Hip-Hop's Double Life in the Post-Gangsta Rap Era
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
An essay with 1997 through 2013 in mind
I grew up a nerd in southern California in the 90’s. So naturally, I got into G-Funk when I was 12. I loved that gangsta rap, G-funk and west coast rap talked about familiar summer backdrops of Cali life but could never relate to the violence, the misogyny, the high-stakes murders and cocaine related crime enterprises. Still, it was funky so I went with it. I remember knowing about smart positive content from Midwest and east coast artists like Common and Mos Def but resented that the smart MCs of the west coast like Project Blowed were less mainstreamed than other regions’ contribution to the backpack rap conversation.
When my crew assembled in 2007 as the West Coast Avengers, we in part thought of ourselves as avenging the gangsta rap image of west coast rap when we knew there were other galaxies to it. This wasn’t even a whole 15 years ago but I feel like we’ve seen rap’s fate become a two-forked tree of post-gangsta-rap life. One of these forks is what mainstream rap has become in the wake of gangsta rap’s receding: an even more explicit, less militant and transgressive celebration of capitalism, brands and consumerism. The other fork is the universalization of underground hip-hop as America’s new garage guitar-rock band musical form of common expression. Essentially the new folk music for diverse communities.
On the one hand, post-gangsta rap mainstream was ushered into new places by artists like Kid Cudi and Kanye West who had gangsta rap co-signs from collaborators, nerd appeal for their non-gang attire aesthetic choices and occasional nerd culture reference, and backpacker appeal from their hardcore but non-gangster lyrics. OutKast’s Aquemini to Idywilld era also gave mainstream less blatantly gang-affiliated content. But quickly, the train of thought that was begun by No Limit and Ca$h Money in the late 90’s hijacked the move towards more thoughtful, personally expressive, “indie” sounding auteur and underground hip-hop. Instead we got Three-Six-Mafia, more Ca$h Money and eventually the Drakes, Futures, Young Thugs and various Lils who sold the idea that you don’t have to be for the unpleasant business of murdering and gangstering to enjoy hardcore rap – you can just be greedy and braggy like them.
“Be careful what you wish for” is so true because I remember in 2003 and 2004 when pop rap was still so gangster dominated, how tired it felt made me think any new direction could be better than the post-Pac stagnation rap was in. I didn’t realize that the capitalism worship that would follow would supply me with many arguments about gangsta rap’s virtue in relation to “luxury rap”. Jay Z helped create luxury rap with classics like this first two albums and it’s not his fault that the genre’s subsequent output (which still dominates radio rap today) would be so unambitious musically and especially lyrically. At least gangsta rappers had scrappy origin stories about brutal poverty and rising through hardship, violence and circumstance that rendered them “hardened” to the world by the time you were hearing their debut LPs. Now rappers sell themselves as hard vulture capitalists just for the sake of it, often with suburban (and somewhat secret) backgrounds. In other words, gangsta rap had built in socioeconomic commentary woven within a story of extremes and duality, poverty and the lavish life that crime and rap took them to after. That’s why the best artists have arms and legs in different pools – Nas, Jay-Z, Snoop and others fit into all or most of these genres on different projects and aren’t stymied by the shifts in emphasis in the industry.
Alternately, the other road hip-hop took in the post 2007 era has made the genre more accessible and good than it ever has been; the only cost to that being that there is now so much good indie hip-hop it would be quite impossible to familiarize oneself with all or even most of it. And this is in fact the sign of something vital – it shouldn’t be exclusive.
Now artists like Open Mike Eagle and Atmosphere are alternately “countercultural” and a household name with TV shows and frequent film and festival projects. When the world is full of billions of people, when America has 300 million people, artists can live with a fanbase of ten thousand fans, 1 thousand etc….there’s whole universes and spectrums of universes in underground hip-hop. The way that anyone in America had a garage rock band for most of the last 7 decades is the new reality of folks DJing, rapping and making beats. “Backpack rap”, “nerdcore”, “soundcloud rapper” – all of these are thriving alternatives to the mainstream money-worshipping hip-hop on the other side of hip-hop’s post-gangster rap fork in the road.
In the post gangsta-rap era Project Blowed went from a live café collective to a group of professionals publishing albums and music videos. Anticon took over the underground for a broad spectrum of young listeners. Social media has empowered millions to become their own legends, locally and beyond. Artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and the Roots walked the line between mainstream and “underground” with their smart, post-gangsta substantive music but my point is that hip-hop developed two massive universes in response to and in the wake of gangsta rap.
At times these universes are so massive and insular that they don’t hear much from each other or understand each other’s discourse. For example, to the shiny mainstream universe what Lil Wayne does is considered “barring out”. The two universes have galaxies within them – for example, underground rap music heads are often pretty uninitiated regarding the battle rap world that’s within it and vice versa (though some people are very into both).
Indie rap is more of a culture than a strict definition. Plenty artists that are technically indie do mainstream music like Tekashi69 or Chance the Rapper. Plenty artists with conventional mainstream style financial arrangements do “indie”-style music like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. There are artists who have simply become rather huge through indie channels – Atmosphere and Murs for example. There are whole sub-genre slices by interest (anime, nerdcore, psychedelia etc.) or region (like the LA rap, San Diego rap and Inland Empire, CA rap I often write about). A lot of the paradigm slices I’m briefly mentioning are considered more “artsy” than the average pop-rap content and this bleeds into a garage band culture (often called “SoundCloud” rappers) in which “everybody raps” or “everybody DJs”.
We are blessed in that each of these post-gangsta rap destinies is the antidote for the other. Where indie rap is pretentious and often under-produced, mainstream rap is shiny and simple. Where mainstream rap is shallow and exclusive, indie rap is personal and customized for every niche of modern person.
If I may editorialize a bit further, I feel like one is a participatory culture and the other is a consumer culture at best or a predatory culture at worst. Mainstream rap is a culture that shits on you for not being rich or successful or murderous or masculine. It says it does not fuck with you, it is better than you, you are ugly and broke and unable to do what they do. It takes your money for fan interaction or mixtape placement if you’re stupid enough to Stan artists in that way, it takes your money for product, and it signs you into an exploitative deal if you really do have the juice.
Indie rap culture is like mountain bike culture or especially like garage band culture- everyone can link up and smoke and drink and do it in their den or backhouse. Everyone can plug in and start having fun with their friends, and start an open mic, or a showcase, or a zine, or a venue or festival.
I think what’s next is the sweet release of ubiquity, abundance and relative irrelevance. In the 90’s it was popular to say “punk is dead” which quickly lead to “rock is dead”. This, at a moment when everyone and their dad (literally) had electric guitars and amps set up in their garages, learning Zeppelin riffs. Mainstream media declares something dead when they no longer monopolize the money made off of it. When rock was 60’s counterculture to be sold to you in the form of vinyl discs, it was alive and well but now that it’s something you and your uncle do in the garage together for free at little to no cost, it’s “dead” according to a corporate industry rag.
Nas was prescient in 2006 when he foresaw that this would be rap’s next frontier and dropped “Hip-Hop is Dead”. We now exist in an era when everyone and their cousin is setting up a stu and making mixtapes in their side yard shed. We can have fun and participate in the hip-hop conversation for little to no cost so it’s only a matter of time before the industry declares rap “dead”. But we heads know better, we’re simply enjoying the afterlife.
Tristan "Tanjint Wiggy" Acker is a staff writer for Zus Entertainment, a Jooseboxx and Untapped Hip-Hop contributor, and member of the Inland Empire, California based nerdculture hip-hop group the West Coast Avengers