Hip-Hop And Violence And Why It Matters

I finally got my act together and went out to watch Straight Outta Compton. People, if you haven’t seen it, you need to. The film is raw, the casting and the acting are great, the direction is fan-fucking-tastic!!!!! Seriously go watch it, but be prepared for the tsunami of emotions that will hit multiple times…


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I finally got my act together and went out to watch Straight Outta Compton. People, if you haven’t seen it, you need to. The film is raw, the casting and the acting are great, the direction is fan-fucking-tastic!!!!! Seriously go watch it, but be prepared for the tsunami of emotions that will hit multiple times over the course of the movie. Okay, that’s as far as I am going to go with my review of the film.

Today, I want to touch on some things that are covered in the film but aren’t necessarily tied solely to the film. In particular, I want to touch the aspect of the violence that hip-hop portrays. That’s something that tends to be a major criticism of hip-hop culture, and arguably one of the most misunderstood elements of the culture.

I will freely admit that my perspective on hip-hop and certain elements of the culture is something that I struggle with constantly in my love of the genre. I actually hate a lot of the violence that hip-hop is associated with, but I get where it’s coming from and I think that it is completely necessary. A lot of this perspective is lost on people who have never been around hip-hop and are mainly on the outside looking in.

For my part, I moved to the Bronx, which is classically considered the birthplace of hip-hop, around 96/97. To paint a picture of the timeline and where that falls, this was around the time that Dre started Aftermath Entertainment, which is where the Straight Outta Compton movie ends. This was also coming in the 11th hour of  hip-hop’s incredible “East Coast – West Coast” feuds. Tupac had just died. Biggie was about to die. There was a lot going on at the time, and that was the world I stepped into without ever knowing what any of it was about beforehand. I grew up in hip-hop culture and with hip-hop culture at least tangentially. That’s the perspective that I am coming from when I say some of these things.

The fact of the matter is that America is a place with a VERY violent history. Anyone who tell you otherwise is either lying or completely ignorant of the facts. If you take even the most cursory look into America’s history books, you will find that its pages are littered with bloodshed through war and other means, systemic oppressions of various socioeconomic and racial/ethnic classes, and many other injustices that were consistently glossed over.

Artists, particularly in the Black community, never shied away from talking about these things. You can clearly see it in the lives and works of people like James Brown, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, and so many others too numerous to mention. But what made acts like NWA, like Biggie and Tupac, and many others of that generation so powerful was that they expressed these frustrations in a way that is raw and in your face and completely unfiltered without giving a damn about the consequences.

Rightly so, it made a lot of people uncomfortable and very angry. Before that, many of the privileged classes in America could feign ignorance about things like police brutality and racial profiling, but they couldn’t do that anymore once the groups started being very vocal about their lives and their experiences. Especially after the beating and subsequent acquittal of all the officers who nearly killed Rodney King, people could hardly deny that there was at least some element of truth to incredible levels of violence that some of these groups were talking about as reflections of the communities that they were living in.

The streets loved these guys because it was the first in a long time that they really felt that someone was giving a voice to their struggles and frustrations, particularly because these people had lived it and been around it and could articulate it in a way that was captivating. To me, that is a major part of why these guys became so successful. In today’s generation, it has become a formulaic tool for success in the industry, especially because a lot of artists don’t have that lived experience to back up the gangster bravado and braggadocio that they portray to the world.

When gangster rap came to bear on the public consciousness, a lot of people didn’t know about or didn’t know to care about many of the things that were going on in America’s inner cities. But once gangster rap gained hold on the public’s imagination, you were faced with the question of what to do next. In short, there were three options:

  1. You could suppress it, which failed miserably.
  2. You could ignore it, which also failed miserably, or,
  3. You could address it, which is still a work in progress.

Fast forward to modern day when issues of police brutality, racial profiling, mass incarceration are back in the foreground of America’s consciousness. The presence of social movements Like #BlackLivesMatter, #LatinoLivesMatter, #NativeLivesMatter, and many of their compatriots is evidence of the fact that the issues that a lot gangster rappers were talking about 20-30 years are still present today and have acutely worsened in some cases.

I would love to see a day when hip-hop grows up and away from the more violent elements that many have come to associate with the culture. Hip-hop is far bigger than those elements but those elements dominate the conversation in some circles. That said, I also recognize that the in your face violence of gangster lyrics not going to change without fundamental changes to the power structures that made that violence a necessary survival strategy, facilitated it as a calculated career move, and glorifies it as an aspirational goal.

Image via In Flex We Trust


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  2. Dr. Baruu
    The day hiphop grows up and away from its violence would be the day it dies. In the early eighties, the likes of Afrikan Bambaataa experimented with funk, jazz and soul. Overtime, this new sound [hiphop] kept transforming to its more violent form, now known more commonly as rap. Mind you, gangstar rap is just an aspect of it…but rap is what it is…violence, drugs, misogyny…which is a sharp contrast to the early hiphop culture.

    Hip hop, just like every culture, does evolve. Infact, modern hiphop (Iggy and co) is totally different from what hiphop was in the nascent stage of its development.

    Therefore it is pertinent to differentiate btw HipHop and Rap. The later is the violent one!


    1. Funk
      Gangsta rap wasn’t just “drugs, misogyny and violence”. It had political and conscious parts. It’s often said that no one in Rap music history articulated the black person’s anger and rage at the machine better than Ice Cube and he was classed as “gangsta rap” (that label didn’t do the entirety of it’s content justice).
      And I don’t agree with the “Hip Hop is this Rap is that” school of thought. Rapping or emceeing is one of the elements of Hip Hop music, even though all the other elements have been eroded. “Emcees” use “rapping” in their “Hip Hop music”.
      Modern Hip Hop has a lot of great acts. You just have to dig deeper and discover for yourself and ignore a lot of what’s most popular.
    2. Tola
      I think you’re mistaken man. Hip-hop is the whole culture. Rap is the lyrical musical performance aspect of the culture which includes four key elements: Graffiti, DJing, MCing, and Breakdancing. All of those things mixed together, plus many other sub elements is what makes up the total embodiment that we call hip-hop.

      To quote the great KRS-One, “Rap is something do, Hip-Hop is something you live.”

  3. KVNX
    I don’t capisce. lol

    I think you got some things mixed up. Like in the picture above, you can see that a definition of Hip Hop comprises rap and some other things.

    What Iggy does too is rap, just a different style (pop rap, I think). So rap isn’t “the violent one” per se, considering there are different levels to it. Like you pointed out, it’s gangster rap that is all violent and misogynistic.

    My point is Hip Hop is not a separate entity from rap and I don’t think it’s fair to call rap violent entirely because an aspect of it is violent.

  4. Nosa
    I think the problem is the misconception which is what Tola is talking about. The term is often used in a restrictive fashion as synonymous only with the oral practice of rap music. Hiphop is much bigger than rap. Hiphop is a way of life, it’s a culture, but much more philosophical. It is an outlet for expression, fashion, art (spoken, visual), dance. and it is based on experiences, both personal and environment. And right now, violence is a bit part of the black environment in the states.
    Just look at other countries where Hiphop exists, hardly violent if i say. so even if the violence ends, Hiphop will find a way to adapt and evolve. Hiphop is just a tool for expressing you and your experiences. that is why i grew up on it, listening to rap songs was like listening to someone’s diary, it gave you a window into where they grew up, how they lived, challenges they had to go through, and what they did to overcome those challenges.

    Like Tola said, “a lot of artists don’t have that lived experience to back up the gangster bravado and braggadocio that they portray to the world.” like that Degrassi Kid (you know who) and Iggy. You don’t have to tap into an experience you never had just so you could be labelled a hiphop head.

  5. Funk
    Hip Hop’s portrayal of violence only seems influential because of the state of America’s blacks. I can’t argue, music is influential, but the art is as a result of the environment. It didn’t create it. Rap has become an easy target for blame for far removed white people with a lack of understanding when discussions about violence in the black community come up. And they focus on it because it’s a black art form and “blacks are naturally violent”. No one talks about all that nastiness in some of those Metal records. What about all the gory Hollywood films? Aren’t movies influential too?

    Hip Hop did not cause Black American suppression (of course). The violence and gang culture in African American communities were given rise to by a number of other factors including the crack epidemic, not Hip Hop music. That shit was there before gangsta rap.

    I fell in love with Hip Hop music and culture a few years ago, and as a young person in Nigeria, have been studying its history; the music, the people, the politics, nearing a level of obsession (thank you internet). Having grown up in the safest of environments in the suburban area of a Nigerian city, I couldn’t relate and I initially used to imagine that if I was a teenager in the US during Hip Hop’s meteoric rise in the late 80s and early 90s, I’d only listen to Main Source and ATCQ and De La Soul and hate gangsta rap because of the lyrical content. I still don’t agree with the lyrical content of most of it but the more I listen to early 90s Funk infused west coast Hip Hop… Damn that shit sounds good. And I have more understanding now of a lotta the things around Hip Hop music.
    …oh and what about all the white kids who bought and listened to gangsta rap? They didn’t all just go out and kill someone. The environment, not the music. I agree that Hip Hop must take responsibility for some of its lyrics but when people say shit like, “Rap music has done more harm to African Americans than racism in recent times”… Sigh. Fox sha.
    I still prefer Boom Bap and Soul and Jazz influenced Hip Hop with a socially conscious edge or storytelling or witty lyricism anyway, but I have respect and adoration for all forms of it (The dope ones of course. Fuck tired, corny mainstream rap)
    “Love Rap music. Tired of defending it”. – Chris Rock.
    “..oh yeah and another thing. For all y’all niggas who don’t do gangsta rap, don’t get on TV talking about gangsta rap, cause 9 times out of 10 you don’t know what the fuck you talking about” – Ice Cube.


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