Bridging the Gap Between Gangsta and Gangster


In the name of research, Jalen Glenn woke up every day and would listen to a new album (JESSE CARLUCCI/THE OBSERVER)


Jalen Glenn, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’16 and communication media studies major with a concentration in film, has been devoting his free time to answering this question. After many mornings of waking up and listening to album after album, Glenn has released a 45 page article to the Fordham Undergraduate Research Journal (FURJ)and the Journal of Hip-Hop Studies. Glenn continues to research and edit his piece. The Observer sat down with Glenn to learn more about the music genre, a culture of its own that is rarely given a scholarly spotlight.

Observer: Can you briefly describe what your research is all about?

Jalen Glenn: It originally started when I was listening to a lot of gangsta rap albums like two summers ago. I was listening to “Straight Outta Compton” and “Doggystyle,” and I was just thinking about how it relates to gangster films. You know like “Scarface” and “The Godfather.” And I was thinking, “What if I went deeper and went past that and went to the early gangster films.”

[quote_right]And I was thinking, “What if I went deeper and went past that and went to the early gangster films.”[/quote_right]

Hip-hop gets no respect. It gets no artistic credibility. That’s something that I talk about in my piece. Public Enemy, “Fear of the Black Planet,” Public Soles — they haven’t accepted a gangsta rap album into the Library of Congress yet. But at the same time, they’ll accept “Little Caesar,” “Scarface,” and “Public Enemies.” All those films are in the Library of Congress, so it raises the question why, what is the difference?

Observer: Who are the artists that you focus on?

JG: N.W.A, Ice Cube, MC Ren, IZ, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Death Row Family, Snoop Dogg. *among others*
I focused on 1983 to 1988. I wanted to be really focused on it because when gangsta rap emerged—it’s important to make the disctinction that not all hip-hop is gangsta rap, because a lot of people may conflate those two. Gangsta rap came up at a specific time and to understand where gangsta rap came from you have to understand these historical roots. Like Eminem is not a gangsta rapper.
Observer: How did you come up with the idea for your research?


JG: I was just listening to the gangsta rap album “Straight Outta Compton.” I just downloaded it. And I listened to it when I found out that they were making a movie about it. Then I got interested in “The Chronic” and “Doggystyle,” and I wanted to know about Dr. Dre and his trajectory between NWA and with Death Row Records and such. And I wanted to figure out how I can, like, analyze music in a similar way to film. Because I feel like a lot of of the gangsta rap albums have a lot of cinematic elements to it. “Doggystyle” draws upon black exploitation films, and it has its intro, and interludes and its conclusion. And I feel like hip-hop albums are not treated that way scholarly-wise.

It needs to be talked about. It’s one of the biggest genres of music. And no one has really critically engaged with it. I mean, there are scholars out there, but there’s a void. It hasn’t gained as much traction as rock. Some of that may be due to time. Hip-hop is fairly new. 1979 is considered the starting point.

Observer: Who helped you with your project?

JG: I want to give a shout out to Professor Tom McCourt, communications and media studies professor. I take his Popular Music Communication class. And I think that his class shed light on the fact that you can analyze and scholarly engage with hip-hop. He was my faculty mentor the entire summer. He wasn’t in the city, but he took time out to read and I really appreciate him, that’s the man right there.

Jennifer Clark, she’s my faculty advisor. She’s just brilliant and she helped me out by sending me articles that might be helpful, just giving me the tools on how to analyze and critically engage with it a lot better. So shout out to her too.

[quote_right]That’s the most difficult part. I had so much stuff I wanted to say. Even now, I go through it and read it and I want to take things out.[/quote_right]

Observer: Tell us a little more about your writing itself and what you’ve found.

JG: I go into some similarities of how we should look at these gangster films and gangsta rap and compare them. Because if gangster films were addressing these issues in the 1930s and the gangsta rappers were addressing them in the late 80s/early 90s, then there’s a continuation. There’s a lack of response to it. So it starts off exploring issues of gender and sexuality in early gangster film and early gangsta rap. How they are very similar and how gansters and gangstas mistreat women. I’m trying to locate why that is. I locate that specifically in economic context. In the Depression, the patriarchy was in danger; it was unstable. So to reaffirm that position, the patriarchs sought to degrade [women], treat them like sexual objects. And we find that in gangsta rap as well.We have a lot of black men going to prison and stuff, so they lose their economic position. There’s a rise of female head of households as a result of mass incarceration, and so that’s another destablization of the patriarch’s position. By reducing the value of women, these gangsters and gangsta rappers were trying to reaffirm the patriarchy’s position at that time.

The second part of it gets into issues of time and how that’s the struggle. I relate that to the introduction of industrial capitalism in the early 20th century. But also on the back end in the late 1980s we have the rise of private prisons which I feel is another industrial capitalist form. You have these people that cycle in and out of prisons and the rise of private prisons — they are using people literaly as capital. To keep the beds filled in private prisons, you create massive profits. To have people cycling in and out, ensuring that all beds are filled, is kind of similar to industrial capitalism to me.

Then the final part is what is the disjuncture between why we valroize gangster film, the early gangster films, but gangsta rap doesn’t get any respect. They are raising the same questions and addressing the same issues—why do we not give the same respect to gangsta rappers. A lot of people will say hip-hop is just sexist. But hip-hop is sexist because America is sexist.

Observer: So what were some of the hardships that you ran into writing this article?

[quote_left]Hip-hop has a democratic effect. It’s not like you have to play an instrument to know how to do it.[/quote_left]

JG: Just like, black holes. I would do so much research and I wouldn’t know how to synthesize and organize it. That’s the most difficult part. I had so much stuff I wanted to say. Even now, I go through it and read it and I want to take things out. I kind of wanted to show off a bit, that I did a lot of research, but I realized that’s not necessary. I’m still editing it to this day, trying to strengthen it. And be a little more concise.

Observer: What is your take on racism and hip-hop—especially white rappers getting a bad rap in the industry?

JG: I don’t have an issue with it. I feel that hip-hop was originally for Jamaicans or Jamaican DJs. Then Afro-Americans took it up. I think that the commonality behind it all was that they were poor. Eminem was poor before he became a rapper, so the issues that he address I think are kind of important. I think that poor white people’s oppression goes unnoticed. And it’s kind of unfortunate that we’ve accepted poverty as a norm in that way and our complacency with poverty. I appreciate those stories coming up. Macklemore’s struggle with drug addiction and such. Those are important stories to bring about. Hip-hop has a democratic effect. It’s not like you have to play an instrument to know how to do it. You just have to have a story, you have to have some style and know how to tell it. I feel like that’s why hip-hop is so beautiful to me. Anyone can do it. It’s not like you have to know this chord, or you have to know melodies, or any of that. Hip-hop throws all that out the window and says “fuck it.” We only got this, and this is how we are going to make it work.

Observer: What is the biggest conclusion from your research?

JG: We need to engage in gangsta rap and not on a service level. It has to be a little more nuanced than that. We’ve given a nuanced understanding to gangster films and now it’s time for gangsta rap. Because they are extremely similar and to suggest that they are not is extremely problematic and quite racist.