In 1988, Los Angeles was in the middle of a decade-long spasm of gang violence, but its hip-hop scene was tame, at least compared with how the music had come together in New York and Philadelphia. Here we had a poppy, dancy, DJ-centered form of the beast meant more for the dance floor than for the street corner, a hybrid that barely seemed to admit rapping, much less the kind of raw, deconstructed beats associated with Run-DMC or even Schoolly D. Live venues were rare, especially after the 1986 riot that broke out at the Run-DMC show at the Long Beach Arena. KDAY, blasting from the Crenshaw Strip, was almost a force of nature, a 24-hour megamix of the Gap Band, Anita Baker, and more hip-hop than any radio station in America at the time, blasting the newest hits from Hollis and the South Bronx long before they made it onto the mix shows in New York City, but the local acts they featured (including early N.W.A) performed mostly novelty songs.
“Gangsta Gangsta” changed everything. The unwritten rules of hip-hop basically stated that a rapper promotes his own invincibility. When a Public Enemy rhyme puts Chuck D in a prison cell, it’s only so that he can break out of it; when a policeman stumbles into an L.L. Cool J song, he is only there for L.L. Cool J to outwit. A rapper, whose implicit statement is always, “You want to be like me,” is a role model whether he wants to be one or not. The moment an audience stops wanting to be M.C. Hammer is the moment that they stop buying M.C. Hammer’s records.
N.W.A replaced the model of verbal battle, of the well-timed boast, with its sheer, shrieking violence, with its presence — nobody could tell whether they were gangbangers or merely clever musicians exploiting the stories of the gangbangers who were their friends. When a policeman appears in an N.W.A song, he’s got Ren face-down on the pavement in front of his friends, is groping Ice Cube during a search, is frisking Eazy for narcotics. In the course of an N.W.A song, crimes are punished, women are faithless, and violence leads to more violence, jail or death, and the merry, vivid first-person narrative of the lyric, so different from the mere boasting of, say, Slick Rick or Ice-T, is as immediate as a billy club across your skull. Instead of living out the omnipotence that rap used to be about, N.W.A’s expression is of ‰49 weakness in the face of power, the faceless drive-by shooting, the snarling anti-cop curses left unsaid until the black-and-white is around the corner. They called themselves street reporters. New York hip-hop suddenly seemed very old-fashioned.
I can fuck you up, therefore I am.
By the middle of 1989, gangsta style had replaced slick danceability as the hallmark of Los Angeles hip-hop, and gangsta rap was an industry of its own. The center of hip-hop gravity moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, where it would stay. The FBI hounded N.W.A as if it were al Qaeda.
Every third kid in South Los Angeles formed a gangsta rap posse, it seemed, and dozens of them sold millions of records. With the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department a couple of
years later, N.W.A seemed more prescient than sensational for the first time, and Straight Outta Compton, on which “Gangsta Gangsta” appears, gave shape to the ’92 Los Angeles riots.
Ice Cube left the group and became the voice of his generation as both a musician and a screenwriter. Dre developed a stable of platinum rappers for Eazy’s label, invented what would be called New Jack Swing, then left to form another label, where he developed a second stable of platinum rappers, including Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and left again to form yet a third company that brought us 50 Cent and Eminem. Eazy, before he became arguably the first major rapper to die of AIDS, nurtured a gangsta–cum–corporate wax war with his former colleagues that was almost operatic in its complexity. Without N.W.A’s gangstafication of popular music, the reflexive self-identification of urban musicians and gangbangers, it is difficult to imagine the turf wars that left Tupac and Biggie Smalls dead, the thuggery that led Suge Knight to prison, or even (it is believed in some circles) the baroque machinations of the Rampart Division scandal that almost brought down the LAPD.
Without “Gangsta Gangsta,” Los Angeles would be a different kind of city.