The Evolution of Violence in Rap: From Body Blows to Bullets

In less than a decade, the language of rap violence advanced from bouts on dance floors to shootouts in parking lots and neighborhoods.
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Bullet Hole in Glass, 2019

“It's fair to say that no American pop genre celebrates the power of the gun as much as hip-hop. What critics forget is that no pop genre confronts or contends with the consequences of gun violence as much as hip-hop either.” —Oliver Wang, "Bullet Points: How Hip-Hop Handles the Gun"

Throwing a closed fist into an open palm creates a swift, popcorn-like clap. If enough fists collide with palms in harmony, the sound is a thunderous stampede. When Atlanta club DJs play “Knuck If You Buck,” the disorder-inducing crunk classic by Ellenwood, Georgia rap group Crime Mob, paws pound, feet stomp, and an outbreak of aggression overtakes the room.

How bodies react in unison to “Knuck If You Buck” is a majestic image of controlled chaos—until all control is lost. Teenagers and young adults who have experienced the knuckle-sandwich single, released in 2004 on Warner Bros. Records, can describe firsthand how a pounding fist becomes a punched face. For a brief period, crunk brought to hip-hop—through its unruly and belligerent production style, matched with rowdy hooks and confrontational verses—the adrenaline rush of a bar fight.

So, if a nigga come and run they mouth just like a hoe / Punch them dead up in his nose and stomp his ass down to the flo" —Lil Jay of Crime Mob, "Knuck If You Buck"

High-energy depictions of throwing bows and breaking bones represent the physicality of crunk. No other branch of rap captured the spirit of being inches away from the face of a hater or dared to do something about it. Fear didn’t exist in crunk music and never being scared was a storytelling requirement; if there was a problem, walking away wasn't an option. The only appropriate reaction for Crime Mob and fellow peace-disturbing artists like Pastor Troy, 8Ball & MJG, Lil Scrappy, and Three 6 Mafia, among others, was action.

Before Waka Flocka Flame’s “O Let's Do It” served as the lightning rod transition from Lil Jon’s crunk channel to the menacing 808s of modern trap, there was “Whoop Rico,” the 2008 single by dance crew Show Stoppas. Unlike contemporaries who gained notoriety for dances based on superheroes and chicken noodle soup, the rap triplet made a neck-breaking anthem that had kids across Atlanta dancing like hostile shadow boxers.

“Whoop Rico” was one of the few dance records that embodied the aggression of Pastor Troy but contained all the fun of swag surfing. “Whoop Rico and break his neck,” the hook repeats like a battlefield chant. While the violence of “Whoop Rico” wasn’t taken literally, the Soulja Boy-featured single exemplified how crunk, as a beat 'em up genre, became comfortable starting a good brawl and tearing up yet another club.

When the influence of Post-Lex Luger Southern rap entered Chicago in 2012, trap’s temperament got colder and gun smoke permeated the atmosphere. For its slower, more intimidating tempo, the violence of drill music exchanged fisticuffs for automatic weaponry. “And we ain't gon' fight, our guns gon' fight,” Chief Keef says on his career-launching hit and the emblem of drill music, “Don’t Like.” In less than a decade, the language of rap violence had advanced from bouts on dance floors to shootouts in parking lots and neighborhoods.

Similar to other drill music artists, Keef's material was framed through the lens of a smoking barrel. The lyrical content present throughout songs like the Earth-rattling “Love Sosa” and Lil Mouse’s controversial “Get Smoked” centered a wider conversation on Chicago’s gun violence, but instead of creating a dialogue about gun reform, the music was given a sharper edge and the artists a darker image.

"I can't do no shows cause I terrify my city, they say I terrify my city" —Lil Durk, "Dis Ain't What U Want"

Drill music was always more dangerous than its artistic accompaniment. Following Chief Keef's time in the national spotlight, the music industry echoed the aesthetic of drill music with genre parodies. While Bobby Shmurda was blowing up in Brooklyn with “Hot Nigga” and 21 Savage was making waves in Atlanta with “Red Opps”—records that resembled the authentic thrill-driven bangers being created in the Windy City—faux-rapper Slim Jesus turned “Drill Time” into 14 minutes of online fame and Rich Brian (f/k/a Rich Chigga) used “Dat $tick” to ride the virality train to a record deal.

Rap respects the shooter in much the same way the NRA respects an American’s right to bear arms, so naturally, the progression of gun imagery in rap and trap’s pop appeal led to light-hearted anthems like SahBabii’s infectious “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” and YNW Melly’s immensely popular, yet awkward single “Murder On My Mind.” As Richard Pryor famously said, “You can't talk about fucking in America, people say you're dirty. But if you talk about killing somebody, that's cool.” What’s cooler than rap?

I wake up in the morning, I got murder on my mind / AK-47's, MAC-11, Glocks, and nines” —YNW Melly, “Murder On My Mind"

As the brief successor of crunk, drill music reinstated the omnipresent animosity and anxiety of gangsta rap. The danger inherent in crunk music, though, existed solely in clubs and club parking lots. Fifteen years later, every rapper’s block is hot. Death could be around any corner. Trap music sounds more trapped than ever. The message: be prepared.

The life Ice Cube lived in order to experience a good day required an AK, a reminder that the cause and effect of most violence illustrated in gangsta rap music reflected the circumstances of the lives of its creators. Without the environment, there would be no art. “Fuck Tha Police” and “Cop Killer” weren’t just political statements; they represented reality for black folk in Los Angeles. Gangsta rap’s brand of violence was harsh, full of machismo and confrontations, but survival wasn't meant to sound sweet.

44 reasons come to mind / Why your motherfucking brother is hard to find / He be walking on the streets and fucking with mine / Stupid punk can't fuck with a mastermind / See I never take a step on a Compton block / Or L.A. without the AK ready to pop” —Dr. Dre, “A Nigga Witta Gun

On the UGK classic “That’s Why I Carry,” Bun B and Pimp C weren’t considering petty rap beef when they decided upon the hook, “Motherfuckers wanna start shit in every way, that's why I carry my motherfucking gun every single day.” There’s a purpose behind every trigger pulled, punch thrown, and profanity-laced statement. In a combative world, Bun and Pimp had no choice but to make combative music.

Rap violence took on many forms between '90s gangsta rap and crunk's takeoff in the early 2000s. Eleven years before Eminem brutally murdered his ex-wife Kim to close out his diamond-certified, third studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP, Houston, Texas crew Geto Boys found their unique voices through graphic, horrorcore storytelling.

I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles, dreaming of the people I've dismantled,” Scarface begins his third verse on the 1989 horrorcore classic, “Mind of a Lunatic.” But the group's gruesome, callous-driven rapping was about more than shock value; the vividness of Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill’s lyricism made their music menacing. They wanted listeners not only to hear unsettling acts but also to visualize them like scenes from violent, blood-and-guts films.

In 2013, Complex published an article entitled "25 Most Violent Rap Songs of All Time." Kool G Rap, one forefather of New York’s mafioso rap, topped the listing with his 1995 12-inch, “Hey Mister Mister.” Speaking from the perspective of a pimp, the Queens-born rapper becomes a brutal domestic-abuser with no remorse: 

"Last week I beat my bitch up in the street for lyin to me / She thought she caught a cutie but didn't know the nigga knew me" —Kool G Rap. "Hey Mister Mister"

Born in the 1980s to a tier of disturbing, cinematic violence, there’s a layer of realism that ascends Kool G Rap’s art of storytelling; a quality found in the detailed, '90s East Coast rhymes of Mobb Deep, JAY-Z, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and The Wu-Tang Clan, and is present in the modern-day, underground torchbearers of extravagant, mafioso imagery like Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn, Conway, and Roc Marciano.

New York’s mafioso age was a time of nihilism, luxury, and violence. Regardless if there was more money or no money, there were always more problems and only a few ways to solve them; the music of American gangsters who made Tony Montana look like Tony Danza.

"Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone” —Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), "Shook Ones Part II"

For every isolated, unfortunate incident of violence, there are thousands of fans who are happy to punch their palms and be one with audible chaos. Naysayers, critics, and pundits see the art and entertainment in an action film such as John Wick, but still, they blame the fictional violence in rap music for all the world's problems. Violence is disruptive by nature, so even when the words aren’t destroying anything, the fear of destruction still exists. Yet, that’s unfair to the artists and their self-expression. If only for a few short moments, we deserve to escape harsh realities within the rush and terror of dastardly imagination.

Remember, it’s only entertainment.

By Yoh aka Roc Yohciano aka Yoh31

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