The dominant era of gangsta rap begins and ends with Andre Young, better known by his rap moniker Dr. Dre, in the decade preceding the new millennium. In 2001's Grammy winning single “Forgot About Dre,” the composer/rapper is clear about spelling out his role in the making and selling of the gangsta rap genre: “Who you think brought you the O. Gs? / Eazy E’s, Ice Cube’s and D.O.C’s / and Snoop D-O-double-G’s / And a group that said motherfuck the police?” (Dr. Dre, “Forgot About Dre”). In fact, it was N.W.A, aka the “Niggaz With Attitude,” or the “group that said motherfuck the police,” that was the first commercially successful gangsta rap group ever, reaching double platinum sales status in 1988.
According to Jeff Chang, “Excess was the essence of NWAs appeal. [Their] poems celebrated pushers, played bitches, killed enemies, and assassinated police” (Chang 319). What developed out of N.W.A’s aesthetic of excess was an urgent stance of “antisociality,” functioning not only as a negation of White America's structures of black oppression, such as police brutality and racial profiling, but a rejection of the collective Black nationalist movement as well (Clover 46). West coast gangsta rap developed in opposition to the then-dominant aesthetic of Public Enemy and Rakim, socially conscious rappers whose political sentiments can be traced back to Black Power, 5 percenter, and Nation of Islam teachings. Their sobering East coast ethos was concerned with the knowledge of self or “the ideals of a [self-reflexive] black consciousness” (Haupt 144).
In the era of Reaganomics, trickle down economics, and DARE programs, which 'eliminated youth programs while bombarding youths with messages to desist and abstain,” the concept of black self-consciousness was “about tough love, denial, and getting used to having nothing” (Chang 419). What came after the ideological rejection of “knowing the ledge” with the material excesses of gangsta rap in general were hyper-capitalist notions of instant gratification and a “get mine” credo (Chang 420). Gangsta rap, both as a style and an ethos, effectively revoked “Rakim’s open invitation to join the hip hop nation – 'It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” – by the articulation of an increasingly hood-centric aesthetic, one “more coded in local symbol and slang than ever before” (Chang 321).
The genre's inner city origins contain a quasi-mythic significance, accounting for the local mystique of N.W.A’s first album, Straight Outta Compton. Bryan Turner, owner of N.W.A’s record label Priority Records, illuminates why N.W.A's album was such a surprise hit: “That’s how we sold two million, the white kids in the Valley picked it up and they decided they wanted to live vicariously through this music. Kids were just waiting for it” (Chang 320). What sold in the mainstream and thus to curious white suburbanites was gangsta rap’s embrace of the “logic of containment,” or the “internalization of rhetoric along with [class] conflict so that it all seemed to arise from and transpire within the urban core” (Clover 37). This flat reification of complex social relations boiled down to a new ethos in hip hop's aesthetic, that of “Get Rich Or Die Tryin',” or a “predatory street capitalism structured by the internalization of struggle,” producing in it’s wake lyrical soundscapes where only gangstas shoot gangstas and hustlers hustle hustlers (Clover 132). Marketing gangsta rap tropes thus became a way of internalizing the causes and effects of inner city poverty; but on a more significant level, it also functioned as a narrative refusal to engage in collective class struggle by reifying America’s racial divide.
The reification of the American racial divide was characterized by gangtsa’s version of predatory capitalism and the demographic marketing schemes of the entertainment industry. Gangsta rap's recuperative embrace of street-based free market enterprise was very much in line with Reagan-era policies perpetuating the ideology of neo-liberal globalization and privatization, in which making money at the expense of castrating local communities was the norm. The genre had subsequently come of age when the federal government's stance towards the inner city had undergone a transformation from the “politics of abandonment” to the “politics of containment,” a paradigm shift towards corporate consolidation marked by an increase in “school closures,” “skyrocketing university tuitions,” and “a prison-building boom” (Chang 438). This also took the form of various domestic policy “wars”—the war on gangs, the war on drugs, and the culture war—which shifted the blame from corporations and attributed what was wrong with America to “browning inner-city youth” (Chang 330). These political and social conditions were grounds for the subsequent marketing of “browning” inner city identity through global media corporations, specifically following the success of Straight Out of Compton on the SoundScan point-of-sales tracking system, which revealed that gangtsa rap's biggest market share consisted of suburban white male teenagers (Watkins 37).
White America's vicarious hunger for inner-city hood authenticity—found in gangsta rap’s ghettoized themes of misogyny, materialism, and violence—would find its most radio and corporate friendly manifestation following Dr. Dre’s 1992 album, The Chronic. The sound of Dr. Dre's fresh production style, aptly titled “G-Funk,” was complete with Parliament Funkadelic samples mixed with heart pounding bass, threatening synthesizers, and rhythm guitars. Lyrically and sonically, The Chronic was music that seemed fit not for a revolution in class consciousness, but for “parties and bullshit” in backyards, low rider cars and barbeques (Chang 420). The blaring noise of political confrontation emanating from Public Enemy’s sound collages, sometimes reaching upwards of 300 samples a song, made way for Dre’s 1-sample-per-hit-song formula, the force of which derived from the use of the catchy “amen break” (Chang 318). Dre's minimalist approach to sampling and his turn towards live instrumentation would largely alter hip hops popular aesthetics - and its inherently political possibilities - as a do-it-yourself form of reproduction-as-production, while also occluding sampling’s subversive qualities as a type of aesthetic détournement. (Clover 36)
Hip hop would thus dominate American mainstream media, but not before taking an inward turn and solidifying its own aesthetic and political possibilities within the discursive “point de capiton” of neo-liberal globalization and its fetishized commodities, where even 3 second music samples cost thousands of dollars to legally clear. In the years following the release of the The Chronic “rap's market share more than doubled while its rival genres – rock, pop, and R&B – actually lost market share and the industry as a whole came face-to-face with declining sales,” solidifying hip hop's economic legitimacy in American pop culture (Watkins 35). Executives at the world's biggest entertainment firms, such as Vivendi and Universal, “could no longer dismiss the huge financial payoff [hip hop] offered” (Watkins 35). By the end of the 1990's, hip hop was one of the biggest growth industries in the United States.
In aesthetic terms, hip hop was an undeniably legitimate genre, if not first as an art form then as an economic cash cow which spread across the globe along with other American commodities, such as Coca Cola and McDonalds. Obscenity in hip hop, once a hotly debated legal issue (i.e. the 2 Live Crew case), became a staple means of creating marketplace resonance and generating media buzz. In terms of popular culture, the rap industry had produced some of the biggest icons to ever grace the mainstream, and their resonance with the boom times of the 90's signaled a new era in American lifestyle. Nouveau riche black men such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, Russel Simmons, Dr. Dre (and later Jay-Z and Kanye West) were displayed as America's entrepreneurs and style setters, symbols of the bourgeoisie in the age of neo-liberal globalization, corporate consolidation, and the bubble economy of the 1990's. (Chang 425)
Comparing Jamaican “rudeboy” culture to hip hop's “gangsta” posing, Louis Chude-Sokei argues that both cultures of style “manifested a specifically American notion of freedom defined by consumption and also a specifically postmodern notion of resistance characterized by a barely self-conscious if not fully ironic navigation of commodity culture and media” (Worlding 154). It is in the space of the latter that we can locate the symbolic significance of Dr Dre's sophomore album, 2001. Although 2001 retains the aesthetic and ethos of hardcore gangsta rap, it is also in part a kind of self-ironizing last hurrah for the narrative structure of the genre itself, as gangsta tropes leave the 1990's and evolve with the millennium.
By following the narrative perspective of the gangsta rap genre's pioneer in 2001, we get an inside-out view of gangsta rap as it has shaped the popular conception of hip hop, and as it has been itself shaped by the globalized media as a commodity. Dr. Dre in 2001 offers insights on the effects of gangsta rap's global dissemination through self-critique, but without wandering too far from his core thematic of thuggish excess.
The title to 2001 carries with it the loaded suggestion that Dre and his brand of gangsta rap would continue to thrive past 1999. Issues concerning Dr. Dre's cultural legitimacy, and also gangsta rap's cultural legitimacy, are made explicit on tracks such as “Forgot About Dre,” “Still D.R.E,” and “The Next Episode”. These singles were successful in recuperating Dr. Dre’s marketability and became 6X platinum hits, with “Forgot About Dre” having won a Grammy for Best Rap Video.
The soundscape of 2001 is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor, in terms of using even leaner production techniques and samples. Much of the early menace heard in The Chronic through the use of use of unerringly whiny synths finds its replacement in more spartan instrumentation, complete with harmonious string and piano sections. The intro skit to 2001, “Lolo,” features rapper Xzibit observing Dr. Dre popping switches and gauges in a lowrider, a type of modified vehicle symbolically linked with Southern California car culture and style. The lowrider functions as a sonic metaphor for the album itself, in the sense that the expectation set is that of technical mastery (of the beats) and (lyrical) spectacle.
Lyrically, 2001 contains the same themes of misogyny, violence, and excessive consumption that listeners of gangsta have become familiar with. Many of the standard lyrics about “Bitch Niggaz” and “Big Egos” is dropped courtesy of Dr. Dre's guest artists: Hitman, Devin The Dude, and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Yet in sharp contrast to his entourage is the self-reflexive and defensive posturing found in Dr. Dre's own lyrics, which signify an inter-generational disconnect with the fruits of his own labor. In contrast to the unabashed gangsterism posited by Dre's couplets in The Chronic, “dedicated to the niggas that was down from day one,” the Dre rapping in 2001 is that of a wiser, more experienced family man (Dr. Dre, The Chronic). Against his detractors both real and imaginary, Dre recuperates the line between “keeping it real” to the streets of his youth and keeping his distance from the violence associated with gangsta rap, both thematically and in reality.
For example, the opening track on 2001 titled “The Watcher” begins with Dr. Dre’s signature spartan production, but what is most captivating are Dre’s verses, in which he takes on the perspective of a pensive semi-ancient one, at least in terms of hip hop. At the age 35 and as reigning king of the globalized West coast, he speaks alone from his sonic throne, delivering couplets that echo loneliness as if from a chamber room.
Things just ain't the same for gangsters
Times is changing, young niggas is aging
I've seen em come, I've watched em go
Watched em rise, witnessed it and watched them blow
And saw the same shit all across the globe
I just sit back and watch the show. (Dr. Dre, “The Watcher”)
In the second verse to “The Watcher,” Dre offers a personal defense on behalf of his crown riches, and cites the welfare of his family as a first concern over thug life mentality:
How would you feel if niggas wanted you killed?
You'd probably move to a new house on a new hill
And choose a new spot if niggas wanted you shot
I ain't a thug - how much Tupac in you you got? (Dr. Dre, “The Watcher”)
These lyrics point to the fact that between the release of The Chronic and 2001, the deaths of two of gangsta rap's two biggest figures - The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur – marked an apotheosis in the hip hop ethos of “keeping it real,” a line of flight that Dr. Dre in 2001 treads along but is careful not to cross. “You're nobody til' somebody kills you,” states Biggie on his album last Life After Death, released only days after he was slain in a drive-by shooting. Biggie's statement is prophetic that he not only predicted his own death, but its significance both in terms of capitalism and pop culture. “Life After Death” literally sold the Notorious B.I.G, as the legend of a commodity and the commodity of a legend.
In the 2002 documentary Biggie and Tupac, director Nick Broomfield, quoting former Death Row Records rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, stated that it was "The big guy next to him in the car...Suge Knight" who had killed the two rappers. Although Suge Knight may not have ordered the rappers killed, it was arguably the packaging and selling of the gangsta rapper's authentic image, and the subsequent expectations to live up to the lifestyle, that sent Tupac and Biggie to their early graves. By the time 2001 was released, Dr. Dre had already parted ways with Suge Knight and Death Row Records to start his own label, Aftermath Records. The name Aftermath is revealing, in that gangsta rap albums after 1999 occupy a post-gangsta rap space, in which the ideology of “keeping it real”, via notions of “thug life” are mere marketing tools, or a theatricalized semiotics of black authenticity designed to be sold to (white) adolescent audiences along with expensive studio-produced beats.