Soren Baker, the Author of 'The History of Gangster Rap,' Talks NWA, Kendrick Lamar & the Status of Gangster Rap in 2018 [INTERVIEW]
Veteran hip-hop journalist Soren Baker documents the history of gangster rap in his new book; we spoke to him about the importance of Schooly D, gangster rap's best era, and the status of gangster rap in 2018
At 10 years old, Soren Baker was given a cassette tape with an hour’s worth of rap music. From that point on, almost every spare moment he had was dedicated to hip-hop. Two years later, when he was 12, Soren was on the basketball court when one of his friends said “I wonder what it would be like to hang out with Schoolly D.”
Within ten years he would find out; Schoolly D, the man who invented gangster rap, invited Soren, who was, at that time, an up-and-coming journalist, to his house. The two spent the day together.
How did Soren get there?
Throughout high school Soren spent thousands of dollars on rap music, accumulating approximately 800 albums during this period. He was able to turn his passion for music into a career; the rap enthusiast excelled in not only deconstructing rap but documenting the personal stories of rappers, DJs, and producers in the industry.
In a career that's span over 20 years, the LA-based journalist has picked up bylines in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone.
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Throughout this time, Soren also wrote a number of books, including his I'm The White Guy series and a book about the 2012 champion Baltimore Ravens. However there is one book he's spent his entire life penning, in some sort of fashion. And it is now officially complete.
The History of Gangster Rap: From Schoolly D to Kendrick Lamar, the Rise of a Great American Art Formwill be published on October 2nd. The book takes a deep dive into the evolution of gangster rap and its influence on music’s most popular genre, featuring exclusive interviews with Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Dr. Dre, and many more pioneers. Split chronologically into 16 chapters, the book touches on a vast number of subjects, from the conspiracy theories behind the murder of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. to the legacy of Schoolly D to the release of NWA's masterpiece Straight Outta Compton.
Okayplayer caught up with Soren Baker in Burbank, California. We spoke to the veteran journalist about the importance of Schooly D, gangster rap's best era, and if Kendrick Lamar is a gangster rapper.
Okayplayer: What is the biggest misconception around gangster rap?
Soren Baker: The biggest misconception around gangster rap is that it’s mindless. Through interviewing Ice-T, MC Ren, The D.O.C, Ice Cube, and a lot of other artists, I was able to show the thought that went into it. Because the guys that made the music and still make the music aren’t doing this to do anything other than to express themselves and talk about what they went through in their life, and the things that they had to overcome.
A lot of the better gangster rappers, in my opinion, are the ones who show the negative side of being a gangster: being in the streets, being a dealer, or being a killer. They show that you get shot. You get incarcerated. You lose your friends. You lose your family. You lose your children. And all this is included in the songs that are super popular. Look at Snoop. One of his biggest songs was “Murder Was the Case,” and that mirrored what was going on in his life. We talk about that in the book. I made a point to really focus on the music itself: what it’s about, where it comes from, why it is what it is. I think that if you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying, you might hear the profanity, you might hear the violence. But you might not hear the message.
The title says from Schoolly D to Kendrick Lamar. Do you consider Kendrick Lamar to be a gangster rapper?
I don't really think Kendrick Lamar is a gangster rapper. He’s more from the environment and raps about the environment, but he doesn’t rap about it in the way that the traditional gangster rappers do. Some consider him a gangster rapper because they view him as the evolution of what gangster rap is. He’s a kid from Compton that's raised in and around gang culture...but he's not out there. To my knowledge, he was never out there gang banging. But he grew up around it. So that was kind of tricky, but I included him in the title to show how the genre has evolved to where people could look at him that way, even though they wouldn't have been gangster rappers way back in the day.
How would you define gangster rap?
That’s a tough question. I talk about this in the introduction. I focused on people that make gang-banging and gang lifestyle the focus of their music. A lot of people talk about gangsterism in the traditional sense: being a criminal, being violent, dealing with illegal stuff. But with rap, it's much more about — obviously with Los Angeles being the prominent thing — Bloods and Crips. Before the LA rappers came out, Schoolly D was talking about the Park Side Killers on several of his early songs. It’s more about the dudes that rapped about being in a gang and what it was about. There are other people that people considered a gangster rapper that I may or may not, depending on the song or what they’re talking about. They’re more of the street, reality, or thug rappers, which is what most of the older rappers consider themselves (as opposed to gangster rappers).
What is the current state of gangster rap?
Gangster rap is alive and well. You have Dr. Dre, who’s the best producer in rap history, still making music. You have Ice Cube still touring and releasing music occasionally. You have Ice-T still releasing music and touring. Even Schoolly D has a new album about to come out. Then you have the current generation of artists like G Perico, who’s doing a great job, AD, YG, Nipsey Hussle, who are all from the LA area. They all rap about some sort of gang activity.
MC Ren talks about it in the book: as long as there's rap, there will be gangster rap. There's always stuff going on in the streets and there's always ghettos. Unfortunately, the stuff that the Schoolly Ds, the N.W.As, the Ice Cubes, the Ice-Ts talked about back in the '80s is still relevant today.
What’s something you learned researching this book?
I interviewed The D.O.C. and was always curious about the parallels of some of his lyrics and some of Snoop’s lyrics. I have a whole page dedicated to that.
And then my favorite rapper of all time, Schoolly D, who I’ve known since the '90s. He’s my idol. My hero. I’ve interviewed him so many times, but I never asked about the different ways he spelled and wrote his name. He explains that in the book. He's pretty funny about his rational and reasoning for that.
What are the three most underappreciated gangster rap albums of all time?
Schoolly D’s self-titled album, which includes his first two big singles, “PSK, What Does it Mean” and “Gucci Time,” is very important because of those two songs. They are two of the most sampled songs in rap history. That’s also the first album released on Schoolly D Records, which he started in 1983. He’s the first rapper to have his own label, which was very important for the business side of things. It also showed an artist taking control of his career. That album is just phenomenally important.
Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It is an album that gets overlooked because Straight Outta Compton stole a lot of the glory. That’s very much an important album and actually for a long time had outsold Straight Outta Compton. I have a great interview with Glasses Malone about the album in the book. We did a whole sidebar on it.
Lastly… I’d say Compton's Most Wanted’s Music to Drive By. One, I think it’s one of the best covers in rap history, but then the music. It's an album sonically that very much fits the title of the album. It's the type of music you could imagine someone would drive by to. Also, MC Eiht does an amazing job showing you the emotion and the thought process that goes into gang banging, and the highs and the lows of it. That album is just very dark and menacing...it’s phenomenal. The samples they used on there are incredible and done in a very different way. It has an amazing collaboration with Scarface called “N 2 Deep.”
The most underrated city for gangster rap?
I’d probably have to say Philadelphia because Schoolly D created gangster rap. Schoolly D is from Philly. Schoolly D laid the blueprint for gangster rap. You have a lot of the guys later on that came out, that became more thug-ish and had the criminal stuff. Even if they weren’t promoting gangs specifically, they had what became known as gangster rap. Somebody like Beanie Sigel, even Cool C and Steady B when they did the C.E.B. album, they went from the other type of rap they had done to morphing into gangster rappers. That's a very important city and something that people overlook.
What was gangster rap’s best era?
The best era of gangster rap is the best era of rap in general to me, which basically starts in ‘88 and then you can end it kind of wherever you want. If you want to end it in ‘93 with Doggystylebecause then you still get several of Ice Cube’s projects, you get Compton's Most Wanted projects, you get DJ Quik projects, you get Schoolly D projects, several Ice-T albums. I'd say ‘88 to ‘93 is the best five-year period, if you want to go that way.
Who is a gangster rapper that’s been hugely influential but hasn’t gotten their props?
Schoolly D. [laughs] I think Schoolly D is one of rap's most important figures. I talk about in more detail in the book, but Biggie remade one of his songs, Puffy sampled him, DJ Premier sampled him, the Beastie Boys have sampled him, Nicki Minaj used one of his flows in one of her singles. Schoolly D is hugely, hugely, influential and very important. I'm really excited to detail his legacy in the book because he's my favorite artist, my hero, and my idol. I was glad to be able to get him that mention, and to even include him in the title of the book and put his name on the cover. That was amazing to me.
How important is image when it comes to being a gangster rapper?
Image is very important because lately, we've seen a lot of people who aren't gangsters try to be gangster rappers. They try to hold up rags or claim a set or what have you, that either didn't grow up in Southern California or got famous and then started trying to do it. People like to be affiliated with it and proclaim it, even when they’re not. That shows the power of it. That shows how significant it is. That shows why Straight Outta Compton can come out so far after that album came out. The movie came out in 2015, the album came out in ‘88, and that image still resonates with people. The things that Schoolly D, Ice-T, Boogie Down Productions, Just-Ice, and N.W.A, were doing back in the mid 80’s is still super prominent. Look at everybody. It's cool in a lot of people’s eyes to be a gangster.
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.