By Paul Russell
6/1/2003 10:34:18 PM
Tags and topics realted to this article include 2Pac.
In three short months, rapper 50 Cent has gone from "who?" to "wow!", selling four million albums and appearing on three of the 10 most-heard songs on the radio this week. He may be new to the mainstream but he is only the latest -- and surely not the last -- in a long line of rappers who have gangstered their way to mass appeal.
The New York City MC's life story -- he has been a drug dealer, has been shot nine times and often wears bulletproof vests -- seems to be as important a part of his idol status as such seemingly inescapable hits as "In Da Club" and "21 Questions."
That places him squarely in a hip- hop tradition that has endured in a volatile music scene in which one-hit wonders and short-lived trends replace each other in quick succession. Artists such as N.W.A., Ice-T, the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Master P, the Cash Money Millionaires, Jay-Z and Ja Rule have made the thug life the predominant theme in hip hop over the past dozen years. Songs flaunting ostentatious wealth and street violence have provided the soundtrack for a generation.
Why has gangsta rap remained wildly popular with inner-city, suburban and rural fans alike for so long? Stars such as 50 Cent give fans a window into a life they'll probably never know, a vicarious walk on the wild side and a chance to be down with what's cool, to "keep it real."
50 Cent said in February, "I think I'm an inspiration because I'm from the bottom and people know I'm from there so if he can do it, I can do it." He told Vibe, "Mainstream America can look at me and say, 'That's the mentality of a young man from the 'hood.' That's where I come from, and that's what I am. My experiences make me who I am today."
Other rappers, in explaining gangsta's attractions, emphasize its swagger and glamour. The thugs on record and in videos tend to be rules-breaking winners with plenty of loot and available hotties.
Manny Fresh of the Big Tymers, one of the Cash Money acts who made "bling-bling" part of everyday language, says thugs move through life with an air of confidence many would like to emulate.
"Bad boys always win in everything," says Fresh, who has produced hits for labelmates Juvenile, B.C., Lil' Wayne, Baby and the Hot Boys. "It's like a Hollywood story. The girl always wants to be with the bad boy because your parents always tell you not to."
Motown president Kedar Massenberg says thugs are alluring on several levels. They give women a feeling of security and protection despite the air of danger involved. Kids (and many adults) have embraced the look -- skullcaps, sagging pants, oversized shirts, walking boots -- which has been promoted through ever-proliferating lines of hip-hop clothing such as Roc-A-Wear, Sean John and Phat Farm, many owned by rappers and their labels.
An equally important point for Massenberg: The music sells because it feeds into a long-standing fixation with shady characters in general. "There just happens to be a lot more people who are caught up in the thug image than are caught up in a Will Smith image," Massenberg says. "America was built on scandals and when you try to be too squeaky-clean, it never sells."
Ron Gilyard, executive vice-president for urban music at Interscope Records, says this music has the same outsider's appeal that make gangster films like The Godfather and Scarface so popular over the long term.
"One of the things that has been important in hip hop has been gangster films," agrees Bakari Kitwana, aut
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