I read a couple of pieces dealing specifically with gangsta rap. The first, Nothin’ but a “G” thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap by Eithne Quinn and the second is an article from Social Text using gangsta rap as a way to interrogate Cornel West’s conception of black nihilism.

Quinn’s book is one of the best of its kind. In fact, if I were a bit more familiar with the literature I’d say that it was the best of its kind. Unlike other efforts in the field, this one is well steeped within an old school form of cultural studies–one that clearly places the cultural form in a social context, but also within a very specific political and economic context. For the Brits the idea of the “new times” always looms large–as large as I guess the Reagan era does for us–and Quinn takes a great deal of care in locating the growth of gangsta rap in the various political and economic results of Reagan era policies. But what is also interesting here is that Quinn also traces the various ways that pundits and scholars approach gangsta rap:

  1. Gangsta Rap reflects underclass reality.
  2. Gangsta Rap reflects a heightened form of black radicalism.
  3. Gangsta Rap is both socially reality and politically oppositional.
  4. Gangsta Rap is an inaccurate reflection of black life.

The stance of the author towards the production (positive or negative) is determined to a certain extent by the framework used. Those adopting the first and fourth (according to Quinn) are usually antagonistic, while those who adopt the second and third are usually more protagonistic. These positions pretty much categorize the way that rap is considered in general…these approaches are not unique to gangsta rap, even when it was much more shocking to the American public than it is now.

With the most notable (in my estimation) example being Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual there is a long history of works that seek to answer the seminal question–who does the Negro artist write for? Does she write for blacks, or for whites? Quinn places discussion about rap MC representation within this larger discussion, a move I had not considered. Well, at least not one that I had considered explicitly. It is very clear to me that when NWA comes out with Efil4zaggin, they have a clear idea of who their audience is and they have to be at some level writing in order to give their audience what they want. But yet and still I hadn’t clearly thought about the trustee/delegate dichotomy as applying to MCs.

There are two points that the work brings up that are worth dealing with:

  • The way that the corporations truncate artistic space, taking away the ability of artists to talk about one set of themes (violence against the state, violence against non-blacks), and granting them the ability to talk about another set of themes (violence against blacks, violence against [presumably black] women, materialism). My whole thing is about looking at the consequences of corporate rap (should I say corporatized rap) on the political preferences and ideas of kids. This piece brings back home the idea that this stuff is not “pure” and it never really was–there are market forces to consider, as well as political decision making entities that influence the content of the art form.
  • The decreasing gap between the real-life persona of MCs and their studio personas is driven by PR. This book was written way before 50 Cent, but his beef (with whom I forget) that actually spilled over into the public at a radio station is just one of many examples. Artists have choice to be sure–50 Cent does not have to bring up the fact that he was shot nine times or whatever…but as authenticity becomes a measure by which audiences consume it becomes more and more important for artists to live up to that authenticity.

Now this work still doesn’t really deal with the effects of the music. Quinn argues against simple readings of the texts (even though in some cases she does just that) because doing so flattens them… ignoring the possibility of multiple meanings and (perhaps) ignoring the larger context in which they are created. But I don’t see how we get to the people who consume the tracks without doing this.

I mentioned the Social Text piece. There is something there–most notably a rich dissection of the meanings of nihilism in Richard Wright (and also in gangsta rap). But besides that it largely dissects West’s work as being too conservative.