By Courtney E. Smith
On April 15, something called a tetrad began in the night skies.
A tetrad is what astronomers call a series of four lunar eclipses that occur within two years, something that has happened only five times in the last 500 years. During the eclipse the moon turned a deep orange and people called it the Blood Moon, a name that harkens back old religious beliefs about the End of Days (Joel 2:31 goes, “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.”).
Late at night on April 15 YG‘s Twitter feed was a digital sea of red in celebration of the celestial event, showing photos he’d retweeted of the moon wrapped in red bandanas and another with his face displayed on a mock-up of the red moon. YG is a member of the Bloods.
More specifically, he comes from a neighborhood in Compton (or Bompton as the Bloods call it — C’s are strictly reserved for Crips) that’s run by the Tree Top Piru, a Bloods-affiliated neighborhood gang. His contemporaries and sometime collaborators Ty Dolla $ign, Nipsy Hussle and Schoolboy Q have also proclaimed their affiliations or pasts as bangers. The gangsta rap genre has been out of vogue for the last 10 years in mainstream circles, but the sounds coming from the West Coast of late signal a renaissance of the genre perfected by Death Row Records in the ’90s.
“The ‘Bicken Back Being Bool’ record is talking about me chilling on the block while all this stuff is going on, like shoot-outs and all of that,” YG told Radio.com. “That’s regular stuff that everybody can relate to. On the ‘Meet the Flockers’ record, I’m talking about breaking into people’s houses, residential burglaries.”
There’s violence in it, but a big part of gangsta rap’s legacy is its function as party music. The gang life is there, but it’s subdued and often coded. For his part, YG makes party songs and adopts the easygoing, Casanova side of Tupac Shakur, while sidestepping the thoughtful, activist points Tupac also addressed. Musically, it’s got the same regional flavor as its predecessor but YG doesn’t dip into the back and forth of gang-on-gang or artist-on-artist threats that peppered the lyrics in the Death Row days. There’s no more standing on the corner with an AK ready to pop.
The cover art for YG’s My Krazy Life. (Courtesy of Def Jam Records)
He’s also got those “Let Me Ride” type songs, like “My Hitta” and “Left Right” (a track his executive producer DJ Mustard would tell us he suggested YG have “for the club [and] for the girls”), that are still steeped in Bompton language but paired with bright beats to take bite out of the sometimes violent lyrics. YG and DJ Mustard are working directly from the template that Dr. Dre built in the 90s, right down to the surprising return of skits between songs.
On the release of YG’s debut album, My Krazy Life, SPIN gave it a 9 out of 10 and called it a “ratchet music masterpiece.” YG visited Radio.com that same day. In advance of his arrival, his representatives asked that we not refer to the album as ratchet music in our interview.
“Ratchet is a real word that people from the hood use in the streets,” YG said. “It’s talking about a certain type of thing, a certain type of way. I was doing my mixtape music, just doing me. I don’t like labels. Now they’re labeling my music gangsta rap. Gangsta rap ain’t as bad as ratchet. But still, you can’t label me.”
YG drops the famous “Mustard on the beat” catch phrase on an early track, one of the first so-called “ratchet music” records.
Ratchet is a real word alright; an insult typically applied to women to imply they are low class. The West Coast press have been trying to make ratchet music a scene since at least 2009, but Mustard and YG are quick to distance themselves from it these days. Mustard, in particular, seems to feel compelled to explain himself, seemingly hoping to gain credibility from his influences and address questions about his quick crossover into working with mainstream pop artists like Justin Bieber and Rihanna. He tell us that it wasn’t his plan but when opportunity knocks he’s not going to pass it up. “I’m not just saying I’m West Coast,” Mustard says. “I am West Coast, that’s what I represent but my solo album is going to be bigger than that.”
But on My Krazy Life, which Mustard executive produced, Mustard taps into all his Dr. Dre tricks. “I was DJing for YG before I was making beats,” DJ Mustard tells Radio.com. “I say my sound was influenced by Dr. Dre and Lil Jon, mixed with a little bit of the Bay.”
Jennifer Lopez is one of many mainstream artists collaborating with DJ Mustard.
Dre was like the Marcel Duchamp of hip-hop, Frankensteining Parliament-Funkadelic onto weezy, cheap synths and somehow coming up with better hooks than songs he sampled. Mustard is his acolyte, cherry-picking from Dre’s cherry-picking, with a clear debt to Bootsy Collins’ bass and the synthesizer-driven melodies composed by Bernie Worrell. Mustard is two steps away from being as inventive in production as Dre, but his beats are front and center in this moment in rap.
The music these two create was cemented with the near-universal four-star critical praise and rapturous cultural embrace of My Krazy Life —even Ed Sheeran tweeted his love for the album. But why does West Coast hip-hop sound so similar two decades later? Why is DJ Mustard creating the same style of beats that Dr. Dre made into Death Row and South Central L.A.’s signature sound? And why is YG’s “reality rap” addressing many of the same things Snoop Dogg and Tupac rapped about before? Has life for black men in Compton not changed over the last two decades?
Statistically speaking, the answer seems to be no. Information collected by California State University – Long Beach on the city of Compton shows that the median household income gone down slightly in the area since 1990, from $43,912 to $43,201, in 2010. The percentage of the population who graduate from high school has gone up 8% in that time period, but the amount who attend college or attain a Bachelor’s degree has flatlined. The most significant statistical change in the city is the rise of the 65% majority Hispanic population as of 2010. Other than that, everything is status quo.
“There’s no infrastructure in [South Central Los Angeles],” Stacy Peralta, director of the documentary Crips and Bloods: Made in America, said. “There’s no place to get a job. There’s no restaurants, there’s no movie theaters. But the biggest reason, I believe, for the proliferation of the gangs is the fact that so many black men are locked away in jail. What you have is so many kids growing up in that area with no fathers. So they congregate.”
A report from The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. group who advocate for prison reform, issued in October of 2013 points out that the Bureau of Justice Statistics found one in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime and that African-Americans make up 60% of the population in prison. Documentaries like Peralta’s show that gang life for men in urban centers like South Central L.A. didn’t start out being violent for the sake of violence: it was a way to control the ultra-violent, dangerous environments they found themselves living in. And often their biggest enemy was the police.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies detain a man after an argument with a woman in 2012 in Compton, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
For many years, gangs have kept people locked in their neighborhoods. It could literally be deadly to cross over to the next block, with or without the right colors. California’s gang injunctions, which started in the ’80s, make it illegal to flash gang signs, wear gang colors or associate with other known gang members in public. Any persons who are served an injunction as an identified gang members will face higher mandatory minimum sentencing for other crimes they may commit. The practice of gang injunctions has been disavowed by the ACLU, but the L.A.P.D and several District Attorneys across the state of California see it as a valuable tool in deterring all sort of criminal behavior. As of 2008, gang injunctions covered over 11,000 people in Los Angeles.
“For most of them, they don’t have to join. It’s a community,” said Skipp Townsend the Executive Director of 2nd Call, a community organization who act as first responders, helping to resolve disputes and provide resources and council to local residents. “If we’re speaking of YG and he lives south of Rosencrans Ave and east of Wilmington Ave all he has to do is live there. He goes to school and he’s in the Pirus. It’s not like they went out and decided we’re going to be this tough gang. Piru was a street, named for a type of tree that grew in the area. This is what their parents and grandparents chose, not them.”
Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, released in 1992 reflected its time as YG’s album does today. 1992 was the year of the riots related to the Rodney King verdict, but to show another vivid picture of how violent life was in Compton: there were five active serial killers working in South Central L.A. between 1984-1994, all targeting young, poor, black women. Many of their deaths were made to look like they were related to local crack houses. Law enforcement didn’t put the pieces together until about a decade after the fact. Added to all the problems with regular gun play, drive-bys and the crack epidemic, even five different serial killers couldn’t get attention in the area.
Dr. Dre (L) and Snoop Dogg (R) attend the 1993 MTV Movie Awards. (Jeff Kravitz for Getty Images)
“The way I was able to get financing for my film was, I made this statement: what would our government do if teenagers in Beverly Hills were arming themselves with AK-47s and shooting teenagers in Santa Monica?” Peralta said. “Everybody I asked that question to said it would be stopped before it even started because our government would never let white kids do that. Well why is it that these black kids have not found that same support in our government helping to stop this and giving them the resources that they need?”
Gang violence didn’t stop after 1996, but the genre of music died a symbolic death that year after the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, following a long East-West Coast battle. The ramifications of the gang lifestyle jumped off the CD into real life.
Tupac and Snoop Dogg rap on a Death Row Records release from 1996, before Tupac’s fatal shooting later that year.
“What you also had happening at the time was that rap was starting to go mainstream and Puff Daddy was pushing his ostentatious agenda very hard and it caught on,” Jermaine Hall, the editor-in-chief of Vibe says. “Hip hop went from being powered by gangsta rap to being all about Cristal and the finer things in life.”
Everyone, with spotlights on 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Rick Ross, was releasing records about how tough or how rich they were, giving hip hop a new reputation as being never more than skin-deep. Disses were dealt out in the studio and not often on the streets. For YG, that’s as played out as the straight samples that were a mark of old Death Row production.
“If you got personal competition going on with somebody, that’s like beef. I don’t got no personal competition going on with anybody right now. I’m just trying to s— on n—– period, overall,” YG said, laughing.
Things evolved radically when Kanye West came on the scene in the mid-2000s. He, along with Drake, ushered in a more artistic, sensitive era in hip hop. They were followed by the outsider but wildly popular Odd Future crew, who represented a new generation of hip hop that promised to be unique, less materialistic and more diverse in terms of lyrical content than the past 30 years had been.
At the same time that as return of gangsta rap in L.A. for the past four years, we’ve seen a rising popularity for the genre in Chicago, where Chief Keef and drill music currently rule the scene that used to belong to some of the greats of backpack hip hop: Common, Kanye West and the Cool Kids.
“For the most part, rap is a true to life reflection of what’s going on at the time,” Hall says. “It’s why people refer to it as the CNN of music. We have all these bad things happening in Chicago, in Compton, some parts of Atlanta, Houston, etc. These MCs are just talking about what’s going on in their neighborhood.”
Hall expands, saying that today’s West Coast gangsta rap is reflective of the Death Row era, but the difference is the older guys lived it “to the 1000th percent” while he speculates that YG probably sees it as a means to an end; a way out of his neighborhood and the gang banging lifestyle.
YG, wearing a Bompton cap. (Courtesy of Def Jam Records)
What is changing, tangibly, is the homicide rate in South Central. The exact cause for it is unknown, but year over year homicide and violent crime rates have been going down in Compton since 2010 and some credit the L.A.P.D.’s newfound tactic of working with local gang tasks forces after decades of acting as oppressors.
“The L.A.P.D. is probably going to be in the forefront of how the nation will start to deal with the communities,” Townsend said. “Not with the gangs, because they’ve become more involved with the communities where gang members live instead of attacking the gangs. They’re working with community related positions, including interventionists like myself who diffuse situations instead of making arrests.”
But even as gang banging begins to lose its hold on this city and the imaginations of the artists Compton turns out, the popularity of YG and his fellow rising West Coast stars indicate that it remains a popular topic for mainstream audiences.
“Gangsta rap gives you a fishbowl look into a lot of really dangerous situations — smash and grabs, people running into houses and pulling robberies, drive-bys,” Hall explains. “The mainstream audience, that girl or guy who lives in Minnesota, doesn’t necessarily want to go to Compton and actually see that for themselves but they love to hear rappers talk about it. It’s a safe way to get a peek into that world.”
It raises questions about the morality of capitalizing on the gang banging reality rap out of L.A. and Chicago, as well as the ethics of gawking at other people’s very real violent lives like it’s a car crash on the side of the road. At the same time, YG refers to himself as an artist with a definite plan multiple times in our interview: it’s hard to see any aspect of himself he doesn’t want to present to us. If he wants to put his spin on the real life of a gangsta, it undermines his artistic contribution to call it immoral for the audience to enjoy.
“When you listen to my album, all the reviews I’ve been getting back is that the people from L.A. or the West Coast, after they listen to my albums say that’s how they feel,” YG said. “That’s because of how the songs is, how they’re broke down. I’m explaining everything so you feel like you’re right there with me.”
He’ll have a microphone for as long as we want to listen.
(L to R) DJ Mustard, YG and Juelz Santana at YG’s official album release party for My Krazy Life.