Bucktown vs. 'G' Thang: The Enduring East Coast/West Coast Dialectic in Hip Hop Music
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores one of American popular music’s most polarizing moments in the late 20th century, the ideological and aesthetic divide between East and West Coast hip hop cultural practices. In both public press and recorded music of the era, a persistent dialectic emerged, one where East Coast authenticity was contrasted against West Coast artifice. This chapter explores how, by rooting the identity of artists to their location, whether urban or suburban, such gestures served to create a distinction in the growing market for rap music in the 1990s. In addition to examining these professed differences, the chapter investigates underappreciated similarities in the origins of East and West Coast hip hop practices stemming from Jamaican Sound System culture.
You love to hear the story again and again / Of how it all got started way back when
—Queensbridge, NY’s MC Shan, “The Bridge,” 1986
Hip-hop started in the West / Ice Cube bellin’ through the East without a vest
—Compton, CA’s Ice Cube, “Westside Slaughterhouse,” 1996
Long before #FakeNews, claims of authenticity and allegations of fakery have characterized hip hop discourse—and for good cause. Place-based identities and localized signifiers remain vital in attempts to brand and authenticate commerce, art, and expression despite (or perhaps precisely because of?) the last century’s trends of globalization and decentralization. As hip hop culture in all of its sprawling and infinite mutations approaches the half century mark, its most thoughtful practitioners, academics, and journalists certainly do not argue whether hip hop is a global phenomenon but continue to contest who, what, when, and where is hip hop at its most relevant, vital and, most of all, real. “50 years down the line,” indeed.
In no moment in hip hop history has this debate been fraught with more visible conflict than the East Coast/West Coast “war” of the 1990s. Examining the construction of the “otherness” of West Coast “rap” as compared to the “legitimacy” of East Coast “hip hop” provides a broader understanding of the fabled rivalry, a tangible animosity which eventually became lethal in the highly chronicled deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace in 1996 and 1997, respectively. As such, this chapter has two purposes. The first examines the “Otherness” of West Coast hip hop as a construct, a shared, meaningful tool used by its creators and detractors to serve both creative and commercial means. By embracing the Other creatively, newly celebrated places and spaces in hip hop music “encouraged the emergence of distinctive regional rap sounds and styles, as well as strong local allegiances and territorial rivalries” (Forman 2000, 66). Commercially speaking, in order to package, price, and control the Other, major record labels relied on the branding of an “authentic” localized hip hop product (Neff 2009, 13). The sociomusicologist Simon Frith states genre labeling is at the heart of artistic value judgments, framing how popular music is created, received, and remembered. A genre label that sticks helps organize the marketing efforts of the music industry, both confirming and informing the tastes of consumers. In the East Coast/West Coast showdown, the professed differences between the two coasts provided heavy ammunition for unwinnable authenticity debates.
Such contention and strife occurred because these metaphorical boundary disputes are, in essence, arguments over what hip hop means and what it should mean. Thus, the second purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate the paradoxes and pitfalls of origin tracing. Dialectical relations between recording artists, critics, and listeners—working both in tandem and at odds—aided in the creation of an East Coast/West Coast schism in hip hop culture during the 1990s. “Different groups possess different sorts of cultural capital, share different cultural expectations and so make music differently” (Frith 1987, 134). Yet, this fissure unwittingly buried West Coast hip hop’s musical roots—or cultural routes as the British literary scholar Paul Gilroy has popularized. So while examples of the two coasts’ aesthetics can be clearly contrasted, perhaps to the surprise of some there exist distinct similarities as well.
Initially investigated by Dick Hebdige in Cut N’ Mix, hip hop produced from any location will find its antecedent in the competitive Jamaican Sound System culture of the 1960s and 1970s. In sum, sound systems are characterized by opposing DJs and vocal performers “clashing” with one another, chatting and singing over pre-recorded records. So despite the divergence in artistic and commercial imperatives of East and West Coast hip hop practitioners, both coasts enjoy a Jamaican heritage that informs the formation of both 1970s Bronx hip hop and the Los Angeles scene of the early 1980s. However, during such musical archaeological digs, Paul Gilroy challenges us to consider the following question:
How are we to think critically about artistic products and aesthetic codes which, though they may be traceable back to one distinct location, have been changed either by the passage of time or by their displacement, relocation, or dissemination through networks of communication and cultural exchange?
(Gilroy 1993, 79–80)
Forour subject, while East and West Coast rap music share an identifiable blueprint, how such an influence plays out in practice will vary. With this in mind, in order to appreciate how contrasting practices of hip hop emerged in the 1990s, Simon Frith’s ideas of “technique” and “technology” will be employed to assist in identifying the processes that create differing sounds with differing intents within a similar genre. Recognizing that East Coast and West Coast hip hop both descend from Jamaican DJ sound system culture, this shared lineage is a useful entry point for the examination of hip hop culture’s diverse musical evolution in its third decade.
The East Coast ain’t playin’ our songs / I wanna know what the hell’s goin’ on
—Willie Dee of Houston, TX’s Geto Boys, “Do It Like a G.O.,” 1989
Fighting over colors? / All that gang shit is for dumb motherfuckers!
—Bronx, NY’s Tim Dog, “Fuck Compton,” 1991
Animosity fueling the bicoastal feud or “beef” between East Coast and West Coast rap music in the 1990s stemmed from a variety of sources. In less a turf war than an ideological and aesthetic one, Los Angeles and New York served as coastal anchors of difference, their geographic locations a metaphor for drawn sides. As early as 1988, Oakland’s MC Hammer decidedly “Takes-On New York” in his debut music video, “Turn This Mutha Out,” and Houston’s Geto Boys complained of New York City’s provincialism the following year. In both video and song, the Bronx rapper Tim Dog’s 1991 tirade “Fuck Compton” was scathing in its dismissal of West Coast artists who glorified gang life. Representing the South Bronx—the universally acknowledged birthplace of hip hop—Tim Dog’s pointed criticism implied gangsta rap was antithetical to the very purpose of hip hop culture; in particular of how hip hop was envisioned in the 1970s by the former Black Spades member Afrika Bambaataa and his gang-turned-crew, the Zulu Nation.
Initially, the back and forth in the ensuing years between N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Tim Dog seemed more Bull Run than Gettysburg, especially when considering the alliances forged by Ice-T and his former Zulu Nation DJ Afrika Islam and Ice Cube’s collaboration with Public Enemy on his seminal 1990 solo LP Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. But by 1992 the growing divide between the East Coast and West Coast was impossible to ignore as rappers and critics alike often embraced regionally distinct sounds. A “dis” record or openly stated “beef” between performers was nothing new in this cultural stream stretching back before rap music. The very nature of a “sound clash” between Jamaican Sound Systems was fiercely competitive in the fight for audiences’ attention: “some of them even sent thugs to shoot up their rivals’ dances and destroy their equipment” (Chang 2005, 29–30). In the mid-1970s mothership funk captain George Clinton told soul brother number one James Brown, “Let’s take it to the stage, sucka,” disputing who owned the title of “Godfather of funk.” In hip hop’s infancy, disputes are evidenced within New York itself. South Bronx DJs claimed turf in neighborhoods and clubs, a vestige of gang affiliations transmuted to hip hop crews; “even in its infancy hip hop cartography was shaped by a refined capitalist logic and the existence of distinct market regions” (Forman 2000, 67). These strategies continued to inform hip hop inaugural record-making practices during the 1980s. Witness Queensbridge’s Roxanne Shante versus Brooklyn’s UTFO in 1984 or Boogie Down Productions’ recording “South Bronx,” which took on rivals from across the East River, Queens’ Juice Crew, in 1986. “‘Answer records,’ Toop observes, have a long history in pop, soul, jazz and blues” (2000, 36–53), and such efforts were not for prestige alone but market share as well.
I saw and heard crews that rocked / The Cold Crushers, Monsters, Breakout, Sasquatch
—Just-Ice, “Going Way Back,” 1987
This is dedicated to the niggaz that was down from day one
—Dr. Dre, “The Chronic (Intro),” 1992
Perhaps the most divisive element of the pyrrhic conflict between the East and West Coast has been the linked dispute over origin and authenticity. Hip hop’s genesis in the South Bronx is an oft-told tale in song, book, images, and even curated spaces. But a few examples: Bronx’s Diamond D 1993 title track “Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hip” roll-called Bronx pioneers and defined principles (“Yo, back then it wasn’t done for the cash / I hope the legacy continues to last”); academic texts such as Tricia Rose’s foundational 1994 Black Noise or Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahern’s first person accounts in Yes, Yes, Y’all from 2002 have been mainstays in the growing field of hip hop studies; the 2016 Netflix original production The Get Down chronicles the (fictional) lives of Bronx youth as they come of age while simultaneously popularizing new forms of music, rapping, dancing, and graffiti (Small 2016); and lastly, Harvard and Cornell, to name but two universities in the last ten years, have begun the process of canonizing and consecrating artifacts, ephemeral and primary sources of hip hop’s (East Coast) heritage (Mosley 2017). In keeping with standard academic musicological and social science practices, this academization of hip hop has been another driving force behind breaking the music into different “periods” and “schools.” The music industry is not the only profiteer from putting culture into boxes.
It is noteworthy within the dawning of hip hop’s second decade of existence that New York hip hop artists had already begun to carve out boundaries of legitimacy based on proximity to and experience of the Bronx hip hop scene: “You’re not familiar with the funky sound / That proves it right there, you wasn’t down,” Just Ice declared in 1987. This was highlighted in the leading hip hop publication of the early 1990s, The Source, based in New York. Friction developed around the magazine’s rating system for LPs that seemingly favored East Coast artists, editorial coverage that admonished West Coast gangsta rap, and a general disdain for (West Coast) artists who “crossed over” with platinum record sales. The writer and editor Reginald C. Dennis’s musing about Oakland rapper Too $hort for The Source in August 1992 noted, “If [Too $hort] had been from the Bronx, he would be universally recognized as one of rap’s pioneers” (Dennis 1992, 32). In song and print, New York hip hop performers and media debated authenticity; describing N.W.A’s undeniable growing popularity by 1991, the Source editor Jon Shecter offered the caveat, “Everywhere you turn, the youth of America is tuned in to N.W.A. Everywhere, that is, except New York City” (Shecter 1991, 24). Meanwhile, California DJs and rappers pursued record sales and expanded distribution of their creations. Recognized as the first to lay out such a blueprint, Ice-T introduced South Central Los Angeles to the larger world in 1987. Backed by the funding and clout of his Warner Brothers label, selling 500,000 copies, the title of his debut LP, Rhyme Pays, was more than a mantra. In recalling a meeting with his Rhyme Syndicate staff and artists during this time, Ice-T admitted to his crew, “New York is always going to have resistance to West Coast stuff,” but he was not swayed:
I took a pen and I circled New York, Philly and New Jersey on a map. And I said, “Okay, they can have those. But the West Coast starts right here” and I was pointing to everything outside of the circle. Because a motherfucker from Detroit doesn’t give a fuck if you’re from New York or L.A. because he’s from neither. I knew we could sell a million records with or without New York. We could just take the rest of the country. (Coleman 2007, 242)
Now I’m gonna show you how the East Coast rocks.
—South Bronx’s KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions, “Original Lyrics,” 1991
Now I’m gonna show you how the West Coast smacks kids.
—Oakland’s A-Plus of Souls of Mischief, “That’s When Ya Lost” 1993
West Coast artists had little consternation about “selling out,” a concern that pervaded so much of the New York scene as hip hop began to crossover to wider audiences by the late 1980s (Quinn 2005, 69). In fact, being the Other was often championed as West Coast artists’ active rejection of the gatekeepers’ approval, and it led to a certain autonomy and boldness in production techniques (Cross 1993, 23) “The very sense of neglect and exclusion from the New York establishment sowed the seeds of a new rap subgenre-—it enabled non–New York artists to foster a distinctive sound and attitude” (Quinn 2005, 69). Brooklyn’s Daddy-O of Stetasonic in 1989 admitted as much in that same “Rap Summit” roundtable: “We went to sleep, and [the West Coast artists] moved right in. They talked about issues while we talked about ourselves” (Leland and Reinhardt 1989, 49).
If East Coast respect was not forthcoming, West Coast artists expressed an explicit desire to make money via explicit rap music—it was all about reality and a salary. Novelty rap records like “King Tim III” by Fatback and the dubious platinum-selling pop hit “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang served more as a blueprint of stylistic guidance for West Coast hip hop recording artists than a rebuke of all that was sacred (Cross 1993, 19). These early hip hop records could be described as rap covers or versions, their legitimacy often debated by New York hip hop practitioners (Fricke and Ahern 2002, 181–197). In Los Angeles, these records were perverse inspiration. Prior to N.W.A., in live performance Dr. Dre would play instrumentals of popular New York hits and Ice Cube “would rap obscene versions of the original lyrics,” transforming Run DMC’s “My Adidas” into “My Penis” (McDermott 2003, 20). Where the shadow of jive-talking radio DJs like Jocko Henderson and Frankie Crocker loomed large over New York hip hop, equally influential in California were the ribald blue tales of Rudy Ray Moore, Blowfly, and Iceberg Slim. Simple shock value may have been the goal.
“People like listening to Richard Pryor and Dolemite, the hardcore shit . . . I wanted to make people go: ‘Oh, shit, I can’t believe he’s saying that shit.’ . . . let’s give ’em an alternative, nigger, niggernigger, niggernigger fuck this shit fuck that bitch bitchbitchbitchsuck my dick, all this kind of shit, you know what I’m saying,” Dr. Dre instructed.
(Cross 1993, 197)
Dutifully motivated, West Coast hip hop innovators seized commercial opportunities by breaking social taboos in a way their East Coast brethren simply did not embrace. Greg Mack, a programmer of the famed R&B Los Angeles radio station KDAY in the mid-1980s fearlessly added not only singles but rap album cuts and b-sides into primetime playlists. Mack was most interested in breaking local new music for the commercial success of the station rather than promoting hip hop culture specifically; “The one thing we would do is play a marginal LA record before a slightly better New York one” (Cross 1993, 21, 38). Danyel Smith, writing for Spin magazine, admired this simplistic but effective formula of West Coast rap:
If there’s a paradigm for [Compton’s DJ Quik], it’s Too $hort—they are brothers without grand causes, average, profane griots from hungry, mirror starved tribes who make music for their audience’s ear rather than for their own. He and $hort aim to please—they both come out with the same stuff every time, and no one gets disappointed. The unanointed get bored, but the folks in the flatlands would freak if they changed. Fuck a newfangled invention—make that shit pop and bounce.
(Smith 1992, 112)
Interestingly, inauthenticity was not a concern for certain West Coast artists: “Too $hortis a character I created…. I have to actually tell people that I am Todd Shaw. I’m a businessman” (Dennis 1992, 35). Dr. Dre freely disclosed, “[It’s] about who makes the best record, as a matter of fact it ain’t even about that, it’s about who sells the most records” (Cross 1993, 197).
Media discourse during this period fanned the flames of the debate as to whether record sales (or lack of) was a sign of authenticity. New York MCs and writers for The Source sharply criticized the “lazy” and “pandering” production techniques of an artist such as Oakland’s Hammer in an attempt to undermine West Coast credibility (Charnas 2010,278). Even the widely praised talents of Dr. Dre drew criticism from New York’s “hard headed fans” who “dis the production” (Shecter 1991, 24). In an attempt to defend Dr. Dre’s talents, the Source journalist-turned-author S.H. Fernado Jr., in 1994’s The New Beats, offered the backhanded compliment, “While Dre has gotten much mileage out of sampling—especially from his favorites George Clinton and Bootsy Collins—his technique has evolved” (Fernando 1994, 238). Recording artists joined the fray with digs in print and on tape. The pioneering Bronx legend Kool Moe Dee in August 1989 for the Spin magazine feature “Rap Summit”: “I don’t think N.W.A. is going to last more than a year…. They don’t have a vision.” This in response to a journalist’s question that wondered how West Coast artists “used to be totally lame” but now enjoyed platinum sales (Leland and Reinhardt 1989, 50). That was not even a self-professed goal for Mt. Veron, New York’s Grand Puba: “If I only sold records in New York, you know, I felt content with that. Even though money-wise it wasn’t like Hammer, who sold millions” (Powell 1992, 51). Covering the artistic breakthrough of The Low End Theory, Joan Morgan doubted Jamaica Queens’ A Tribe Called Quest’s viability in the marketplace, lamenting, “Scary but true, this hip hop classic may never get the commercial success it deserves” (Morgan 1991). KDAY’s Greg Mack acknowledged, “The East Coast guys got more props but the West Coast sold all the records” (Cross 1993, 155). On 1993’s “Sh. Fe. MC’s,” Posdnuos of Amityville, Long Island’s De La Soul noted the repetitive nature of West Coast hip hop: “Niggas use the Clinton loops as if they owned the publishing.” Tim Dog’s 1991 “Fuck Compton” may have been far more bombastic and disrespectful, but press clippings and one-liners of this era indicate a normative culture of East Coast disdain and disapproval of the Other, in addition to doubt and despair about what constitutes “real” or successful hip hop music.
Never let me slip, ’cause if I slip, then I’m slippin
But if I got my Nina, then you know I’m straight trippin.
—Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” 1992
I walk around town with my pound strapped down to my side
No frontin’, just in case I gotta smoke somethin’.
–—Steele of Smif-N-Wessun, “Bucktown,” 1994
The emphasis of the Otherness of West Coast rap music over the last two decades has created academic discourse around the origins of the less celebrated and “least-understood” West Coast hip hop scene (Perkins and Cross 1995, 273). Though not absolute, unfortunately the emphasis in hip hop studies has often landed on dissimilarity between the two coasts or implications that West Coast rap is inferior. David Toop, recognized as one of hip hop’s first historians, has described Dre’s work as “verging on simplistic . . . lacking the textural density or sensuality of the tracks that inspired it” begrudgingly admitting, “Dre’s formula was extremely effective” despite it having “little substance to talk about, other than documenting his intake of Chronic” (Toop 2000, xxiv). After lengthy discussion of the “intercontextual references and complexity” of East Coast’s “major figures,” Tricia Rose in Black Noise inadvertently draws California’s authenticity into question, describing a “West Coast style of rap” as narrating both the “experiences and fantasies” of its performers (Rose 1994, 58–59). Jeff Chang’s 2005 Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation consciously loops hip hop culture together as an organic thematic whole, but differences—including between the East and West Coasts—were the hallmark of the diverse, multicultural puzzle the hip hop generation represented. In assessments of the stylistic development of hip hop, California practitioners have simply not measured up stylistically, according to the Africana Studies scholar William Jelani: “The MCs of the West Coast were generally looked down upon by their eastern counterparts; their tendency toward languid, head throbbing cadence was taken as an absence of lyrical ability” (Cobb 2007, 56).
Notable exceptions are found in Eithne Quinn’s under acknowledged, exhaustively researched 2004 Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap and Brian Cross’s 1993 It’s Not aboutaSalary . . . Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles. Quinn introduces critical discourse to California hip hop as Tricia Rose did for the New York scene a decade earlier, while Cross chronicles the burgeoning West Coast region in photo, interview, and essay, all of which this chapter is heavily indebted to. In a review, Reebee Garafalo praises Cross’s ability to see the complexities in development of West Coast hip hop: “Cross stresses LA analogs to just about every noteworthy East Coast phenomenon” (Garafalo 1996, 130). It is remarkable how parallels between the 1970s South Bronx “park jam” creation myths and Los Angeles early 1980s “roller rink” grassroots origins have been overlooked. While the 1960s and 1970s Jamaican “Sound System” culture has been clearly linked to the origin of American hip hop and the rise of the disco DJ, its impact on West Coast hip hop has not been as loudly heralded.
Some of the oversight may be in part because of intentions. Bronx “sound systems” consciously developed as an alternative to the expensive Downtown Manhattan discos Bronx and Harlem kids could not enter; LA “sound systems” were mobile disco themselves. In southern California the sound system cultural antecedent lived on most conspicuously in the fabled traveling Los Angeles DJs Uncle Jamm’s Army. The West Coast rap pioneer Ice-T recalls, “Uncle Jamm’s Army was the biggest dance promotion crew in Los Angeles. They would rent areas . . . and throw big parties for underage kids” (Mlynar 2010, 66). Along with dozens of other like-minded groups, Uncle Jamm’s Army threw parties at high schools, nightclubs, and sports arenas, organizing the efforts of DJs, MCs, breakers, and pop lock dancers in the South Central Los Angeles area. The journalist Terry McDermott concluded that much of the energy of the early 1980s Los Angeles scene was focused on throwing successful large-scale dance parties, not on the promotion of hip hop and rapping per se (McDermott 2003, 12). The idea that the “epicenter of the rap scene in Los Angeles wasn’t a place, but a moving target” (Charnas 2010, 216) is in stark contrast to the fixed spatial distribution of DJs in the Bronx, with its “emphasis on territoriality.” In the Bronx, the arrangement of DJ crews reflected a rootedness in which “respect is related to the geographies [a DJ] maps” (Forman 2000, 67). Ironically, while Old School Bronx Hip Hop and its adherents objected to gangstarap, it is the lingering influences of South Bronx gangs that demarcated spaces and members. West Coast hip hop and, in turn, gangsta rap and G Funk were born to roll.
The enduring dialectic between the coasts’ embryonic forays into recorded music was also present. Similar to Sugarhill and Enjoy Records in Harlem from 1979 to 1984, fledgling West Coast rap labels such as Rappers Rapp, Macola, and Priority Records began to capture emerging California rappers in their incipient state in the early 1980s (Charnas 2010,207–214). The two coasts also engaged in similar informal distribution activities that they articulated differently based on social and geographic contexts. In New York, live tapes of outdoor or club performances of New York crews made their rounds in hand-to-hand sales or in “Mom and Pop” shops like Bobby Robinson’s Happy House of Records on 125th St. Similar entrepreneuring vendors in California hawked their wares at the increasingly available empty spaces of drive-in movie theaters. Outdoor flea markets or “swap meets” became commonplace as the drive-in movie business became less viable with growing home usage of the VCR in the 1980s. Whereas restricted entry to New York vaunted hip hop loci was a point of pride, south central LA public swap meets were spaces of access and another point of entry for those outside the region. Source magazine’s Darryl James noted swap meets “exist all over the country” in the form of flea markets; such spaces proved to be fertile grounds for selling independent records and mixtapes, signing autographs, and planting grass roots (James 1992, 46–48; McDermott 2003, 9).
Rapping certainly had a strong presence in Los Angeles; the spoken word artists Watts Prophets’, whose confrontational Rappin’ Black in a White World presaged N.W.A by nearly two decades, is a significant example. However, rapping and MCing was an ends to a means out West, not a closely guarded element of the culture. This is evident in that West Coast DJs and audiences were as interested and enamored with sounds, themes, and images of George Clinton, Parliament, Prince, and Kraftwerk as they were with raps of the Sugarhill Gang (Cross 1993, 21; McDermott 2003, 13). Whereas New York hip hop crews were dedicated to emphasizing the unique innovations of Bronx MCing and DJing, West Coast practitioners appeared to be comfortable placing hip hop into a larger continuum of black American rhythm and blues, disco, and entertainment (Cross 1993, 156). The blog site Old School Hip Hop Tapes offers several hours of Dr. Dre’s KDAY radio mixes and live performances from the 1980s showcasing the young DJ’s(and the station programmers’) predilection for cross-pollinating hip hop with other black and pop music genres, including Jamaican dancehall. Oakland’s Shock G, band leader of the Digital Underground collective, is definitive:
We just try to be in tune to all forms of music . . . R&B, jazz, rock’n’roll, hip hop. Like Funkadelic we wanted to use all our influences on one record. Besides as we say in our upcoming single, “It’s all the same song.”
(Poulson-Bryant 1990, 45)
Such interplay across genres and generations was not just an aesthetic impulse of West Coast artists but also a shrewd marketing strategy. As KDAY signed off in March of 1991, in an interview the programmer Greg Mack regretted KDAY becoming a “rap station.” “[In 1988] we were 40 per cent rap, with the rest hits and R&B, but the last two years they decided to go to rap 100 per cent, and the station took a nose dive” (Cross 1993, 156).
Despite a distinct musical ecosystem that includes traditional sound systemculture of mobile music, models of immediate distribution, and DJs’ creative oeuvres, West Coast output has been largely understood as derivative of the East. Any longtime listener of East and West Coast hip hop, while reading the preceding pages, has no doubt objected aloud to the way in which media, artists, and the author of this chapter have conflated “West Coast hip hop” with gangsta rap and G-Funk. G-Funk and West Coast hip hop’s inseparable association is likely due to G-Funk being “one of the great commercial presences in the history of rap music” (Krims 2000, 74); in fact, it could be argued that “G-Funk, a derivation of gangster rap, is essentially a sub-sub-genre” (MacAdams and Bell 2016). Mapping these boundaries is dubious as well; is Redman not Newark, NJ’s “Funkadelic Devil”? Brian Cross’s ethnography uncovers a diversity within Los Angeles in the careers and intentions of performers such as Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship. Some California artists actually clamored to hear mixtapes from New York’s Mister Magic, Red Alert, or Marley Marl, while others were raised on Parliament and Zapp. “Neither camp is exclusive to the other, but from each arose a distinct music legacy” (Cross 1993, 21). In these archaeological reconstructions and periodization efforts, Gilroy insists discourses encompassing the “musics of the black Atlantic world” recognize “the primary expressions of cultural distinctiveness” using “separate but converging musical traditions” (Gilroy 1993, 79–82). As such, the East/West Coast dialectic is dizzying, no doubt, but it is through acknowledging the similar origins of both Coasts that their differences are better understood.
Fuckin police got the 4-1-1 / That L.A. ain’t all, surf and sun.
—Compton, CA’s Ice Cube, “My Summer Vacation,” 1991
Totin techs for rep, smokin blunts in the project hallways, shootin dice all day.
—Brooklyn, NY’s Notorious B.I.G., “Things Done Changed,” 1994
If under acknowledged common sources and activities pervade East and West Coast hip hop, how do we account for the differences between the two sounds? As West Coast hip hop emerged in the mid -1980s, practitioners “had little sense of its regional self-definition,” even as an “appreciable sense of its marginality” was increasing (Quinn 2005, 67). Perhaps the most important distinction separating New York and California hip hop is the influence of differing metropolitan geographies and their industries. Most recently the musicologist Justin Williams’s Rhymin’ and Stealin’ has explored “the influence of urban geography on hip hop music production and the geography of particular listening spaces” (Williams 2013, 73). Brian Cross indirectly noted that N.W.A.’s and Eazy-E’s music played on this duality by mixing hardboiled tales of South Central Los Angeles with an eye for Hollywood sensationalism (Cross 1993, 37). But initial reactions to gangsta rap and West Coast hip hop tended to revel in the irony that the “southern California landscape so often associated with sun, surf, Hollywood and boom times” had a seedy underbelly (Perkins and Cross 1995, 274). David Toop provides a common take: “Los Angeles is deceptive, however. The sun shines and before dusk, battlegrounds can look uncannily like the suburban American dream” (Toop 2000, 185). Such a description is not far removed from the well-worn narrative of pulp noir that “found its fertile crescent” in California (Leland 2004, 97). When also considering the impact of Tinsel Town on the greater Los Angeles area, James Kunstler’s thoughts are relevant as well: “The rise of the motion picture business had an equally strange effect on the landscape. Here was an industry devoted to the production of fantasy” (Kunstler 1993, 209).
A city whose major export was suspension of disbelief perhaps afforded an intriguing sleight of hand for listeners of gangsta rap; its laid-back imagery and passive aggressive posture was a welcome departure from the punishing beats and incisive vocals of New York rap. In 1987,“Boyz-n-the-Hood,” an early and distinctly West Coast gangsta rap single by Eazy-E, conceived “the ghetto landscape as a generalized abstract construct, as space” (Forman 2000, 77) or maybe a Hollywood set. “Boyz-n-the-Hood” created the possibility for any listeners—particularly outsiders—to imagine themselves inhabiting it or claiming it for their own. While (black) South Central burned during the 1992 LA Riots, the (white) suburbs simmered with their own kind of disenfranchisement; could they be kindred spirits? The Arlington, Texas, grunge-pop-rock group Dynamite Hack seemed to think so as their 2000 “Boyz-n-the-Hood” cover reached #12 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
Like the alienating suburbs of America, “private luxury in counterpoint to public squalor has only become more pronounced over time in LA” (Kunstler 1993, 210). Critics and scholars have taken stock in the idea that it is precisely because of California’s suburban landscape that West Coast rap became appealing to larger audiences especially by 1993. Robin Kelley made the case gangsta rap “attracts listeners for whom the ‘ghetto’ is a place of adventure, unbridled violence, erotic fantasy, and/or an imaginary alternative to suburban boredom” (Kelley 1994, 191). Oliver Wang creatively forwarded the idea in his retrospective examination of seminal hip hop LPs Classic Material. Drawing parallels between Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ buta ‘G’ Thang” and seemingly disparate rock pop anthems “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas and Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” Wang insightfully declares,
In all these cases, what’s being touted [in these songs] is a mythology, a romanticized ideal of what living (and dying) in LA is all about, seeped in a decadent, fabulous fantasy that’s long been part of America’s fascination with Los Angeles.
(Wang 2003, 57)
Writing in Los Angeles Times Magazine, McDermott went further: “No matter who’s singing—Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, the Eagles or Niggaz With Attitudes—or about what, California hedonism prevails” (McDermott 2003, 28–29). Oft criticized by the Eastern establishment, Dr. Dre and other West Coast producers ultimately remixed American pop, creating “an indelible mark” that gave “hard core hip hop a more prominent profile and commercial identity” and improbable cross-generational appeal (Watkins 2005, 52).
What about Southern California’s geography as compared to New York lends itself to a wider suburban American audience? New York’s crowded buildings and streets and cluttered skylines are distinct and unique; public transportation in the form of subway, bus, and taxi a regular feature. Perhaps the sharp contrast in urban culture and leisure practices of Los Angeles when compared to New York City proved to be the West Coast’s literal selling point. Again, a nod here to Justin Williams, who recognized the primacy of the automobile in American life and its connection to Dr. Dre’s particular goal to “make the shit for people to bump in their cars” (Cross 1993, 197). Williams effectively links some hallmarks of the American suburban experience from “the drive-in, the suburban shopping mall, ‘cruising’, the motel, drag racing, fast food” to the “trademarked modes of hip hop production such as those of Dr. Dre” (Williams 2013, 91). As “suburban sociability transpires in cars” (Tongson 2011, 26), the automobile is—as it is for the majority of Americans—a prized possession, an extension of identity and a prime locus for experience. Michael Eric Dyson considers the broader appeal of mobile music aesthetic: “As Ralph Ellison said, geography is fate. West Coast hip hop tailored its fat bass beats and silky melodies for jeeps that cruise the generous spaces of the West, and the open spaces of the Midwest and South” (Dyson 2009, 233). The popular press has played along with this narrative, canonizing, for instance, “The 30 Best G-Funk Tracks of All Time.” The authors Max Bell and Torii MacAdams acknowledge, “glinting synths, sub-rattling bass lines, and warm, melodic instrumentals were often paired with narratives which in reality were scored by gunshots, screams, and sirens. It’s perhaps these juxtapositions and contradictions that make the sub-genre so compelling” (MacAdams and Bell 2016). While still distinct and awesome, the Los Angeles area is less a city and more of an expansive, sprawling suburb, navigated, like most American spaces, by car; the perfectly safe location to glean the vicarious dangers of listening to gangsta rap.
In New York, dark, stuffy, nightclubs were often celebrated locations of “real” hip hop performance. In contrast, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic campaign in particular was advertised and framed in relation to the automobile, specifically the classic Chevrolet Impala (Williams 2013, 87). Promising listeners they have “never been on a ride like this before,” the “innovative combination” of familiar “seductive instrumentation” with “amoral and secular rhymes” gave Dr. Dre and his G Funk its “distinctive tonal semantics” (Quinn 2005, 146) popular with larger audiences. But Dre’s music was not only music for cruisin’; his music videos were a visual showcase of California low rider cars, backyard barbeques, and house parties. “The videos [Dre] directed were homespun, hilarious . . . shot in homes and hoods across South Central Los Angeles’s vast summery ghettoscapes” (Watkins 2005, 49). With these images the dangerous streets of Compton looked more like Springfield, USA, than the South Bronx. Karen Tongson notes the duality ever present in the relationship of these locations:
The American suburbs may have functioned historically as spaces of escape from the decline of industrial cities, but the two have nevertheless shared, over time, a codependent relationship. Never too far apart, yet seemingly worlds away, suburbs and cities—as the joke goes about many longtime companions—are beginning to resemble each other.
(Tongson 2011, 9)
In the 1994 video for “Gin and Juice” (produced by Dre), blue pajama–clad Snoop Dogg is surprisingly portrayed less as a Crip gangsta than a juvenile complete with the ready-for-sitcom woes of meddlesome parents (Quinn 2005, 142). The inevitable house party transpires once the parents have departed, leaving Snoop Dogg a “Homeboy Alone.” Even in comedy, the “Gin and Juice” video is a thinly veiled threat, as Snoop’s parents are deliberately filmed driving home on California route 187 East. (California Penal Code section 187 defines the crime of murder.) Even when brandishing guns and celebrating menace, Southern California rappers invited listeners to view racially and sexually charged alienated individuals as mythological, violent gangstas at a safe distance. Exploring the similarities of pulp noir and gangsta rap, the journalist John Leland sees the appeal; artists like Snoop Dogg “developed characters who were as funny and rich as they were pathological” (Leland 2004, 108). The laid-back flows, beats made for the ride, and images of normative suburban socialization made the plight of a young black underclass palatable.
Back East, an aggressive and distant attitude characterized New Yorkers’ demeanor; representing one’s housing project, neighborhood, and borough in song and video were directly confrontational gestures to listeners. The tendency of East Coast performers is to anchor their testimony to boroughs of New York City and the artists who inhabited them. Citing New York “classics” from the Boogie Down Productions repertoire, Murray Forman astutely observes that the naming of South Bronx “people and places provide a specificity that is comparatively absent” in Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood” (Forman 2000, 76–77). One of the “original” first-person illicit narratives put on record by Philadelphia’s Schooly D in 1985 contrasts the ambiguity (and possibility) of Eazy’s’ hood. With references to South Philly and Clinton Road in Upper Darby, PA “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” was a specific shout-out to the Park Side Killers, with whom Schooly was affiliated. Considered an originator of hardcore rap, in a 1994 interview Schooly seemed resigned to what murder rap had become by that time: “That’s the thing that pisses me off, people talking about gangsta rap is about the ghetto…. The gangsta lifestyle has transcended into the suburbs, anywhere in America” (Shecter 1994, 44). Analysis and import of gangsta rap lyrics and its imagery have been chronicled in many places (Bradley and Dubois 2010, Dyson, Kelly Quinn, Watkins) but what is significant here is how South Central LA and gangsta rap became a placeholder for all that ails America. Or as DJ Quik asks in “Just Lyke Compton,” “How could a bunch of niggaz in a town like this have such a big influence on niggaz so far away?”
When exploring the origins and intentions of N.W.A’s lionized Straight OuttaCompton, it is revealing to discover “Compton was an almost arbitrary choice—it could have been Watts, Long Beach, Lynwood, Downey or Willowbrook” (Cross 1993, 37). Brian Cross further explains Straight OuttaCompton “according to Eazy, was created as a reply to the construction of the South Bronx/Queensbridge nexus in New York.” Group member MC Ren confirms this: “That’s why our first album Straight OuttaCompton, that’s all you hear about ‘Compton this’, ‘Compton that’ . . . KRS-One had ‘South Bronx,’ PE was talking about Long Island, Run-DMC talking ’bout Queens…. We was like, ‘Damn! Fuck it, we comin’ from Compton-on the map!” (Ro 1994, 48). But considering N.W.A’s influence on West Coast rap and beyond, the group did more than stake a flag. In their ambiguous and inconclusive politics, N.W.A.’s music haphazardly popularized “a new spatial vocabulary that spread throughout hip hop,” in particular suggesting that “reality” and “authenticity” are “conceptually linked among those who developed and sustained the spatial discourses of the ’hood” (Forman 2000, 77). Using (sub)urban landscapes, soundtracks for automobiles and familiar funk melodies, the initial generational, racial, and class divides G Funk allegedly produced were not as absolute as on first listen (Quinn 2005, 148). Ren further laments, “It wasn’t really no messages but people took it the wrong way . . . we was just making a record” (Ro 1994, 48). Unintentional or not, the nameless suburbs and their alienated youth discovered common ground with West Coast rap’s characterization of a bright but deceptively lethal Los Angeles; possibly more so than with the closely guarded, xenophobic nature of New York hip hop culture. “Without detailed spatial descriptions of landmarks and environment, Compton does not emerge as a clearly realized urban space” (Forman 2000, 81). With this approach to rhyme and beat, West Coast practitioners certainly alienated East Coast purists, but they may have also provided an entrance to West Coast hip hop for outsiders as well.
Things are kinda wack now, packed up, my cardboard and stepped away
I didn’t have a choice, the culture was slayed
grafitti had died, and things were dissapearin’ The West coast was here and all these wack beats appearin’.
—Newark, NJ’s El DaSensai of the Artifacts, “Whayback,” 1994
They wanna brag about the neighborhood, oh, you wanna boast? We come from different cities and we’re coast to coast.
—Oakland, CA’s Shock G of Digital Underground, “Nuttin’ Nis Funky,” 1991
The East Coast/West Coast dialectic, the push and pull of aesthetic intentions and expressive authenticity, is a product of a multitude of factors. East Coast hip hop grew out of a cultural movement prizing artistic innovation and competition above all else in a quest for the claim of originality. As the business of recorded hip hop grew in the 1990s, the East Coast still used such ideas as signaling “a higher artistic plane, the notion of rap as high art and expander of consciousness” (Williams 2013, 54). Meanwhile, the West Coast pushed the envelope of acceptable hip hop production practices and where hip hop could be located: “Without the help of the East’s more established industrial base, regional [West Coast] artists often drew on sensational subject matter, materially or symbolically linked locales, in order to carve out a market niche” (Quinn 2005, 69–70). Whereas West Coast producers such as Dr. Dre and Warren G celebrated the musicianship, professional sound quality, and commercial acumen of their work, East Coast producers such as Da Beatminerz in the 1990s reveled in the obscurity of sources, creativity born from scarcity, and a sound that was likely going to be rejected by wider audiences rather than embraced. Beatminerz’ DJ Evil Dee: “I prefer to get something nobody has, then sample it different, so when niggas try to find the spot that I sampled, they can’t hear it” (Coker 1993). New York celebrated their borough’s historic contributions to hip hop culture; Los Angeles counted record sales. One was born ceaselessly unto the times “way back,” to the Boogie Down Bronx that started it all. The other took dead aim at a sound to take them straight outta Compton. Whatever their differences, however, both coasts were distant and distorted echoes of the Jamaican dancehall, reverberating off of each other with a keen awareness of how those differences produced material and cultural capital for artists on either side of the divide. Ultimately, the East Coast/West Coast rivalry featured two sound systems pointed at one another, amplifying what Tricia Rose would call “Black Noise” to the point of mainstream saturation.
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