In 1994, Naughty By Nature's Vin Rock said this to MTV News: "Really it's a cry out because it's like genocide going on there. You're losing a whole generation of people that could help contribute not only to this country, to this world. And they're crying out about it through their music."
Vin was speaking on the behalf of gangsta rap, a phenomenon that was just starting to mount its flag into the mainstream. The 30-minute special, like many that have come before and after it, examined the music which painted the most vivid of honest pictures of America's ghettos, naturally causing spectators with little empathy for those realities to be at odds with the sub-genre. Clergymen and politicians weighed in on its impact on young minds. MTV probed teens from different corners of the country (lazily picking black kids only from the ghetto and white kids only from suburbia) to grade gangsta rap on a scale of their personal morality.
East Coast acts like East Orange, New Jersey hit-makers Naughty By Nature and raucous Queens trio Onyx made brief appearances in the video but it was the West Coast figures in question that really laid claim to gangsta rap, as it was a way for them to distinguish themselves from their cross country peers. "You had everybody from New York rapping about 'my Adidas' and 'my chain,' and this, and this; South Bronx and everything," N.W.A. founder Eazy-E commented. "I wanted to put my city on the map. I'm from Compton. I know about Compton and this what I been through. This is what I'ma rap about."
At that time, the world was still actively trying to grapple with the consequences of children hearing women being devalued and stories of murder repeatedly recited over undeniably catchy production. The public was losing sleep but labels made bank from not only artists telling genuine stories of their past or creating gangster-fied personas, but also from a deadly, heated rivalry sheerly based on what side of the country someone originated.
Recent albums from Sacramento's Blood-affiliated Mozzy and Harlem's Crip-connected Dave East pump hope into keeping the sub-genre relevant in 2017, giving an update on what gangsta rap from both coasts looks like right now. Much to the disapproval of protesters shown in the MTV News special, children from the East and West sides were never really protected from gangsta rap's messages. If anything, they were rocked to sleep by them. That's because many of the environments that bred glorious, though largely misleading, stories of crime and murder as a way out have yet to change, if they haven't gotten worse. Some of those children are now the new faces of the music but gangsta rap's identity has branched off in many ways since its 30-year-old origins.
Trap music's boom in the early mid-2000s was its most kindred derivative, soundtracking the happenings around Atlanta's drug trade in black communities. Out of that came drill music at the start of the current decade—gangsta rap without a conscience. Where gangsta rap and trap music routinely gave insight as to why people operated on the opposite side of the law, the post Call of Duty drill made an arcade game out of killings; the more, the better. And as drill, trap, and electronic music have fused into rap's hottest and most marketable form in which artists who couldn't be further from gangsters talk about guns and homicide with the same innocence as when they brag about a new whip, the appetite for on-the-ground street music to return to mainstream success is growing.
"Gangsta rap died with Pac, Mozzy brought it back," is Mozzy's declaration of revival on his new album, 1 Up Top Ahk. Over the past two years, it's arguable that no one in rap has given more to the sub-genre than the Sacramento wordsmith. It's also fitting that a claim so assured would be on his most sophisticated work to date. The downside to Mozzy's relentless output is that very few of his projects feel markedly better than the lot; he's trusted for consistently churning out work that is solid enough to hit all indicators but none have felt big. 1 Up Top Ahk achieves that by intensely linking us to Mozzy's pathos. Songs like "Afraid" accentuate the fearlessness it takes to be persistent in the face of imminent strife. "And I keep it cloudy in the coupe alone / And I'm liable to slither through alone / When you God's child you can move alone," is what he raps in the song's second verse, embracing the theory that he must be chosen, especially when considering the handful of friends he eulogizes right after.
In support of Vin Rock's definition of gangsta rap, Mozzy is wailing rather than crying. He asks "Why must you remind me?" to the demons that haunt him whenever he goes back to his neighborhood ("Prayed For This"). Some of his most fluid storytelling ever is featured on the silky "Sleep Walkin." There, he points out the consequences of being gang-affiliated and gives a conflicting confession of valuing the bond of parenthood while admitting to have taken others' loved ones: "The numbers double up when niggas labeled gang related/ Plus I'm in and out of family court for Dooters, shit was brazy/ Child Protective Services, only thing can break me/ Family of a murder victim, only reason you should hate me." Throughout 1 Up Top Ahk, Mozzy reveals every layer of his troubled past and present while trying to build a less-tattered future.
On the opposite end of the map, Harlem's Dave East narrates similarly to Mozzy but instead of conveying every emotion, he excels at authoring stories that give panoramic pictures of challenging circumstances. On his debut EP, Paranoia: A True Story, he finds himself in a new, less-taxing lifestyle but is struggling to enjoy it because of the post traumatic stress from constantly being on edge before rap was a job. "The Hated" is a visit back to the life that stirred the ingredients for his current paranoia. Here, East cinematically tells the story of childhood friends who eventually fall victim to their choices. One ends up in prison for flaunting his street earnings too much while the other eventually turns snitch to save his own life. On "Have You Ever," he echoes Eazy-E's election to report on his environment, instead of the poppy cheeriness critics pleaded for when he unapologetically admits he's "never seen a million, but I've seen a body." In comparison to 1 Up Top Ahk, Paranoia: A True Story serves more as a look back at situations that East had to endure before money and stardom. As much as they are for listeners' enjoyment, those recollections are also reminders for East to maintain the urgency it takes to stay afloat. He remembers that rise on "Wanna Be Me" when he raps, "Thinking back when I was broke, I ain't know who to call/ Did six months, glad the judge ain't give me that two-to-four/ Can't describe the pain I felt when people told me you should ball."
For decades, Americans across racial and social lines collectively gawked over the Western desperado stories of gun toting men leading lives of scandal and deception in pursuit of the bag. Gangsta rap is its most spot-on adaptation. And as the wealth gap in this country continues to widen, music similar to this—that reveals how trying day-to-day life can be when resources are disproportionately slim—will likely be leaned on more often than not. Maybe this is why, in 2017, an artist like Philadelphia's Meek Mill is the second street artist to go platinum this decade. The need for those stories is high right now. That cowboy rags-to-riches quest is highlighted in just about every song on both Mozzy and East's albums. The two come together on Mozzy's "Outside," in which they revisit the times they spent sharpening their games in their neighborhoods. The hook on Dave East's "Found a Way" illustrates the desperation he had to ascend from, mentioning he was "sick and tired of wearing the same clothes." Even in his recent success, Mozzy admits, "The struggle really real / I'm realistically in it /Lost people that I love/ Realistically tripping" on "Unfortunately."
What's also special about artists like these is that they are the products of the environment that gangsta rap's pioneers documented. The pretty girl from school turned addict who was a staple character in stories from late 80s and early 90s rap, gave birth to these artists. These two in particular, are in opportune positions to be the rightful torchbearers. Mozzy's steady, independent rise has gained him a cult following on the West Coast that people on the East Coast are just now getting a sniff of. Dave East was handpicked by Nas as a protege and has a skillset that has gained him the respect of artists that helped shape his outlook. "I just want to see you make it, incubator 80's baby," is how Mozzy lends his heart to a generation of disadvantaged youth who were, in some cases, born addicts. Oral history has been essential to the survival of blacks in America since this nation's inception and the continuation of this 30-year-old story will be a crucial marker in time when descendants dig back for information and inspiration. Just as these two picked up where Snoop, Eazy-E, and more left off, children of young people who are currently hooked on the likes of lean, percocets, and xanax (which both Mozzy and East are candid about using) or just boxed in by the pressure of oppressive institutions, will grow to describe what being nurtured in an environment plagued by new age vices is like.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.