Roots of Thug Rap
by Mosi Reeves | September 11, 2012
With the arrival of DMX's comeback album, Undisputed, it's as good a time as any to reflect on thug rap. The troubled emcee brought the subgenre to commercial apotheosis when he released two 1998 albums, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, that sold a combined 9 million copies. 50 Cent would later commend him for being a grimy outlier amid a wave of smooth jiggy-rap stars tamed for urban radio, from shiny-suit man Sean "Puffy" Combs to the smooth and mushy-mouthed Mase. Of course, Fiddy's own Get Rich or Die Trying represented the subgenre at its apex.
This playlist isn't about the glory days of thug rap, but rather the years preceding DMX's 1998 breakthrough. It took a while to gestate from the dawn of the '90s and a time when "y'all was afraid of using profanity," as Ice Cube memorably observed in Westside Connection's "All the Critics in New York," to the "Bang Bang" chants of Capone-N-Noreaga. Kool G Rap made a key transition when he stopped interpreting his Queensbridge youth ("Road to the Riches") and began reveling in it, at least from a lyrical standpoint ("Death Wish"). When Nas claimed, "When I was 12 I went to hell for snuffing Jesus" on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque," he represented a new generation of emcees that didn't need to include morals at the end of their crime stories.
Still, it was a few years (actually, only two) between the emotional, you-are-there description of a crack dealer running from the cops in Nas' "New York State of Mind" and the nihilism of a gang-banger riddling a rival with bullets in Mobb Deep's "G.O.D. Part III." Others refined the genre, including Wu-Tang Clan's mysticism cribbed from '70s chop-socky flicks, Mafioso clichés and comic-book heroics; Onyx's party-smashing, rah-rah sporting chants; and Black Moon's chain-snatcher's mentality. At its best, thug rap is about aggression churned to its blood-boiling point.
Thug rap essentially ended when the East Coast lost its hip-hop culture hegemony in the mid-2000s, and the genre became increasingly commercial and infused with pop. 50 Cent's career represents the compromises artists often made to get over -- make a few singles for the ladies, and the rest of the album for the dudes -- until Kanye West decided that he didn't need to act street at all. This is a gross generalization, though, and there are plenty of artists keeping the tradition alive. They can roughly be grouped into those who are nostalgic for established tropes, like Action Bronson and Roc Marciano, and those influenced by what they've discovered via current trends, like A$AP Rocky's love of Dirty South trappers and West Coast cloud skaters. Thug rap continues to evolve, but the hit-making heights reached by DMX will be hard to scale again.