For fans and critics who intellectualize it, gangsta rap, or "reality rap," is serious business. For them, the defining genre of West Coast hip-hop represents true stories from the ’hood as told by those who lived it, coupled with beats sampled from ’70s funk and soul music, and the occasional sound of gunshots or a sawed-off shotgun being pumped.
For me, the more twisted fanboy, gangsta rap is unintentional comedy — like Snoop Dogg’s poetry in "Lodi Dodi": "Clean, dry, was my body and hair/I threw on my brand new Doggy underwear." The following list, however, isn’t meant for amusement alone. This is, above all, a statement to West Coast hip-hop critics who’ve decided Westside Connection wasn’t as good as N.W.A, or that N.W.A was somehow better than Snoop Dogg’s grotesquely greedy No Limit era. This is written for the historians who choose to forget Ice Cube’s attempt at being taken seriously as an artist (not a gang member) on War & Peace — when the album art alone made everyone wonder if he was trying to be taken unseriously.
Wrong. None of the following songs were written as satire. But for those who write about hip-hop, these songs have been shamed into irrelevance because they’re a reminder of how gangsta rap is hip-hop’s most theatrical genre. And like the cartoonish, scenery-chewing villain of a Steven Seagal movie, none of these songs were meant to be jokes, or treated as such when they were first released. Some of them were actually hit records.
I grew up listening to these songs, taking them very seriously (like Rock IV’s anti-communist propaganda), only to realize eventually that a song titled "Ass, Gas or Cash" is unhealthy when taken seriously in any context. So this is my ode to the canon of gangsta rap songs that deserve to be exhumed and appreciated as either comedy or street poetry, or both.
Disclaimer: This list is by no means comprehensive. I’ve included records that I once owned on CD. Except for Geto Boy and Delinquent Habits, which I never got on CD or tape.
10. K-Dee - “Hittin’ Corners” (1994)
Self-proclaimed "gigolo" K-Dee released just one album, Ass, Gas or Cash, a CD I still own. It came loaded with 18 tracks about "pimpin," including "Hittin’ Corners," his misogynistic magnum opus about eating chips, disarming car alarms, seducing women with cayenne pepper and turning his giant penis into a tool for philanthropy: "I bone it cuz they want it/I don’t sleep that often." K-Dee is a favorite with female music critics.
9. Bloods & Crips - “Piru Love” (1993)
On the first verse, a gang-affiliated female rapper, Bloody Mary (who’s no longer with us), claims various ’hoods with a deep voice that I assumed was a man’s for the last 23 years. I had to Google it to make sure it wasn’t. This is a song about how the color red is superior to the color blue, which is funny, and confusing, because there’s a Crip on this record who has to listen to a Blood rap, "Crab is the meat on my menu" when they’re supposed to be united. ("Crab," for the uninitiated, is a slur Bloods use to describe Crips.)
8. Master P - “Stop Hatin’" (1997)
No Limit Records was successful because it rewrote the gangsta-rap playbook by making it more consumer-friendly. Critics hated Master P because he turned gangsta rap into a paper chase, which pissed off intellectuals who spent a career saying it was something more. "Stop Hatin’" is about the class struggle emerging from this revelation, wherein the new rich drew ire from the ghetto for flaunting their "cheddar and weed." Master P also managed to coin a catchphrase based on the sound one makes while taking a shit, or orgasming: "Uhhh!" Which naturally made a lot of people hate him, including constipated music critics.
7. Lil' Troy - “Wanna Be a Baller” (1998)
Between 1997, when Master P’s Ghetto D was released, and Southern rap’s uncreative apex with "Back That Ass Up" in 1998, there were lots of cheesy attempts at creating the next Master P. So for a few years, gangsta rap was buried in bling typography and luxury cars, as opposed to lowriders. Houston rapper Lil' Troy’s one hit single, "Wanna Be a Baller," sampled Prince’s "Little Red Corvette" and capitalized on our inability, circa 1998, to Google that shit. This is also one of the first rap songs to popularize the recreational consumption of codeine rather than chronic. The rest of this egomaniacal fantasy is riddled with delicious Southern-rap cliches like custom rim sizes, chasing paper, fucking pussy, confusing Middle East references and the now-ubiquitous use of "baller" to mean "millionaire," as opposed to a skilled basketball player.
6. Snoop Dogg - “Snoop World" (1998)
The year 1998 was synonymous with three things: Stone Cold Steve Austin whooping Mr. McMahon’s ass, the invention of Britney Spears, and Snoop Dogg joining No Limit Records. To understand how ridiculously entertaining Snoop’s opportunistic reinvention was, which included a name change and new stylist, think of it as equivalent to KISS removing their face paint, or Ice-T forming a metal band, except Snoop was in on the joke. It also signaled the end of an era, as Snoop put down his gat on "Snoop World" and told us that "ain’t no killin’, everybody chillin’." Instead, he picked up a diamond-encrusted cane loaded with "money, power, respect," which proved that Snoop was more of a professional wrestler than a gangsta rapper.
5. Delinquent Habits - "Tres Delincuentes" (1996)
Cholo rap groups weren't an easy sell to white America. I’m not sure why; maybe because they were too ethnocentric and occasionally rapped in Spanish. This track, along with anything Delinquent Habits put out, doesn’t fit into the gangsta-rap movie that critics want us to remember, where Mexicans never had a starring role. The track opens with a mariachi band, for one, as opposed to gunshots or a threatening phone call. "Hittin’ hard like an Aztec, swift like a Zulu" are lyrics that appealed more to "blaxicans," not white teenagers in the Midwest, or critics in New York, who had little exposure to Mexican culture.
4. Westside Connection - "All the Critics in New York" (1996)
Westside Connection had less talent than N.W.A, none of their cultural appeal, and yet, for some inexplicable reason, they were more likable. While N.W.A pioneered the rap group as criminal enterprise, Westside Connection simplified it into a Converse-licking pop record. On this track, Ice Cube and the other two guys desperately tried to milk what was left of the genre’s pointless disdain of New York. Today’s rap critics (mostly in New York) want us to remember Ice Cube as a member of N.W.A, not Westside Connection, which was basically an ad agency pitch to convince teenagers to say "Westsiiiiiiiiiide." This was buried so hard by the critics that we’ll never get a Westside Connection movie, like, ever.
3. Geto Boys - “Chuckie” (1991)
I'll open with a YouTube comment about this song: "These cats made NWA look like choirboys!!?" This is probably the most violent gangsta-rap song of all time, wherein Bushwick Bill (a demented midget) basically spends four minutes detailing various killings, cannibalism, cutting off his leg and dying in Iraq (for fuck knows why), and his bizarre obsession with little girls. Critics don’t want us to remember that this song was marketed to 12-year-old kids based on a Halloween theme, with a beat that includes random sounds of people being shot, stabbed and set on fire.
2. Ice Cube - "Fuck Dying" (1998)
Ice Cube probably reinvented himself as many times as Madonna, except he never managed to convince anyone he was being serious, or original. Fans who waited five years for Ice Cube to produce another gangsta-rap record in 1998 instead got a bizarre concept album influenced by disjointed shit like steampunk, Tolstoy and campy horror movies. Ice Cube assumes the persona of "Don Mega," whose only gimmick is that he can’t die (hence "Fuck Dying"). Cube’s trademark has always been riding trends, which he does here by inviting Korn, at the apex of rap-metal as Top 40 cheese, to provide the beat on a track where he calls the Grim Reaper a "cocksucker." But hey, Ice Cube was the artistic one in N.W.A; at least that’s the story in Straight Outta Compton — and let’s not question Hollywood.
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1. Coolio - “Gangsta’s Paradise” (1995)
Coolio and L.V. (the fat guy wailing on the chorus) have the distinction of producing the biggest hit in gangsta-rap history: "Gangsta’s Paradise." The video alone revived Michelle Pfeiffer’s career, though the movie it supported, Dangerous Minds, was a mind-numbing array of racial cliches. It also became one of "Weird Al" Yankovic’s biggest parodies, and in 1995, it beat out the likes of TLC and Madonna as the best-selling single of the year. But music critics won’t include "Gangsta’s Paradise" in their canon of best gangsta-rap songs. Maybe it was Coolio’s hair, or the fact that he wasn’t claiming to be a gangbanger. But even if the snobs want to bury this track as "pop," rather than "gangsta rap," they can’t deny that it is, by far, the biggest song the genre ever produced.