l.a. rap

[The] volatility within N.W.A. [between its black nationalist, party rap, and gangsta rap elements] resolved itself as swiftly and schematically as it arose. The party rap faded of its own accord, as residual styles do. The dominant, however, could not be excised so easily. In late 1989, Ice Cube left the group over royalty disputes; this departure was just the same a historical necessity, a scission that had to happen so that gangsta could become itself. Cube declared his allegiances plainly enough: his 1990 solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, produced in New York by the Bomb Squad, cited Do the Right Thing; the track “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” seemed a verdict about the period’s hemorrhaging of social reality into the gangster’s fairytale. Shortly thereafter he would become a Muslim, ambivalently involved with the Nation of Islam. The surviving N.W.A. and its largely L.A.-based co-conspirators were thus left to engineer the gangsta emergence toward its realized form.

Yet there is another way to narrate the purification of gangsta than by structural subtraction; it is in this process that we can see the real effects of the culture war. Some of the best-known episodes would wait for the mid-nineties: the Reverend Calvin Butts endeavoring to steamroll a pile of compact discs and cassettes in Harlem in 1993, and C. Delores Tucker’s decency crusade with the National Political Congress of Black Women in the same year (shortly to join forces with former Secretary of Education William Bennett). Notable about these encounters is that they repeat the logic of black-on-black conflict, culturally internal but presented for broad consumption—which perhaps explains their popularity in cultural memory. They themselves are gangsta.

Far more determining are the clashes clustering around the actual period of emergence. In 1989, the FBI advised N.W.A.’s label regarding the song “Fuck tha Police”; the Fraternal Order of Police voted a boycott of the group (and of others advocating assaults on officers) and broke up a Detroit concert where they tried to perform the song. As gangsta moved from emergent to dominant style, larger social tensions were amplified first by the videotaped police beating of Rodney King on March 3, 1991, and then by the riots and conflagrations following the officers’ acquittal at the end of April 1992. As urban theorist Mike Davis emphasizes, the events shouldn’t be simplified: “L.A. was a hybrid social revolt with three major dimensions. It was a revolutionary democratic protest characteristic of African-American history when demands for equal rights have been thwarted by the major institutions. It was also a major postmodern bread riot… . Thirdly, it was an interethnic conflict—particularly the systematic destroying and uprooting of Korean stores in the Black community.”

Jeff Chang argues that, for the purposes of media representations, it was a race riot “with Blacks centrally cast as Blacks and Korean-Americans in the role of the long-gone whites.” That the African-American community was geographically constrained from confrontation with whites is evident and suggestive. Against that containment, the riots’ overflowing the boundaries of black-on-black violence was exactly the source of their intolerability. In the arena of hip-hop, this specific shadow-conflict had already come up for discipline at the end of 1991. In an unheard-of event, Billboard editor Timothy White called for a store boycott of Ice Cube’s Death Wish, an album thick with misogyny and racialized violence, much of it directed toward fictive Korean-Americans.

In the same year, Ice-T (Tracey Marrow, “inventor of the crime rhyme”) started the hardcore band Body Count, whose eponymous debut included the song “Cop Killer” (which took up the repeated chant “Fuck the police” and ended “cop killer—but tonight we get even!”). Before being dropped from their record label, the band suffered a series of threats and censures, and eventually solicited the epic theater of Charlton Heston reading the lyrics of their song “KKK Bitch” in a Time Warner shareholder’s meeting.

The coherence of these disciplinary actions is as evident as it is unremarked. In the case of each song and album, the intolerable transgression is inevitably an episode of interracial violence. If one accepts the tactical equivocation of whites and Korean-Americans within conservative and reactionary discourse, the dynamic is even plainer: black-on-white violence is what must be punished. Images of equivalent violence within the Black community drew little commentary and no equivalent outrage.

Of course, the songs in question inevitably proposed this violence as retribution for a violence that historically ran the other direction. This can only have exacerbated the cultural reaction and punishment. Within the crucible of the moment, one can see this punitive reaction both as an expression of outrage and as a systematic effort to shape gangsta’s emergence within this moment of malleability.

History, one might say, is the history of making politics turn away. We can see the culture war working not to stop gangsta, but to contain it—literally. Hemmed in on all sides but one, gangsta was in effect disciplined to turn its antisociality along the course of least resistance: to comply with and celebrate an account of Black urban culture which served the ideological ends of that culture’s conservative critics, without being able to confront those very same antagonists. Black-on-black violence, the internalization of conflict, was not the only impulse present within gangsta’s emergence, but the only one that would be given free reign.

Joshua Clover, “The Bourgeois and the Boulevard,” 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About,” pg.44-6

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Tim Dog “Fuck Compton” (1991)

East Coast’s weightiest motherfucker of the year. “Fuck Compton” arguably wins the sole dishonor of igniting hip-hop’s infamous East Coast-West Coast feud with verbal salvos aimed at the city Compton, the entirety of N.W.A., and Michel’le. 1991 left it up for Tim Dog the east-coast Rottweiler put in one-hundred percent on anyone wearing knit hats, L.A. Raider and Kings caps, and jheri curls paired with locs all over an ESG “UFO” bed (1981). Tim Dog managed to spark a feud with both the west’s Dr. Dre and Snoop Doog and in the following year’s The Chronic see the latter artists verbally lay out Tim Dog in winning fashion according to popular opinion.