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Rappers Gang Up

WC, Ice Cube & Mack 10
Michael Miller

Territorial: WC (left), Ice Cube and Mack 10 deliver a message from the Westside Connection on "Bow Down."

A trio of new albums by Tupac, Snoop and Westside Connection reaffirms the staying power of gangsta rap

By Todd S. Inoue

ALL TRENDS recycle, and gangsta rap fans are experiencing a third coming. It's been 10 years since Ice-T got rousted out of bed at "Six in the Morning," and five years since N.W.A arrived Straight Outta Compton. These days, more rappers than ever are walking endorsements for the NRA, even though countless clueless pundits insist that gangsta rap is dead.

On the contrary, the death knell currently ringing over the reviled genre's open casket sounds more like a dinner bell. This has been the most prolific year yet for gangsta rap. Dru Down, Mac Mall, IMP, Geto Boys, MC Ren, MC Eiht, Master P, Mac Dre and Above the Law all released material--some of it good, most of it bad, but all of it far from moribund.

Like John Gotti, the Teflon Don himself, gangsta rappers fed off repeated attempts at suppressing them; censorship crusades only added to their mystique and confirmed their untouchable status.

Trends don't just recycle untouched--they mutate. Punk rockers are the only ones decrying police brutality nowadays, and the "bitch-ho" call-outs are confined to the rare Too Shorts of the rap world. Today's gangsta rap is all about the game you got and how you got it.

With the embarrassing glut of studio gangstas and fake mafiosi now clogging the rap ranks, many rappers originally tagged as gangsta have resisted the label as if they'd been lumped in with New Age. DJ Quik and Dr. Dre went R&B to smooth out their rugged message yet still remain plugged in to their listenership.

On the other hand, a trio of modern-day musketeers--Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur--recognized the inevitable and decided that it's better to sell the drama than fight it. Three new albums--Bow Down, Makaveli: The Don Killuminati and Tha Doggfather--show that gangsta rappers don't die, they diversify.

Many rappers' fascination with "crime rhyme" began in the movie theaters as well as on the streets. Motifs borrowed from films like The Mack and The Godfather and later Scarface and New Jack City made their way onto albums through lyrics, samples and even vocal imitations.

The image of the highly stylized player whose death is as glamorous as his fictional life touched off an early-'90s re-emergence of the rap "don."

East Coast rap assassins the Notorious B.I.G. and Raekwon first illustrated the gangsta-gone-Gotti scenario to its fullest. The next Wu-Tang Clan album, due in February, will reintroduce the Staten Island crew as the Wu-Gambinos, complete with mafioso sobriquets.

Of all the rappers trading Dickies for tailored threads, however, only Tupac works both sides of the boundary separating the boardroom from the frontline.

On his swan song, the murdered rapper assumes the role of Makaveli, from Machiavelli, the Italian philosopher who faked his death as a strategy against his enemies.

Tupac's alter ego controls the action with cool detachment, injecting his own inimitable brand of street knowledge. Mandolin strings pluck in "Me and My Girlfriend" and "Life of an Outlaw"; church bells toll in "Hail Mary." Like a shot-up Scarface, Makaveli calmly assails the forces aligned against him in "White Man'z World."

Then the foot soldier takes over. Tupac never backed down from saying what he wanted to say, which is probably why tracks like "Life of an Outlaw," "Against All Odds" and "Bomb First" play like a long answering-machine message from a psychotic stranger.

Tupac continues where the notorious B-side "Hit 'Em Up" left off, sending stinging telegrams to his rap-world enemies: Sean "Puffy" Combs, Biggie Smalls and Nas. Unbalanced and contradictory, sounding rushed and lacking depth, Don Killuminati is essential Tupac--a sad end to a promising life left unfulfilled.

Dogging

WITH TUPAC out of commission, and Dr. Dre now running Aftermath records, Snoop Doggy Dogg moves up to Death Row's point position. Snoop's Southern-tinged timbre pales in comparison to Tupac's over-the-top legacy. Even on Snoop's most degenerative track--Doggystyle's "Gin and Juice"--he was laid back, with his mind on his money and money on his mind.

Dogg's latest release, Tha Doggfather, with its Coppola-derived Corleone-alia on the CD jacket, delivers a kinder and gentler gangsta. Though DJ Pooh's beats hit the mark, Tha Doggfatha is defanged; it takes cameos from Too Short and Soopafly on "You Thought" to bring all the seedy elements of gangsta rap.

If Snoop can be credited for something, it is his role as arbitrator in the tired and overblown "east-west" battle. To promote bicoastal unity, Snoop respectfully redoes Biz Markie's East Coast anthem "Vapors" to pitch a West Coast success story. And it's hard not to like the bouncy single "Snoops Upside Ya Head," which also tries to ease East-West tensions:

    N------z in the game be doing way too much
    Acting tough with this East-West Coast stuff
    See me, I'm all about the money man,
    I stay fly and dry, I don't get caught up in the rain.

Therein lies the predicament. Snoop's style is smooth as a Versace suits. He's all about the long green, rapping as if it's a casual sport. "Downtown Assassin" repeatedly assures that Doggy Dogg can bring the heat, but his rep is strictly tonsorial--innocent until proven guilty.

Rap Cubed

MEANWHILE, the Westside Connection--Ice Cube, WC and Mack 10--see rap as a territorial war. If Wu-Tang Clan are the killer bees, then Westside Connection are the red ants.

Westside Connection takes it back to the basics of schoolyard intimidation: banging beats on cafeteria tables and out-bullyin', out-rhymin', out-cussin' anyone who dares step to them. As if calling anti-rap activist C. Delores Tucker's bluff, Westside Connection says, If you want a gangsta, then I'll be a gangsta, and I'll be your worst nightmare.

Westside Connection is the most inflammatory of the gangsta three. Don Killuminati sounds like the rantings of a lunatic compared to Bow Down's methodical lyrical beatdown. Police brutality is passé in Cube's world; civic pride is revered.

Bridges are burned on "Cross 'Em Out and Put a K" and "King of the Hill," wherein the three emcees respond to attacks by Cypress Hill and Common Sense. "All the Critics in New York" beefs about the lack of respect East Coast rap magazines have shown for West Coast artists.

Ice Cube fans have long clamored for material matching Amerikkka's Most Wanted's intensity; Bow Down answers their call. Cube's furrowed brow is visible through the speakers. The album's title track raises hell from the moment Cube inhales, "The world is mine n------a get back/don't fuck with my stack, my gauge is racked/about to drop the bomb, I'm the motherfuckin' Don/big fish in a small pond."

Beat Whirlpool

WITH THE TRIO'S rhyme styles at the forefront, it's easy to forget there's expert production lurking in the background. "The Gangsta, the Killa and the Dope Dealer" swirls Nine Inch Nails' "Down" through the beat whirlpool. "Gangstas Make the World Go 'Round" borrows the Stylistics wind-swept chimes and vibes from "People Make the World Go 'Round" to creative advantage.

Mack 10's summer hit "Hoo-Bangin'" is remixed with guest rappers K-Dee, the Comrades and All From Tha I. Bow Down is steroid rap, with all the accompanying negative side effects.

Just as heavy metal spawned the formation of countless groups more intent on image than substance, so-called "gangsta rap" is currently heading down that same self-mocking path. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur proudly aligning themselves with gangsta rap while redefining the genre is the best way to profit from the suburban kids while sparking media hysteria and parental paranoia. It's a scheme so lucrative, so ludicrous, that even John Gotti would nod his approval.

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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