WEST COAST HIP HOP
Written by: Alex Henderson
Reprinted From: All Music Guide to Hip Hop (2003)
If, in 1981 or 1982 you told a New Yorker that West Coast rappers would someday be selling as many units as East Coast rappers, you probably would have heard, “Yeah, in your dreams.” Hip-hop was born in New York, and for a longtime, it was dominated by the East Coast. If hip-hop got started around 1976-when Kurtis Blow had his first gigs in Harlem clubs-it took West Coast rap about eleven years to make serious commercial inroads. But eventually, West Coast rappers did, in fact, give their East Coast counterparts a serious run for their money. The list of West Coast MCs who had gold or platinum albums in the late ‘80’s and/or ‘90s is a long one- a list that includes among many others, Ice-T, N.W.A., Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Coolio, Tone-Loc, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Young MC, DJ Quick, MC Hammer, Too Short, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Digital Underground. And that list is especially impressive when you consider that for so long, many A&R people refused to take West Coast Rappers seriously.
A few people on the West Coast were rapping as early as 1979, when they heard East Coast singles like the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping”. At that point, rap wasn’t nearly the phenomenon in Los Angeles or Oakland that it had been in New York. But a few Californians liked “Rappers Delight” and Christmas Rapping” enough to try rapping themselves. The first rap recording by L.A. residents was Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp’s 1981 single “Gigolo Rapp”, which received very little attention on the East Coast but was a minor hit in L.A. and enjoyed some exposure on local urban contemporary station KGFJ-AM. Other West Coast rap singles followed, including the Rappers Rapp Group’s “Rappin’ Partee Groove” in 1982 and Ice –T’s first single, “The Coldest Rap”, in 1983. By 1983, hip-hop was huge on the West Coast- b-boys were break dancing on Hollywood Boulevard and at Venice Beach, and Californians were spending plenty of dollars on New York rappers.
It was also in 1983 that Captain Rapp recorded “Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It),” a sociopolitical classic that was heavily influenced by Grandmaster Flay and Melle Mel’s message songs. And 1983 was a year in which electro-hop singles by Uncle Jamm’s Army (a collective of L.A. based rappers, DJs, and producers) and the Egyptian Lover (who was part of that collective) hit the streets. Several years before the rise of Gangsta’ rap in the late ‘80s L.A.’s high-tech Electro-hop, however wasn’t hardcore rap- it was pop-rap for the dance floor, and electro-hoppers like Uncle Jamm’s Army, the Egyptian Lover, the Arabian Prince, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru (which included Dr. Dre in his pre-N.W.A. days), and the Unknown DJ were never taken seriously on the East coast. For that matter, not all of Southern California’s rap fans were into electro-hop – in 1984, 1985, and 1986, New York rappers like Run-D.MC., the Fat Boys, and Whodini were selling a lot more records in South Central L.A. than the Egyptian Lover of the L.A. Dream Team. Nonetheless, L.A.’s rap scene was growing in the mid-‘80s, and the city did have some hardcore rap-if you knew where to find it. Ice-T, King Tee, and Toddy Tee (best known for his 1985 single “Batter Ram”) were providing hardcore rap in the mid-‘80s, and so was Kid Frost (the first important Mexican-American rapper). But those artists were very underground back then; they had small cult followings, and the East Coast still dominated hip-hop. In the mid-‘80s, most of rap’s big names were New Yorkers.
In 1987, however, Ice-T went from being an underground cult figure to being a national star. That year, Sire/Warner Bros. released his first album, Rhyme Pays, which did a lot to popularize Gangsta’ rap. N.W.A.’s N.W.A. and the Posse, also from 1987, was another triumph for hardcore rap on the West Coast. And during the last few years of the decade, it became clear to a lot of A&R people that West Coast rap shouldn’t be ignored. West Coast rappers stated selling like hotcakes in the late ‘80s, a time that also saw the rise of everyone from the L.A.-based Young MC (who was actually a transplanted New Yorker) to Oakland’s raunchy, X-rated Too Short to Seattle’s Sir Mix-A-Lot. West Coast rap ran the gamut in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s- it was every-thing from the thugged-out Gangsta rhymes of Ice-T, N.W.A., Compton’s Most Wanted, Cypress Hill, and Above the law to the commercial pop-rap of MC Hammer (whose second album, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt’Em, went multi-platinum), Oaktown’s 357, and Mix-A-Lot (who was quite capable of providing hardcore sociopolitical rhymes but is best known for goofy, lighthearted crossover hits like “Baby Got Back”). L.A.’s Tone-Loc also had some major pop-rap smashes in the late ‘80s (including “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina”), but those who listened to his albums in their entirety realized that he recorded mostly hardcore rap and wasn’t strictly a crossover artist.
In the early ‘90s, it was evident that West Coast rap had become a huge industry- which was quite a contrast to the years in which L.A. and Oakland MC’s struggled for national recognition. At major labels, the same A&R people who were ignoring West Coast rappers in the mid-‘80s were signing them left and right in the ‘90s. But not everyone was happy about the commercial success that West Coast rappers were enjoying. In some New York hip-hop circles, there was a lot of resentment- some New York hip-hop b-boys (though certainly not all) felt that because the Big Apple had built hip-hop, the West Coast didn’t deserve such a big piece of the pie. At first, the East Coast-West Coast rivalry in hip-hop was just a war of words-when Bronx rapper Tim Dog dissed Southern California rappers (especially N.W.A.) on his 1991 single “Fuck Compton,” no one shot him for it. But a few years later, hip-hop’s East-West battle turned downright ugly.
Actually, hop-hop’s East-West battle was basically a New York-L.A. battle; Philadelphia and Boston pretty much stayed out of it, as did Seattle and Portland, OR. The rivalry was between two posses: (1) the L.A.-based Death row Records, home of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac, and (2) producer Sean “Puffy Combs’ New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment, home of Brooklyn star the Notorious B.I.G. (also known as Biggie Smalls) and urban singer Faith Evans. Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. became bitter enemies, as did Combs (aka Puff Daddy or P Diddy) and Death Row’s infamous Suge Knight. In 1996, Shakur Died form bullet wounds he received during a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas; the following year a similar drive-by shooting in L.A. claimed the Notorious B.I.G.’s young life. Nothing was proven, although there was speculation that the Notorious B.IG. was murdered in retaliation for Shakur’s murder. Neither Shakur’s killer nor B.I.G.’s was ever caught.
Of course, not all East Coast rappers resented the success of West Coast rappers. Chuck D featured Ice Cube on Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn”, and KRS-One even equated N.W.A. with the Black Panthers in an interview – he saw them as militant freedom fighters whose seminal Straight Outta Compton brought attention to a lot of important social issues. In a 1990 interview, members of New York’s a Tribe Called Quest told this journalist that they were happy for the West Coast; as they saw it, the West Coast rap explosion was a healthy and inevitable part of hip-hop’s evolution. And they gave the West Coast a shout-out with their eccentric single “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” which acknowledges on of L.A.’s suburbs.
It is important to stress that even though Gangsta rap has been an important part of West Coast rap in the ‘80s and ‘90s, not all West Coast rap is Gangsta rap. Def Jeff, Madrok, Too Short, Kid Frost, Paris (A militantly sociopolitical MC from Oakland), Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and female rarer Yo-Yo were never gangsta rap – hardcore rap, but not Gangsta rap. Nor was the Pharcyde, a jazz-influenced, L.A.-based alternative rap group along the lines of De La Soul, Digable Planets, and a Tribe Called Quest. The Pharcyde, in fact, has often been described as a West Coast group with an East Coast sound. And there was never anything Gangsta about West Coast “pop-rappers” like MC Hammer, J.J. Fad, Oaktown’s 357, or Young MC (who was arguably an L.A. equivalent of Philadelphia’s Will Smith, aka the Fresh Prince).
When the 21st Century arrived, West Coast rap wasn’t turning out as many major stars as it had been in the lat ‘80s and early to mid-‘90s – the West Coast had lost some ground to other regions of the U.S., just as the Northeast had lost some ground to the West Coast and the South in the lat ‘80s. Nonetheless, West Coast rap has often been an exciting and creative part of the hip-hop saga.