Viator, Felicia Angeja. To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Katherine Rye Jewell
What does it mean to sell out? A generation of scholars have addressed this idea in hip hop and popular music, connecting it to questions of authenticity, artistic representation, and commercialization. For hip-hop artists in the 1980s and early 1990s, their DIY network of tape recording and distribution, radio play, label formation, and commercialization “crossed over”—“a term,” historian Felicia Angeja Viator reminds us, “that, in the world of hip-hop, had become synonymous with selling out,” with audiences comprised more of white suburban teens than of listeners who understood the experiences behind the lyrics.
But, as she explores in this engaging history of gangsta rap’s emergence and eventual commercial success, this definition is not so simple. Commercialization did not co-opt rap and hip hop so much as those artists interacted with its reality and turned its dynamics to their advantage, despite an unequal playing field. Moreover, understanding gangsta rap’s commercial appeal and pop culture influence, and the dynamics surrounding this concept for artists involved, must be grounded in the urban history of Los Angeles alongside the creative genesis of individual artists and their non-cooperation with the “illusion of a post-racial America.” Doing so, as Viator’s accessible, deeply researched book reveals, contributes to narratives about hip hop’s origins beyond the South Bronx and New York City as well as to understanding of pop culture since the 1980s.
To understand how gangsta rap remade the pop landscape and defied narratives about racial reconciliation, Viator takes her readers into the urban landscape of Los Angeles. She recounts in detail the story of LAPD’s militarization, particularly leading to the city’s hosting of the 1984 Summer Olympics, exploring how communities experienced heightened policing, the crack epidemic, and use of “The Batterram,” which she has taken as the apt name for chapter one.
Los Angeles’s dance and club scenes offer a different context for the rise of hip hop on the West Coast, often overlooked in adherence to the “four pillars” of hip hop, as termed by “founding father” Afrika Bambaataa. These pillars—breaking, graffiti, MCing, and DJing—had strong associations with youth culture and rebellion in the South Bronx, a neighborhood struggling in the wake of urban renewal, deindustrialization, and the atrophy of public services in the 1970s. Yet Los Angeles, which in some ways epitomized the Hollywood-style glitz of the Reagan years, offered its own context, producing “reality” rap that would add new styles, sounds, and messages to hip hop, as well as redefine American popular culture.
Viator recounts central events that reoriented and reshaped hip hop in the mid-1980s. It started with Run-DMC’s appearance at the Long Beach Arena in August 1986, followed by the “rap riot,” so dubbed by the Los Angeles Times. The ensuing controversy revealed the era’s fears about pop culture’s influence on youth alongside a rise in gang violence. The event drew predictable dog whistles and scandalized headlines, but the controversy did not draw attention to the underlying developments in LA’s hip hop scene, which observers such as filmmaker Topper Carew attempted to narrate in his film Breakin’ and Enterin’, which featured Tracy “Ice-T” Morrow. What Carew and others “overlooked,” Viator argues, in their quest to find evidence of Bambaataa’s four pillars in LA, was “the lively youth dance scenes that thrived outside those orbits.” Even as early as 1983, she demonstrates, “black youths were shaping a musical landscape of their own, often by casting aside the New York mold.” Even as Run-DMC and their promoters “took pains to disassociate themselves with Los Angeles” and “those ‘problems’ out west and the power of rap to provoke them,” LA’s rap artists developed a keen sense of how to use controversy for promotional purposes to elevate their scene, in contrast to trends that had defined hip hop to date.
The politics of authenticity coursed through NWA’s members’ representations of their message and sound, in Viator’s telling, and defy any simplistic narrative of East Coast versus West Coast. Instead, these conversations over style and message occurred within the business history of hip hop and pop culture, pitting the artistic freedom of independence with the success brought by mainstream “crossover.” Instead, Eric Wright, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and others capitalized on the “complementary elements” in Los Angeles that included Hollywood, nightclubs, and entertainment professionals in performance and business. NWA’s success was rooted in business and marketing strategies, as well as defiance of major labels, to allow artists to “be as hardcore as you want to be and still make money like the bubblegum pop stars,” as Ice Cube put it. And as police raids and gang sweeps targeted LA neighborhoods in the late 1980s, the cinematic video for “Straight Outta Compton,” Viator explains, the group’s “message pervaded the mainstream, packaged in the form of a music video” meant “audiences would be compelled, finally, to reckon with injustice.” NWA’s members understood and capitalized on public fascination with “dark narratives about 1980s Los Angeles” to market their music and their message.
With Priority Records’ bet on NWA and their understanding of television’s role in marketing music, these artists participated in “a sea of change happening in the 1980s that altered the very anatomy of the recording industry, and in doing so, created new avenues for Los Angeles rap.” Although MTV failed to feature Black artists in large numbers and remained risk averse, the premier of Yo! MTV Raps, a story chronicled in chapter five, meant hip hop secured a national platform and access to wider, and whiter, audiences. This “watershed” moment, as Viator labels it, was the culmination of strategies adopted by artists and promoters to reach large audiences and secure hip hop’s “long term viability.” NWA pioneered marketing strategies and deft use of controversy to secure institutional investment and national television coverage that would sell albums previously lacking in widespread distribution.
And as friction continued to intensify in Los Angeles, Straight Outta Compton provided an outlet for frustrations. At the same time, the album did more than capture pervasive problems and police violence. Merely reflecting these issues in an album could have been silenced. Instead, the group, despite internal controversies and “recklessness,” showed that hip hop could covey “an unlimited range of topics, including the most politically and culturally divisive ones, without restrictions.” Fans would buy albums for the spectacle or to expand their perspectives—but the why mattered less than the implications. The 1992 Los Angeles uprising both confirmed the experiences that artists had giving voice to and inspired new public concerns about the potential for violence and murmurs of gangsta rap’s undoing. But, as Viator’s narrative explains, “the 1992 Los Angeles riots proved to be a catalyst for the commercialization of the very genre of rap that had been pigeonholed as too dangerous and too divisive to thrive.” Round-the-clock media coverage of the events proved gangsta rap’s relevance. Instead of rap artists conforming to images palatable to mainstream audiences, NWA proved “the most dangerous group because its members reshaped the commercial music scene in their image.” Youth revolt sold albums, but it also put Black voices in the spotlight, defying any simple notion of “selling out.”
Viator does not examine the revolutions that continued in style and ideas in hip hop after the mid-1990s, but her book establishes a solid foundation that challenges central mythologies about Los Angeles and hip hop’s origin stories. Hip hop artists’ ability to innovate notwithstanding, she argues that core continuities in hip hop, including “its uncompromising blackness, its militancy with respect to the police and other institutions of white supremacy, and its reconciliation of commercial success with rebellion,” in other words, its ability to transcend pop culture tropes about selling out, find their origins in the City of Angels.
Katherine Rye Jewell, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of History at Fitchburg State University. She is the author of Dollars for Dixie: Business and the Transformation of Conservatism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). She is currently working on a book on the history of college radio and the culture wars, under contract with University of North Carolina Press.
Featured image (at top): Wynwood mural of N.W.A. Premeditated, 2015, Wikimedia Commons.