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 Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 13:54 GMT
The story of gangstas in music
Sean "P Diddy" Combs is a key face in rap

Rap and garage music have been forced into the spotlight after being accused by British politicians of glorifying gun culture.

No longer a fringe style or dismissible scene, rap music may leave many baffled - but it has become the most popular and influential new sound since punk.

Rap albums by Eminem and Nelly were the top-selling CDs in the United States in 2002, proving that rap has long outgrown its origins as a marginal activity with limited appeal.

And in the UK, the US rappers have become chart-topping stars while the younger home-grown garage style has broken into the mainstream with artists like So Solid Crew and Ms Dynamite.

Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay was shot dead in 2002
Rap first became popular in the early 1980s after budding DJs and lyricists in the streets and clubs of big cities pioneered the practice of scratching and mixing records on two turntables.

They created their sound by repeating beats or samples taken from other records and delivering spoken accompaniments over the top.

By the late 80s, a hardcore version of the style - with a tougher sound and lyrical content inspired by street life - was eclipsing the original party style and would evolve into gangsta rap.

While leading groups like Public Enemy and Run-DMC were politically active, rapping about social problems, the group NWA - Niggaz With Attitude - were "unapologetically violent and sexist" and became the first gangsta rappers.

The gangsta style became notorious in the 1990s when a feud between rival gangs led to the shootings of two of its stars, Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG, and it seemed that rap was dominated by the way of the gun.

That was true in part, because of the backgrounds of those making the music, but the media focused on the most dramatic and sensational aspects.

Spoken out

Groups like De La Soul, the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest had success in their own more peaceful branches of rap - and out of the media glare.

In recent years, stars like Public Enemy's Chuck D, Missy Elliott and Russell Simmons, head of seminal rap label Def Jam, have spoken out against violence in an attempt to stop the feuds and improve rap's image.

But many of today's stars still adopt the action hero-style glamour of the rap rebels, and the gangsta style is still the dominant force.

Today's biggest rap stars

  • Eminem
    Eminem: The most controversial of them all

    The biggest star of them all has also been the most controversial as his incisive lyrics chronicling life breaking out of the trailer park appealed directly to teenagers around the world. But their parents were not so happy about the lyrics peppered with profanity, misogyny and homophobia. Earlier this year Eminem settled a lawsuit filed against him by a man he allegedly pulled a gun on for kissing his wife.

  • Sean "P Diddy" Combs

    Producer, rapper and mogul, Combs - formerly known as Puff Daddy - has a long track record of making rap that appeals to the masses. But he was at the centre of the 1990s east coast/west coast rap feud, and was famously found not guilty on five charges of gun possession and bribery following a 1999 New York nightclub shooting.

  • Nelly

    Another rapper who has topped the charts, Nelly has caused less controversy, having embraced the pop style and toned down the violent imagery from his earlier songs. "Imagine blocks and blocks of no cocaine, blocks with no gunplay/Ain't nobody shot, so ain't no news that day," he raps on his new album.

  • Jay-Z

    More radio-friendly rap from another million-selling artist who raps about and is linked to violence. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to stabbing a record producer - but a gun charge was dropped. His latest album has sold three million copies in the US.

  • Ja Rule

    Involved in feuds with rival rappers and member of a group called Murder Inc, Ja Rule has songs called Kill Them All, Murder Reigns and Thug Lovin'. His record label, Murder Inc, was raided by the FBI as part of a drug investigation. Some commentators say he is "basically singing love songs".

  • Missy Elliott

    The first lady of rap, Missy Elliot has gained respect for being tough without being violent and socially-aware in a more positive way. "Hip-hop is worldwide," she said recently. "Kids from everywhere listen to it and whether we wanna be role models or not, we become that."

Ms Dynamite
Ms Dynamite: Denounced gangsta culture
In the UK, garage music - which is now under media scrutiny - is a cousin of rap. It evolved more recently than rap, and while being influenced by US styles, is very much an English sound.

It evolved from a variety of urban sounds in the inner cities, particularly London, and the social problems are a strong feature of the music.

  • Craig David

    The most pop-friendly of them all gets to the top of the charts by singing about love and other subjects that your grandma would approve of.

  • So Solid Crew

    From the council estates of south London, three members of the garage collective have been arrested on gun charges in recent months, with guns featuring in lyrics and videos. One was jailed, another was given community service and the third was remanded in custody. "We're not bad boys, we're just people who had a dream, like Westlife or Blue," one member said. "It's just that they don't go through what we go through."

  • Ms Dynamite

    The biggest star to emerge from the UK in the last 12 months, Ms Dynamite has also tried to be a positive role model. She may sing about social ills, but she has denounced the violence of the UK garage scene. Her lyrics also include messages against drugs, bad relationships and unsafe sex.

  • Key stories


    See also:

    06 Jan 03 | Politics
    07 Jan 03 | Talking Point
    07 Jan 03 | UK
    07 Jan 03 | UK
    31 Oct 02 | Entertainment
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