Who Invented the Term "Gangsta Rap"? It's Complicated

Dr. Dre is one candidate, even though he doesn't like the term
Dr. Dre is one candidate, even though he doesn't like the term
Courtesy of drdre.com

No one wants to take credit for coining the term “gangsta rap.”

At least, no rappers do. As noted in L.A. Weekly's story commemorating the 20th anniversary of Eazy-E’s death, during N.W.A’s time, artists preferred to call the genre “reality rap.” After all, they weren’t telling bloody, fictional stories a la Francis Ford Coppola. For the most part they were describing the violence and strife of their childhood neighborhoods as they actually were.

N.W.A’s producer Dr. Dre articulated his antipathy to “gangsta rap” in a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone, while complaining about the media’s coverage of his music.

“If I'm promoting violence, they're promoting it just as much as I am by focusing on it in the article,” he said. “That really bugs me out — you know, if it weren't going on, I couldn't talk about it. And who came up with that term gangsta rap anyway?”

The interview was conducted by Jonathan Gold, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for food criticism with L.A. Weekly. But back then he was exhaustively covering the emerging, hard-edged L.A. hip-hop scene, and had already given N.W.A its first cover story, in the Weekly in 1989.

According to N.W.A rapper MC Ren, it was in that story that Gold himself coined the infamous phrase.

“We never labeled it ‘gangsta rap,’ and that’s the killer part… We did an interview one time at Eazy’s mama’s house in the backyard when we was first starting out,” he told Hip-Hop DX, adding that Eazy gave all the group members guns for the photo shoot. “[T]hat’s the dude that labeled that shit ‘gangsta rap.’ He must have went home, with that in his head, scared as hell… He ran with that, and from that day on, that’s where that whole ‘gangsta rap’ shit comes from.” (Gold seconds most of these details, but said it was not he who was scared — it was the photographer.)

The cover of L.A.Weekly's May 5, 1989 issue
The cover of L.A.Weekly's May 5, 1989 issue

The Weekly cover story was published on May 5, 1989. But six weeks earlier, Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn had already used the phrase in an article for that paper. The piece was mainly about a fight that broke out at an N.W.A concert in Anaheim (which Ice Cube helped diffuse), but it also had this aside about Ice-T, whose song “6 ‘N the Mornin’” was the first West Coast gangsta rap song: “Ice-T, who helped popularize the L.A. gangster rap image, was the evening's headliner and he is a more polished performer and writer than the members of N.W.A.”

According to a Lexis-Nexis search, this is the first time “gangster rap” or “gangsta rap” was used in print.

Hilburn today can’t remember much about what inspired this turn of phrase, though he tells me that N.W.A’s song “Gangsta Gangsta,” which Ice Cube wrote in 1988, “sure invites its use.”

Hilburn recalls exploring the link between gangs and hip-hop in his reporting on Run-D.M.C. — whose music you wouldn’t call gangsta rap, but whose 1986 concert at Long Beach Arena was marred by gang violence, leaving more than 40 people injured. In one of those 1986 stories, Hilburn used the phrase “street-spawned rap music.”

“[Run-D.M.C.] claimed that L.A.'s violence was due to an unusually large gang problem in the city, not the music,” Hilburn says now. “Run said they hadn't had outbursts — fighting — at other cities, and that L.A. ought to examine its gang problems.”

So Hilburn gets credit for first using “gangster rap” in an article. As for who originally coined the phrase, that’s a more difficult question.

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But there’s a strong possibility that, ironically, it might have been Dr. Dre himself. In answer to the question he posed in the Rolling Stone piece — “Who came up with that term gangsta rap anyway?” — Gold answered: “You did.”

“Oh, maybe so,” Dre responded. “Never mind, then.”

Today, Gold can’t remember when, or in what context, Dre first used it. “That last conversation with Dre in the Rolling Stone story was probably the 30th time I'd talked to him,” he says. “Things blur.”

Whatever the case, one thing is clear. Though he claimed not to like the phrase, Dre used it himself to describe his music. “Before N.W.A came out, there was nobody out there doing gangsta rap,” he told a video interviewer in 1991. “We’re the inventors of gangsta rap music.”

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