Divergent Paths in the 1990s: Gangsta Rap and Conscious Hip Hop

Essential Question

How did Gangsta Rap and Conscious Hip Hop respond to the social and political conditions of the 1990s?


As the 1980s came to a close, Hip Hop’s popularity only increased. Within the Hip Hop field, different styles and approaches emerged throughout the 1990s. While numerous subgenres gained traction, a recognizable division fell into place between so-called “Gangsta Rap” and “Conscious Hip Hop.”

Gangsta Rap grew in part out of the social and political climate on the West Coast, where cities such as Compton, California, became engulfed in gang violence fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic. Longstanding tensions between the African-American community and the police came to a head in the Rodney King case and the announcement of its verdict. Gangsta rappers began to write explicitly about inner city violence. Songs were marked by a liberal use of profanity and images of the gun-toting toughs who lived amidst the brutality of the inner city. Gangsta Rap often overlapped with the East Coast-based “Mafioso Rap,” whose practicioners cultivated personas of high-living, power-wielding gangsters who drove fancy cars, drank champagne, and sported intimidating weapons – all while promoting a strong sense of kinship. Fiction seemed to become fact when rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were victims of unsolved, highly public murders.

Soon enough, a countermovement some called “Conscious Hip Hop” began to emerge, primarily on the East Coast. Many fans saw it as an answer to the often violent and controversial lyrics common in Gangsta Rap. Though in many ways responding to the same conditions to which Gangsta Rap reacted, this subgenre sought to inspire positivity through its lyrics, much like some of the earliest Hip Hop music. Lyrics were intended to challenge and inspire while also questioning the social and political status quo.

Both subgenres helped define Hip Hop’s diverse spectrum of creative possibilities, as well as expanding its capacity to question and critique society. In this lesson, students will compare the two subgenres and explore the conditions from which they arose. They will further consider whether these subgenres should be categorized as two distinct movements, or as two different means of addressing the same issues and concerns.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The definitions of the two Hip Hop subgenres known as “Gangsta Rap” and “Conscious Hip Hop”
    • The ways in which both subgenres reflected social and political conditions in the 1990s, particularly escalating tensions in race relations and the prevalence of crime in inner city neighborhoods
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate the similarities and differences between Gangsta Rap and Conscious Hip Hop
    • Analyze visual imagery in music videos
    • Identify connections between musical movements and the social and political conditions from which that music emerged
    • Common Core: Students will work cooperatively in groups to formulate and defend an argument by taking a position on whether or not Gangsta Rap should be played on a radio station (CCSS Writing 1; CCSS Writing 5; CCSS Speaking and Listening 1)
    • Common Core: Students will review multiple texts, photographs and videos to answer guided discussion questions and build understandings (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Reading 2; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 3)