A New Book Traces Gangster Rap From People’s Movement to Commercial Force

Single art for N.W.A. "Fuck tha Police." (N.W.A.)

At this year’s Grammy Awards (which, believe it or not, were only a couple months—and not decades—ago), YG, Roddy Rich, DJ Khaled, Meek Mill and John Legend paid homage to late icons Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant in an uplifting choral performance in front of 18.7 million viewers. At various points throughout the segment, red and blue lights flooded the stage—an homage to YG’s Blood and Hussle’s Crip affiliations, both referenced proudly in their chart-topping songs.

How did Los Angeles gang culture, springing from the particular conditions of a city’s marginalization and violence, become such a defining feature of American pop culture and music? That’s a question San Francisco State University professor and historian Felicia Angeja Viator seeks to answer in her new book, To Live and Defy in L.A.: How Gangsta Rap Changed America, out now through Harvard University Press.

'To Live and Defy in L.A.' by Felicia Angeja Viator. (Harvard University Press)

Rather than tell the stories behind Tupac and Snoop Dogg’s biggest hits, Viator takes a sociological approach, zeroing in on how economic devastation and militarized policing bred a subgenre whose extreme lyrics were fueled by indigence. In the late ’80s, the period the book spends the most time on, the earliest gangster rap was made for and by black youth who were vilified by the media, government and elders in their own communities.

“These kids who were making music in the ’80s, and may not be active in the gangs but are affiliated because they go to school with gang members, they live in neighborhoods with gang members, they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. You’re compelled to socialize with gang culture, and then you’re demonized for it,” she says. “So you’re kind of doubly marginalized: you’re marginalized by outside society that sees you as a criminal, and you’re also marginalized within your own community.”

To Live and Defy in L.A. explores how L.A.’s teen gangs became a media boogeyman, and how civil unrest during the 1992 Rodney King riots broadcasted black L.A.’s frustrations with police brutality and poverty to the rest of the country. Conditions became ripe for America to tune into what Los Angeles’ street poets had to say. Artists like Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre tapped into a longstanding fascination with L.A.’s criminal underbelly with PR cunning and business savvy, and gangster rap became an enormous commercial phenomenon.

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Viator argues that it injected hip-hop with a new cultural relevance in the ’90s. At the time, early innovators lamented that, with Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer as the genre’s most visible faces, it had gone commercial and lost its edge. “I wanted to understand how you get to the point where an artist like Tupac becomes this celebrated hero when prior to ’91, not only do people think hip-hop is dead, but L.A. is softer than New York and can’t produce something viable,” she says.

Felicia Angeja Viator.

Viator began ruminating on the ideas in To Live and Defy in L.A. long before she had a PhD. The Oakland native started her career in the ’90s as a DJ, and performed in the Bay Area Sister Sound crew with the late Pam the Funkstress, an Oakland legend best known for her work with the Coup and Prince. In addition to spinning rap records, Viator wanted to read about them. She found that early academic writing on the subject focused primarily on New York. When they mentioned gangster rap, those texts spoke of it as more of a blight than a serious art form.

“Knowing how big L.A. rap was by the mid ’90s, I was shocked there was so little interest in it except to talk about gangster rappers as modern day minstrels or reference the big West Coast success stories as these parables about white industry villains and black victims,” she says. “There was this flat, simplistic way in which the early hip-hop scholars were talking about L.A. rap.”

To understand gangster rap’s earliest origins, Viator zooms out and takes a long view of California history. The histories of the Great Migration, policing and youth culture as a source of resistance are interwoven throughout To Live and Defy in L.A., making for a fast-paced and engaging read for music fans, history buffs and anyone with an interest in social justice. Throughout the book, social issues, politics and the art engaging with them are linked. We learn the advent of the battering ram—a six ton, tank-like vehicle LAPD used to break into suspected crack houses—became a catalyst for an early, influential underground hit of the genre, “Batterram” by Toddy Tee.

The lyrics of “Batterram”—“I’m not the one slinging ’caine / I work nine to five and ain’t a damn thing changed”—give insight into the ways LAPD’s efforts to stamp out gang culture ensnared young people into a web of violence and trauma. And, as Viator points out, it paved the way for N.W.A.’s 1988 smash “Fuck tha Police”—which, four years later, became the soundtrack of the L.A. riots.

With its focus on a fairly narrow geography and time period, To Live and Defy in L.A. doesn’t give the complete story of gangster rap. But it’s an eye-opening, solid companion to resources like Slate’s third season of its podcast Slow Burn, about Biggie and Tupac, which delves into cultural panic and censorship, and Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which traces hip-hop’s evolution from the chaos of the Bronx in the 1970s. To Life and Defy in L.A. presents gangster rap as originally a people’s movement, albeit one with enough shock value and profit motive to make it ripe for commercialization.

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“I feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about the trajectory of hip-hop and I think we really take for granted how powerful a cultural force it is,” Viator says. “This is the story that helps explain how that happens. I’m not saying the New York origin story doesn’t matter—it does—but we can’t see the whole trajectory of hip-hop through the lens of New York.”