No Heaven For a Gangsta : Feminization of Hip-Hop in the Internet Age (And LOTS OF MUSIC)

Inspired by a recent viewing of “Dear White People”, which is perhaps the best movie made in the past two years (Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t count cause they started making that shit years ago), I’ve decided to post the smartest thing I have ever written. A essay covering the history of Hip-hop, the growth of the “thug Image” and the ability to “gay up” the most dogmatically heterosexual musical genre (after white trash) “Because of the Internet”. Gambino Reference, off to a great start. 

No Heaven for a Gangsta

The Feminization of Hip-Hop Culture in the Internet Age

The offspring of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Ghetto Brothers, Hip-hop has done some growing up since the 1970’s. From it’s birthplace in the Bronx, the movement spread like wildfire across both the United States and the world, giving a creative outlet and voice to predominantly African-American suffering. Hip-hop found its target audience in the poverty-stricken ghetto’s of American cities, and like every other musical subculture before it felt the conforming hands of record companies taking hold. The disco/funk influences and light tone found in songs like “Rappers Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang were abandoned quickly by the 80’s as anger percolated into the genre. Ice-T and NWA rapped over heavy beats about killing cops, Run-DMC, Erik B & Rakim, and LL Cool J brought a level of technique to rapping unheard of prior. The Beastie Boys proved that white kids could participate in the emerging scene, albeit in a somewhat ironic and silly fashion. De La Soul provided the hippy-esque influence that would create alternative hip-hop, but the clear direction of hip-hop was toward hyper-masculine aggression. Gangsta rap and the image of “thugs” were forged during the Reagan era.

Why the growth from break dancing “B-boys” to thugs? Multiple societal pressures helped alter the subculture. From the Rodney King beatings, rioting in multiple major cities, the then young war on drugs, fear generated by the cold war, still prevalent racism across the nation, and perhaps the desire of the record companies to further target African-Americans and therefor pigeonholing the genre all fed the street image hip-hop came to cultivate. The 90’s only solidified gangsta as the image to be sold with every record. Despite the somewhat critical (and ironic) language of rappers like Notorious B.I.G and Tupac, if you wanted to be taken seriously in the hip-hop game you had to be a thug. Hip-hop no longer idolizes this crippling stereotype, and by the late 90’s and early 2000’s the big names who hadn’t fallen victim to the thug lifestyle were sitting atop mountains of money. This change altered the music being put out by big names like Jay-Z, who no longer talked about wanting, but about owning, and in excess. Ever hungry, hip-hop opened up, and the new faces of the genre disowned the thug mentality of their musical fathers. The arrival of the internet would further destroy the power of record companies to promote strictly thug hip-hop, and this new generation of “Internet” rappers show no interest in returning to the streets that previously were the focal point of an entire culture.

A thug used/sold drugs, packed heat, was a member of a gang, idolized women as sexual objects, and sought the one thing denied to so many black males in America, substantial and ostentatious wealth. As hip-hop moved from inner-city record players to suburban (white) youth to take up space next to Nirvana cuts in clear displays of teenage rebellion, the thug image moved with it. A generation of multiple ethnicities learned a code of ethics from the music that helped form their gender identity. The masculinity that was presented by thug rap contained a rather sharp duality, however. Words like “bitch” and “ho” permeated the lyrics of thug rappers, which on the surface subject women to an identity as objects of sexual pleasure. Yet the utilization of this misogynistic language served more so as means to distance the MC from femininity, demonstrate the bad boy image required by the streets, and protect the MC’s own emotionality and need for a female counterpart. (Jefferies 37) Presenting a woman as a “bitch” was more a way for a MC to maintain his own thug image while acknowledging his admiration and need for a woman. A street solider needed a place to hang his gat and dump his sensitivity, presented in the music as purely sexual drive so the thug façade could propagate itself. This duality would become a common trope in rap music, earn it the disrespect of the outside world and make superficial misogyny a important part of the image being bought by hip-hop fans (who would misunderstand and replicate only this superficial notion).

Hip-hop as a movement had, until the late 90’s and early 2000’s, been driven by a lack of material wealth. However, by this era, two things happened that would permanently alter the direction hip-hop would steer towards, and with it abolish the narrow-minded popularity of the thug image. Rappers became wealthy thanks to the clingy hands and loose wallets of rebelling suburban youth, and the advent of the internet allowed for a flood of new music to emerge where the talented become trends and dodged the necessity of record companies control. These old money figures, the most notable being Jay-Z, would drop the battle-rap and thug image that had launched their career (and ended the career and life of their peers, Biggie and 2Pac) and move into a new realm of “Luxury” rap. Beginning their careers speaking about what they didn’t have and wanted, their music now mellowed out and reveled in hedonistic celebration of having it all. Women remained bitches in the lyrics of these hip-hop dons, but it stemmed from paranoia of women (still the “others” of rap music) only being attracted to these men for their money. The masculine trope that had earned figures like Jay-Z the fame they now adorn shifted its focus, but remained vital to the music they create.

Hip-Hop has always been a young, “hungry” man’s (woman’s) game, and it is from the youth that are emerging in today’s era of visible wealth and globalization that the thug image is receiving the killing blow. Those who came before dropped the thug image because it wasn’t applicable to figures filling stadiums, those coming up now are dropping it partially to replicate the success of their idols, and partially because the façade is just that, a façade. Kanye West is the obvious turning point in the rap game. 2004’s “The College Dropout”, the freshman album of the Chicago rapper, went triple platinum, and brought a level of political consciousness along with a brand-new version of masculinity to the popular rap game. The album, along with the rest of West’s discography, was introspective, and revolved around the struggle of a newcomer who didn’t identify with the thug image previously required to succeed. Kanye brought soul, funk, and electronic dance music influence into his beats, rapped about fashion and emotions (love most notably), and came out as a staunch supporter of the LGBT community. (Penney 323) In 2007, West engaged in a record sale competition with gangsta rapper, 50 cent, and West’s album “Graduation” handily outsold 50’s “Curtis”, by 266,000 copies. Donning skinny jeans, a tight vest and 80’s ray-bans for the video for “Graduations” first single, “Stronger”, West obliterated the necessity of fitting into the thug mold to sell records. (Penney 323) Despite all the advancements made by West to “queer “ hip-hop, the trope of misogyny still percolated through his music. Songs like “The New Workout Plan” off “The College Dropout” speaks about women’s body image, and Kanye’s ability to make a woman gorgeous simply by having sex with him. Lacking the thug image, Kanye isn’t attempting to distance himself from an emotional core, but instead is pushing the preconceived notions of physical beauty prevalent in American culture, and narcissistically patting himself on the back. West’s hubris is hard to ignore, but has little to do with his influence of the new face of hip-hop. One could argue that it is influenced by his thug forefathers and West’s version of hyper-masculinity, as claiming to be the best is another common rap trope and used to dominate rival musicians.

It is in the shadow of figures like West, Andre 3000 (of southern rap duo, Outkast) and Lil’ Wanye (who was equally influential in bringing queerness to hip-hop) that a new generation of rappers are blooming, and further distancing themselves (and fans) from the gangsta image. These rising stars are working under another shadow, that of the internet. The internet has completely altered the face of the entire music industry, downloads meaning more than record sales, angering record companies and freeing up artists. (Rogers 37) It is predominantly for rap music that the internet has meant a shift in core values of the genre. Subgenres are no longer drafted along the lines of geographic location in a world with instant access to any file. Influences stem not only from within black culture (such as soul or jazz) but have reached out, including indie rock and electronic. Wider pop cultural references are drawn into the music, and the content of lyricism is rewarded for wit and intellect over violence. Common tropes of misogynistic lyrics, superiority, and drug use are utilized much in the same way a poet uses enjambment or a sonnet rhyme scheme, they have become part of the formation of a serious rap song. Some of the most notable up-comers that are serving to diversify the rap game only received the recognition they have because the internet. These artists include the duo Das Racist from Brooklyn, Odd Future of Las Angeles, Kendrick Lamar (and fellow Top Dawg Entertainment rappers) of Los Angeles, Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and Chance The Rapper. All these artists have received critical and commercial success, defy the thug image, and adorn or create new commercial images that appeal to hip hop heads old and new.

Das Racist might be the truest example of emerging “internet rap”, and the least thug human beings alive. Comprised of Himanshu Suri (AKA Heems, of Indian descent), Victor Vazquez (AKA Kool A.D., of Afro-Cuban/Italian descent) and hype man Ashok Kondabolu, the group met at Wesleyan University where Suri and Vazquez where R.A’s in a dormitory for minority groups. The group broke out in 2008 with the single “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell” a funky and childish critique of consumerism that endeared the group in the hearts of critics and fans. Two mix tapes and one album (“Relax”) later, the group had sat atop the ITunes hip-hop/rap chart, was ranked #28 out of 50 on Rolling Stone magazine’s best albums of 2011, as well as #4 best rap album of 2011 in Spin magazine. In an interview with the blog “Sepia Mutiny” in 2009, Suri described the music of Das Racist “we’re not making music that’s instantly appealing. We dabble with nonsequitors, dadaism, repetition, repetition. We make dance music while talking about not-dancey things. We say things that on the surface can seem pretty dumb but it’s a mask on some Paul Laurence Dunbar shit for actual discontent with a lot of shit in the world. Further, not a lot of people want to hear rappers talk about Dinesh D’Souza being a punk, Eddie Said, Gayatri Spivak being dope or even know who they are.” (Suri, Sepia Mutiny) Two questions later Suri yells “I LIKE FASHION THOUGH” (Suri, Sepia Mutiny). Das Racist further broke down ethnic boundaries, and their mixture of intellectualism and mocking intellectualism create a space completely devoid of hyper-masculinity. The image offered for sale with a Das Racist record is encouragingly unique, self-deprecating humor alongside cultural awareness, intellectual without being didactic, and a clear acknowledgment of post-modern nihilism accompanied with a laugh. As Suri says above, the music is more influenced by electronic dance, in line with the queering effect of Kanye West than the aggressive gangsta launching point.

Of the Internet rap groups, Los Angeles based Odd Future has done more to promote queerness in hip-hop than any other. They have also done more to offend and promote conventional hip-hop tropes than any of the others. Founded by Tyler Okonma (Tyler, the Creator) the group features prominent hip-hop figures like Earl Sweatshirt (Thebe Kgositsile), Syd the Kyd (Syd Bennett), and Frank Ocean (Christopher Ocean), along with others. Releases by these front members of the group have topped US and US R&B charts, with Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” going gold and being nominated for three Grammy’s, winning Best Urban Contemporary Album. Ocean and Bennett (who produces for OF members and fronts the psychedelic R&B group “The Internet”) are openly bisexual and homosexual, respectively. The case against the group helping to heal the gender crisis created by thug masculinity stems predominantly from the lyricism of Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, who adopted and went further with Eminem-esque levels of misogyny and violence. Lines like “Rape a pregnant bitch and say I had a threesome” from Tyler’s song “Tron Cat” do more than highlight the sadistic nature of the music pumped out by the group. It should be noted most members of the group were under eighteen at the formation of the group (and have done much maturing and apologizing since), and the dark nature of their music had more to deal with teenage angst and intended irony (placating and mocking the ultra-violence of gangsta rap), but it doesn’t excuse the effect their language had on easily influenced fans. Releasing most of their work via their blog, the group and its extremely punk rock attitude, along with Tyler’s penchant for crafting aesthetically pleasing and surreal music videos took the internet by storm. Frank Ocean in particular is the epitome of Odd Future’s lasting impact on “queering” the new face of hip-hop. Tirelessly promoted by (and through) his affiliation with the conglomerate, it was Ocean who ran in place in front of the nation at the 2013 Grammy awards and performed “Forest Gump”, a song written about a male companion.

Das Racist attended Wesleyan, Odd future’s members grew up Ladera Heights, LA, and many of the other emerging internet rappers don’t don the thug image because it wasn’t part of their life. Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (A.K.A Kendrick Lamar/K-Dot) was born (in 1987) and raised in Compton, CA, notorious for its poverty and gang violence, and for being the birthplace of hardcore gangsta rap. Lamar grew up with a front row seat for the thug image being sold by hip-hop’s forefathers, watching and dipping his toe into the violent and tragic lifestyle romanticized by the genre. He struggled against the cookie-cutter labeling of thug, receiving straight A’s in school and going straight-edged (sober), yet Kendrick still found himself drawn to the streets and a lifestyle he holds in contempt. His rise to fame was cultivated by Top Dawg Entertainment, an indie Los Angeles label and the power of the Internet. Lamar weaves personal struggle with the greater struggle of growing up in America’s most infamous ghetto elegantly, and aggressively condemns the thug lifestyle. His artistic intentions are made superbly clear on his freshman album, “Good Kid M.A.A.D City” (2012) a concept album telling the tale of one day in young Lamar’s life. First, the album speaks to misogyny in hip-hop, as Lamar borrows his mother’s van to visit Sherane, a girl he has been seeing for several months, who comes from a broken family of gang-bangers. Kendrick demonstrates a desire to date Sherane, opposed to utilizing her as the sexual object her other partners (and other rap artists) have. Kendrick’s mother appears in scattered voicemail sketches throughout the album, offering glimpses into the poverty Lamar grew up in and asking her son to learn from his mistakes. Second, the album deconstructs the duality forced upon young African Americans, as Kendrick is forced into an evening of gang activity while expressing his deep desire for another route through life. The whole album shed light on this crippling dichotomy offered to young black males, but the point comes across clearest in the albums final song, featuring N.W.A member Dr. Dre, “Compton”.

America target our rap market, it’s controversy and hate

Harsh Realities we in made our music translate

To the coke dealers, the hood rich, and the broke niggas that play

With them gorillas that know killers that know where you stay”

 

These lines highlight the desire of record companies (and the media) to portray rap music as thug, and how effective the music created by those desires was to propagating the thug image in its audience. Lamar is emblematic of defying the dark lifestyle seemingly forced upon poverty stricken America, and throwing conventional tropes of hip-hop to the wayside to portray the image he believes in. “G.K.M.C” was nominated for seven Grammies, went platinum, and Lamar was dubbed “The King of the West Coast”, showing both his own artistic talent and the power of the internet to alter the face of hip-hop and any music scene.

The opportunity for change has never been greater within the genre of hip-hop than it is today. The thug image is only presented in the phoniest of fashions, with figures like Rick Ross (a former prison guard) pandering to an ignorant demographic simply for the easy cash flow. Those who once let their pants sag and packed heat are flying on private jets, wrapped in elegant fur coats and managing stocks of their latest perfume or jean lines. The middle generation of rappers, figures like Lil’ Wayne, Eminem and Outkast (the exception again being Kanye West) have quit the scene or play minor roles from the background, but their queering of the genre can be seen in the figures that are on the rise. These new artists leave one foot within the boundaries established for the genre, calling women ho’s, aggressively dissing each other, and endorsing recreational drug usage simply as identifiers, essentially saying “we are rappers”. With their other foot these artists are exploring the world outside of hip-hops blinders, and crafting entirely new tropes of their own. Das Racist represents a movement out of ethnic and intellectual boundaries, cracking jokes about “Seinfeld” and British imperialism within the same 16 bars. Odd Future pair gothic lyrics and jazzy synths, well attacking preconceived notions on sexuality and selling pink shirts covered in cats. Kendrick Lamar sports a crown built on condemnation of the racial discrimination still ever present in the genre and our nation. They are not alone in altering the face of the hip-hop scene from behind computer screen’s either. Seattle’s Irish rapper Macklemore’s gimmick heavy album “The Heist” beat out Lamar for the best rap album Grammy last year. Emmy-winning comedian Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) pours his own feelings of alienation into his rap alias, all while wearing short shorts. Female artists like TDE’s Solana Rowe (SZA) and Jhené Aiko are on the rise, and not only with female fan bases. The thug image can make one last desperate attempt, and empty his clip into the nearest computer, but the Internet’s queering impact is here to stay.

Works Cited

Jeffries, Michael P. “Can a Thug (get some) Love? Sex, Romance, And the definition of a hip hop ‘thug’.” Women & Language, 2009

 

Penney, Joel. “We Don’t Wear Tight Clothes”: Gay Panic and Queer Style in Contemporary Hip Hop.” Popular Music & Society, 2012

 

Rogers, Jim “Canary Down the Mine: Music and Copyright at the Digital Coalface” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 28, Iss. 1, 2014

 

Phillygrrl & Himanshu Suri, “Q&A with Himanshu Suri of Das Racist: Part II” http://sepiamutiny.com/blog/2009/09/21/qa_with_himansh/ published September 21, 2009, Accessed May 8, 2014

 

Tyler the Creator, “Goblin” XL, 2011

 

Kendrick Lamar, “Good Kid M.A.A.D City” Top Dawg Entertaiment, Aftermath, Interscope, 2012

 

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