Hip Hop's Influence On United States Society And Gangs

The Civil Rights Movement and Its Role in the Creation of Hip Hop Culture and Rap

Hip Hop, the culture associated with rapping and DJing, came about on the premise of furthering rights for black Americans in the early 1970’s (Franklin 2007). The civil rights movement saw success in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but still needed strength as racism was prominent across the country. Blacks struggled with injustice in the workplace and society, requiring another movement for the fight for ethnic equality; Hip Hop helped answer the call. The continuation of the black rights movement garnered strength with the Black Panther Party who structured themselves around the fight for black power (Franklin 2007). At the heart of their motives were vocal messages delivered through songs, which helped generate Hip Hop culture and the first rappers. The early rappers emphasized equality for blacks in U.S. society and brotherhood between all minorities. The brotherhood provided a strong sense of family; a sense that would later become a foundation for modern American gangs (Hughey 2008). As the black rights movement sought Hip Hop as a tool to help establish equality in United States society, gangs used Hip Hop as a tool to increase their populations (Franklin 2007, Riley 2005). The ease of rappers’ vocal delivery of messages provided gangs the perfect tool to influence America’s youth. In the mid 1980’s, the United States saw a 6% increase in gang populations; the same period regarded as the years of Hip Hop’s rise to popularity (Riley 2005).


Hip Hop: The Formation of Rap Groups and Later Gangs

The Hip Hop culture originated in New York City in the 1970’s on the basis of DJing which later was accompanied by rapping. Groups throughout the city formed groups based on home neighborhoods, and would travel to battle rival groups where a DJ would spin a beat, and two rappers would rap against each other. A wager was often placed on the battle, with the winner taking home the commodity wagered (Riley 2005). These rap battles created the initial rivalries across New York City, which gradually progressed from friendly neighborhood battles, to battles for turf. The fight for supremacy began to turn violent, with rapping gradually comprising a smaller and smaller portion of the battles. The confrontations ranged from physical force to small scale gun-warfare. Ethnicity became a key factor as to which crew whom you belonged. By 1980’s, New York City was an epicenter for group and gang violence. The establishment of competing Hip Hop groups throughout New York City is theorized by many as a foundation for the first modern gangs in the United States (Ralph 2009).

The pattern of competition saw in New York quickly spread to big cities across the nation; from Chicago to Los Angeles, cities were engulfed in the new Hip Hop culture. Rap battling between groups in Chicago and Los Angeles began to take a smaller role, as these groups predominantly preferred acts of violence (Grant 2002). Instead, each group used rapping as an activity for internal entertainment. The acts of violence in the Chicago and Los Angeles saw the formation of supreme groups in each city. Home neighborhoods were no longer the basis for which group you joined. The highest ranking groups in each city were the most heavily sought after, and thus were able to develop measures for acceptance (Grant 2002).

In Los Angeles, the Crips became the elite group. In 1969, Stanley Williams and Raymond Washington saw the need for a united group that embraced black rights and offered protection from other gangs. The Crips was their creation. The Crips quickly turned into one of the forefront gangs in Los Angeles and later America. The Crips were modeled after the Black Panther movement’s ideals of black rights, and achieving these rights through, if necessary, violence (Franklin 2007, Grant 2002). In distinction from the Black Panther’s, the Crips engaged in black-on-black crime in an effort to become L.A.’s elite gang. Their mass violence and internal conflict created increased ethnic tension in Los Angeles which helped foster the creation of their rival gang, the Bloods. The Bloods were formed primarily as an alternative for youth and young men to join if becoming a Crip was not a viable option. The Crips and Bloods engaged in intense warfare, initiated in the 1970’s as a violent city rivalry, and later in the 1980’s as a competition for protection of turf and drug sell (Grant 2002). The street life mentality saw a shift to a focus on capital; an ideology that later would later provide Hip Hop culture with a new structure.

In the streets of L.A., the introduction of selling cocaine and crack-cocaine produced significant profits (Leland 2002).These profits further heated the rivalry between the Crips and Bloods and of rivalries against competing gangs across the Unites States. The model of the street life was thus formed; gangbang, protect your turf, and enjoy the profits of selling illicit drugs (Grant 2002). This lifestyle was violent in nature, and the profits enjoyed began to be split up across the many members of gangs. The street life lost the lucrative appeal due to the increased division in earnings, and gangs were forced to look for other methods to increase their money inflow (Ralph 2009). Tracing back to the roots of the cause for early creation of gangs was where the answer laid, Hip Hop. The Hip Hop culture embodied DJing and rapping; both of which were put on the backburner while drug dealing was on the rise. Individuals from the streets and gangs began to embrace the Hip Hop lifestyle as a means of making money.

Hip Hop and Rap’s Emergence in Pop Culture

In California, N.W.A. and Death Row Records, both sharing strong relations to Blood affiliations, were the first to apply their knowledge of the streets into rapping (Leland 2001). NWA burst on the scene in 1988 with their debut album, Straight Outta Compton. The album was accentuated by the tracks, “Fuck tha Police,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Gangsta Gangsta.” Each track detailed key elements of the struggles of growing up in an environment modeled after the streets. “Straight Outta Compton” emphasized the high African-American mortality rate of Los Angeles created by gang warfare, and “Fuck tha Police” highlighted Black-American’s struggles with law enforcement. “Gangsta Gangsta” represented the means as to how the youth made their money and stayed protected; through the selling of crack-cocaine and joining of gangs. “Gangsta Gangsta” was also produced as the single for Straight Outta Compton. The track reached mainstream audiences and helped NWA and Rap emerge as dominant figures in pop culture. Straight Outta Compton would later peak at #37 on the Billboard 200 in 1989, and “Gangsta Gangsta” would reach the #2 position on the Billboard Rap Charts (Billboard Charts). The album provided mainstream America with an insight into America’s new era of gang and Hip Hop culture.


After the success of the rap group N.W.A., Death Row Records began producing the individual efforts Tupac and Dr. Dre, and later, Snoop Dogg (Leland 1997).( Death Row Records was notorious for their violence against rivals and ties to the Blood gang of L.A.) These early rappers saw dramatic success, particularly Tupac, who would become the second best-selling rapper of all time. (Billboard Charts). Across the country in New York City, rappers of the Wu Tang collective, and rapper, the Notorious B.I.G., found similar successes. Despite the new found Hip Hop lifestyle, these rappers faced difficulties leaving the street life.

A West Coast-East rivalry was bred between Tupac and Biggie as each rapper battled for the country’s respect and money. The West Coast-East Coast rivalry started between Tupac and Biggie came about primarily through misinformation following Tupac’s first shooting in 1994. Tupac was shot five times at Quad Recording Studios in Manhattan while attempting to meet with Biggie and his entourage. Tupac was hospitalized and came back on a vengeance. After the shooting, Tupac accused Biggie for being responsible for the setting up of the shooting. Biggie, however, denied any involvement (Leland 1997). An intense rivalry was now set between Tupac and Biggie. The rivalry sparked tensions across the country, boosting Hip Hop and Rap’s appeal.

Rappers began to develop a “cool factor” pushing rap tracks high into the Billboard charts. As the coastal rivalry between Tupac and Biggie heated up, so did their albums and songs. In 1994, Biggie’s debut album, Ready to Die, peaked at #2 on The Billboard 200. The singles produced for Ready to Die included “Juicy,” “Big Poppa,” and “One More Chance,” peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at #27, #6, and #2, respectively (Billboard Charts). In 1995, Tupac’s fourth studio album, Me Against The World, claimed the #1 position of The Billboard 200. In 1996, his fifth studio album, All Eyez On Me, also reached the #1 position on The Billboard 200 (Billboard Charts). Their record companies, Death Row and Bad Boy Entertainment, saw huge profits which were shared with their rappers.

The rappers began to flaunt expensive jewelry, clothing, and even nicer cars. Rappers were in the process of shedding their street life struggles to become in the essence, rich pop stars. Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. continued their angry rivalry, which began to take a personal route. Rumors about Tupac sleeping with Biggie’s wife and the ensuing “diss” tracks promoted action by each respective crew. The rivalry invoked further physical violence, with a confrontation at the 1995 Source Awards. At these awards, Suge Knight, CEO of Death Row Records announced on stage, “Any artist out there that want to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos…All on the records…dancing, come to Death Row!” (Leland 1997) Suge Knight was referring to Bad Boy Entertainment’s CEO, Sean Combs, as he actively participated in all aspects of production (Leland 1997). The rivalry continued to grow, and was concluded with Tupac getting shot in 1996 in Las Vegas resulting in death. Biggie would share a similar fate in 1997 later while promoting his second album, Life After Death, in California. The rivalry boosted Hip Hop’s credentials, with gangster-turned-rappers gaining respect and wealth across the country.

Street life thugs were no longer just viewed as gangsters, due to the popularization of N.W.A., Tupac, and Biggie. Gang members also now had a new route to success through Hip Hop, and gangs and street life were at the forefront of popular culture. With gangsters seemingly presenting themselves in a positive, successful light, a new audience comprised of millions of white youth would now be influenced by the lifestyle of the streets and Hip Hop.

Hip Hop and Rap: Inspiring America’s Youth for Gang Involvement

The mainstream popularity of rappers and figures within Hip Hop provided America’s youth a new culture and influence. Despite the commercial appeal of rappers, at the roots of the Hip Hop culture laid the strong ties to street life and gangs.

The rappers’ appeal transpired through their flashy material possessions. However, the wealthy rappers’ made their money much differently than their raps portrayed. Popular themes of the Gangsta Rap genre include stealing, violence, gangbanging, and above all, references to drug dealing (Riley 2005). Although the rappers may have had a history with these actions, established record companies like Bad Boy Entertainment have strict rules prohibiting their artists from engaging in illicit activities. An example can be seen with rapper, Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.), when he signed with Bad Boy Entertainment. According to a Bad Boy Entertainment press release in 1994, “Although a new father, Wallace would lose his contract if continued to hustle and deal drugs” (Leland 1997). Rappers like Wallace have lyrics ridden with drug dealing and violence, but do not participate in these activities once signed to a label.


Rap songs, combined with rappers’ apparent wealth, help youth formulate that if they engage in activities highlighted in their favorite rap songs, they too can become wealthy. A common misconception arises with the ethnicity of the youth; rap songs have a great effect in the behavior of all youth, not limited to Black, Hispanic, or other minority ethnicities (Riley 2005). Even in the far reaches of French-Canada, youths’ behavior is subject to rap music. A study was conducted on youth’s deviant behavior after listening to different rap genres. The study included 185 girls and 165 boys of average age fifteen. The results indicated that all four genres of rap tested (American rap, French rap, hip hop/soul, and gangsta/hardcore rap), induced deviant behaviors, with French and Gangsta Rap having the most effect on behavior (Miranda 2004). As stated by Alexander Riley, “there is no one, single, monolithic ‘hip hop community,” meaning all youths (and even adults) are subject to rap songs and lyrics.

There is a multitude of negative behaviors that arise when the youth listen to rap, but the most common include stealing, violent behavior, and joining of gangs (Miranda 2004). Gang membership is a key elements of focus. Heavy references of partying are also common in rap songs, such as Snoop Dogg’s song “Gin and Juice,” and Gucci Mane’s song, “Wasted.” The activities associate with parting include underage drinking, drug consumption, and sexual acts (Riley 2005), all of which are argued to be symbols of the Hip Hop culture (Riley 2005).

The negative behaviors associated with listening to Rap and engaging in the Hip Hop lifestyle are vast and effect all youths. However, teens are subject to negative influences from all forms of music most every day, so it is argued to what extent the Hip Hop lifestyle has had on the youth of America.

Works Cited