop, etc. I was never attracted to the hip-hop aesthetic, which fed my ignorance of later rap and off-shoots. In sum, if it wasn’t popular, I never heard about it. And I missed the important ideas embedded in that work. In my history professional work, most of it has stopped around 2000 and dealt with so-called “high culture” items (read: high WHITE culture). That said, my forthcoming project on “anti-intellectualism” will likely involve a deep dive, since I follow accusations of anti-intellectualism and try to dig deeper. – TL

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