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How LA proved hip-hop could go global — by staying thoroughly local

Drakeo the Ruler, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Quik and N.W.A. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.
Walik Goshorn / Bennett Raglin / Michael Loccisano / Theo Wargo
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Getty Images / AP
Drakeo the Ruler, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Quik and N.W.A. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.


The primordial essence

If you grew up in Los Angeles during the '90s, you could teleport to the dawn of West Coast hip-hop through a simple twist of the dial. In the years before the '96 telecommunications act deregulated and degraded regional radio, the "urban contemporary" FM stations (Power 106 and 92.3 The Beat) still regularly mixed the old-school car wash classics rumbling right before the Big Bang.

It was like staring into the Hubble telescope ­— except no NASA project could compete with the supersonic levitation of Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce." Understanding the foundational component of LA hip-hop meant understanding The Funk. This was intuitive to the Raiders-hatted and Kings-jacketed masses mesmerized by productions from Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, Daz and Battlecat, Sir Jinx and Warren G, DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and Hutch of Above the Law.

After all, it was "the G-funk era." Dre and 2Pac recruited Roger Troutman tosing the hook on what became the de facto California state anthem. Ice Cuberemade "One Nation Under a Groove" with George Clinton sitting on a throne in the video. Defying commercial logic, Snoop Doggreleased singles with a grown-and-sexy Charlie Wilson. Even "Pistol Grip Pump," the biggest crossover from the subterranean hip-hop tabernacle Project Blowed, was unreconstructed militant funk.

Funk was the primordial essence in the collective DNA. Several years before Kool Herc's South Bronx "Back to School Jam," a B-boy tidal wave crested out of a South Central community college cafeteria. That's where commercial art student Don Campbell invented "locking" by hybridizing the "funky chicken" and the "robot." The locomotion's genius lay in its open-source design. After Soul Train relocated from Chicago to Hollywood in 1971, Campbell became a featured dancer and hisinterlocking joint freezes and rapid-twitch movements were soon expanded upon by polyester Baryshnikovs across syndicated America.

Wild style mutated. In Southern California, locking merged with popping, a spastic hiccup of jerky arm, leg and chest pops from the Bay and Fresno. By the late '70s, both coasts simultaneously codified the four elements. In LA County, Central California transplants teamed with Long Beach natives to form the iconic crewthe Electric Boogaloos. With gymnastic ground-floor innovations imported from New York, breakin' swept the inner city.

DJs and B-boys dominated. During the last days of disco, the founders of the pioneering World Class Wreckin' Cru and Uncle Jamm's Army — Alonzo Williams and Rodger Clayton — spun funk, R&B and soul in foggily remembered nightclubs. In '79, Williams consecrated Eve After Dark in Compton, the future Eden for theWreckin' Cru's teen breakout star, Dr. Dre. But the West Coast remained a step behind. Park jams required expensive permits. Considered a fad, LA hip-hop lacked its own Sugar Hill Records.

In 1981, two Air Force veterans, Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp, released LA's first official rap record after meeting at a club night welcoming Magic Johnson to the Lakers. "The Gigolo Rapp" was a brazen imitation of "Rappers Delight," right down to the label (Rappers Rapp) being owned an ex-Sugar Hill record salesman. Beyond the skill disparity, a key difference stood out: While The Sugarhill Gang interpolated the sleek disco-soul of Chic's "Good Times," the self-described "terrible two" from LA rhymed over the orgiastic sleaze of Rick James' "Super Freak."

James Brown invented funk. Most of its second-wave geniuses emerged from the rusting factory towns of the Midwest. But LA is where they eventually hung their sequins and lycra. Motown's arrival in 1972 augured the city's arrival as a world capital of Black music. By decade's end, Casablanca Records, the disco locus behind Parliament-Funkadelic, relocated to the Sunset Strip. Soul Train spawned SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records), which discovered The Whispers, Shalamar, Lakeside and Midnight Star. To make the bridge between eras more explicit, SOLAR co-founder Dick Griffey eventually co-founded Death Row with Suge Knight.

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If synth-funk supplied the vulcanized spine of LA hip-hop, it's because that's what its rappers, producers and DJs absorbed during their adolescence. As late as Bill Clinton's second term, terrestrial radio taught the sound of '82 alongside Tha Dogg Pound and Suga Free. What followed cannot be extricated from what informed it: Parliament's "Flashlight" and "Atomic Dog," Frankie Smith's "Double Dutch Bus" (where Snoop discovered his "izzle" slang), The Dazz Band's "Let It Whip," The Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," One Way's "Cutie Pie," Ronnie Hudson's "West Coast Poplock," anything remotely in the purple shade of Prince and every moment that Roger Troutman touched atalk box.

Funk animated the spirit of Los Angeles because it encapsulated the light-noir dialectic. Sparkling sheen and champagne excess clashed with pornographic rawness and grimy realities. It was hard enough for Bloods and Crips to boogie to, but smooth and bespoke enough to appear on Soul Train and American Bandstand. It is propulsive driving music made for perilous freeway chases and Sunday Crenshaw cruises. In the City of Quartz fractured by racial and class conflict, internecine gang wars, the barbarism of the Los Angeles Police Department and the debilitating effects of the crack epidemic, funk was both brick and mortar.

Fault lines rupturing

It was fitting that the first region to shatter the monopoly of the five boroughs would reflect its diametrical opposite. Dense claustrophobia, cold weather and arthritic subway cars made little sense in a horizontal land of abundant sunshine and alpine subwoofers. If East Coast producers dug in the crates for rare soul and jazz samples, '80s LA gravitated toward the hardcore (whether punk or funk). If New York was an island, the rest of the nation appeared closer to the strip mall sprawl of LA. Whether it was gangsta rap or bass music, Latin hip-hop or the triple-time chop technique incubated at the Good Life, this natural point of opposition only spurred its originality. California has always represented America's frontier, its future.

The fault lines ruptured in 1983. The low-budget documentary Breakin' 'N' Enterin' chronicled fluorescent MC and B-boy battles waged at the city's first iconic hip-hop club, Radio. KDAY hired Dr. Dre as "mixmaster" and Greg Mack as its musical director, setting 1580 AM on its path to become the world's first all hip-hop radio station. Labels finally saw commercial potential. Saturn Records unleashed Ice-T's firstelectro-funk raps, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis playing bass and keys on a break from touring with Prince. Macola Records scored the first all-city hit with Uncle Jamm's Army's "Dial-A-Freak," starring the jheri-curled lothario the Egyptian Lover.

Armed with a vocoder and turntables, the Egyptian Lover induced ecstatic freak-fests: hypnotically repeating his name like a robotic muezzin call while a pyramid of 32 booming Cerwin-Vega speakers reverberated with King Tut-waking 808 kicks. He was West Coast hip-hop's first true breakout rapper-producer, stress-testing subwoofers with a new strain of club music — the Angeleno analog to Detroit techno or Chicago house. And when a pre-2 Live Crew Luther Campbell booked the Egyptian Lover, the cross-pollination partially inspired the creation of Miami and Atlanta Bass.

But party music was only part of the equation. In 1950, an open white supremacist, William Parker, took the reins of the LAPD. Ever since, the city's Black and brown population had been under siege. By the '80s, Parker was long hell-bound, but his former driver and protégé, Chief Daryl Gates, inherited his mentor's streak of authoritarian cruelty. The booming crack trade led to bloody turf wars. The murder rate escalated to record highs. In response, the LAPD towed out six-ton tanks equipped with 14-foot steel battering rams to pulverize the homes of suspected drug traffickers.

Before Ice-T and N.W.A stoked national controversy, there was Toddy Tee. Along with his partner, Mixmaster Spade, the Compton native became an underground phenomenon, selling thousands of cassette tapes at swap meets. His 1985 anti-police broadside "Batterram" established the tradition of social commentary that defines much LA gangsta rap. And it was produced by Leon Haywood, the soul-funk Casanova whomDr. Dre sampled for "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang."

From there, it was a direct route to Ice-T. By 1986, the New Jersey transplant jettisoned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for something reflective of the do-or-die chaos of the streets. Philadelphia's Schoolly D may have released the first gangsta rap song, but the cinematic storytelling of "6 'N the Mornin' " allowed a generation to glimpse the possibilities. America's favored antihero archetype went from the Western outlaw to the swaggering mafioso, and now, the gangsta rapper — somewhere between Iceberg Slim and Al Capone, Billy the Kid and Black Caesar. Betokening his future in film and television, Ice-T had a polished script: describing a pre-dawn police escape down to the squeaking Adidas, the rubber band-wrapped stacks in his pocket, the dangling gold chain and the pistol close at hand.

There is a good chance that you are familiar with what comes next. The monolith with the $200-million grossing,Oscar-nominated biopic. Or at least you have heard the phrase "F*** tha Police." More than 35 years after N.W.A's debut single, "Boyz-n-the-Hood," it's difficult to overstate their impact, especially when considering the moguldom of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.

Eazy-E was the trickster patriarch. His business model, marketing acumen, brash hyperbole and eight-ball edge paved the way for Suge Knight's Death Row, Master P's No Limit, Birdman's Cash Money, Puff Daddy's Bad Boy and Top Dawg's TDE. The first to understand the full power of the medium for shock and awe, Eric Wright pulled up to interviews with hand cannons, showed up to a Republican fundraising luncheon to troll George H.W. Bush's White House and mocked the FBI for sending N.W.A a threatening letter. Underestimated by craft-obsessed elitists, he was the first to prove that a singular voice, style and attitude would always mean more than hollow syllable gymnastics.

Ice Cube will forever rank among hip-hop's greatest storytellers. When O'Shea Jackson headed to New York to collaborate with Public Enemy's Bomb Squad, the resulting masterpiece, 1990's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, proved that not only could the West Coast match the best of the East, it could produce the best rapper alive. No one better distilled the fury that Black Angelenos felt at the legacy of racist redlining, police sadism and socioeconomic inequality that led up to the '92 uprising. And after he transitioned into a respected Hollywood multi-hyphenate, Cube did as much as anyone to catapult hip-hop's societal critiques and cultural significance into the American mainstream, give or take an Are We There Yet?

Dr. Dre did everything but cure the common cold. With N.W.A, he established the template for the most commercially successful subgenre of all time. With The Chronic, his technicolor blockbuster reboot of P-Funk turned hip-hop into the default soundtrack of American party music. You cannot ignore the misogyny or record of abuse toward women, but production from hip-hop's Asclepius did help J.J. Fad become the first West Coast women rappers with a gold plaque. Without Dre, there is no Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent or Kendrick Lamar as we know them.

Rap sprawls out over the city

The global dominion of the Dr. Dre multiverse has often overshadowed the depth, variety and ingenuity of groundbreaking but less marketable artists: Quik and Suga Free, Compton's Most Wanted, Low Profile, King T, etc. As a result, West Coast hip-hop history is often reduced to N.W.A, Death Row (including The D.O.C., Warren G, Tha Dogg Pound, Nate Dogg and 2Pac), Aftermath — and "the rest." In more one-dimensional portrayals, gangsta rap becomes a steroidal and racialized caricature. Critics fixate on the guns, drugs and sex cliches at the expense of plaintive laments like Dre's "Lil' Ghetto Boy," MC Eiht's"Straight Up Menace" and Suga Free's "Dip Da," which explain the inner-city blues as effectively as Marvin Gaye (and more succinctly than any social realist novel). For decades, the lurid true-crime element of the East-West beef distracted from the artistic merits of anthems like "Trapped," "So Many Tears" and "Keep Ya Head Up."

West Coast Latin hip-hop suffers a similar flattening. With their multi-platinum success and multicultural breakthrough, Cypress Hill became bong-hitting avatars for an entire mode of LA Chicano life. (This is a major oversimplification considering that Sen Dog and Mellow Man Ace were Cuban, B-Real was half-Mexican and half-Cuban, DJ Muggs was Italian and percussionist Eric Bobo is the son of Willie Bobo, the Latin jazz legend from New York by way of Puerto Rico.) If theSimpsons cameo and the blurry distance from the early '90s made them the synecdoche for stoner rap, that stance ignores how radical Muggs' tomahawk funk and B-Real's pinched-nerve paranoia felt upon arrival.

It was actually South Gate's Mellow Man Ace — the older brother of Cypress Hill's Sen Dog — who became the first Latin rapper in the Hot 100 with 1990's "Mentirosa." Shortly thereafter, Kid Frost's "La Raza" introduced Yo! MTV Raps audiences to LA's Aztlan: Art Laboe oldies bumping from Chevy low-riders, revolutionary murals, bubble-letter graffiti and the chilling omnipresence of the LA County Sheriff's Department. The collective success led to a brief but significant Golden Age of West Coast Latin hip-hop that includedA Lighter Shade of Brown,Delinquent Habits andFunkdoobiest. If LA gang life was historically fraught with tensions between Black and Latin sets, hip-hop offered a unity that continues to this day with successors like OhGeesy, Peysoh and the late MoneySign $uede.

When weighing a half-century of history, it's worth considering who wrote the first draft. Most criticism and reportage of LA hip-hop has been constructed by New Yorkers, whose telescopic and narrow prism often determined merit and value. (Suga Free's Street Gospel got 2.5 mics in The Source. I will not elaborate.) With the exception of the short-lived Rap Pages and occasional articles in LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, LA artists never experienced the benefits of their East Coast counterparts, who had multiple publications stacked with native-born journalists to more subtly chronicle similarities, contradictions and block-by-block complexities.

This is why many narratives about left-of-center LA hip-hop are rife with reductive stereotypes. In these retellings, the underground begins with open mic nights at the Good Life, a long-defunct health food café located in South Central's bohemian enclave, Leimert Park. During the first half of the '90s, the artists who came through each Thursday night were frequently described as the "conscious, Afrocentric alternative" to the "vulgar" and "nihilistic" gangsta rap that ruled the charts. This notion was underscored by the no-cursing rules and the Good Life's literary and modal inheritance from the ur-rappers, The Watts Prophets.

But reality is slippery. The artists associated with the Good Life and its successor, Project Blowed, rank among the most technically virtuosic, hyper-musical and psychedelically creative artists to emerge from anywhere since Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie ran New York's 52nd Street. If you believe that aliens have long existed amongst us, the best evidence is Myka 9's 1991 astral revelation, "7th Seal." Even then, the South Central native was already a well-known commodity, having appeared and written on N.W.A's debut album, N.W.A. and the Posse. To complete the exchange, one of Snoop Dogg'sfirst recorded appearances came on a Good LifePlease Pass the Mic compilation with a track list that featured Inglewood gangsta rapper Mack 10 and Jurassic 5 (in their proto-form as Unity Committee).

Whether openly acknowledged or implicit, the history of the LA underground runs through Project Blowed. Co-founded by alumni Daddy Kev, DJ Nobody and Nocando (now All City Jimmy), the Low End Theory fused the Leimert Park avant-garde, instrumental hip-hop, Warp Records IDM, early South London dubstep and jazz to birth a constellation of stars including Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington — all of whom have collaborated with Lamar. The internationally celebrated club night hosted the debut show from Odd Future, inspired the sound of at least one Radiohead album, and has become enshrined in a late-night Valhalla alongside the Paradise Garage, the Tunnel and The Haçienda.

Considering LA rap means knowing that will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas was regarded as one of the greatest freestyle battlers ever — back when Eazy-E signed his group Atban Klann to Ruthless Records. It's believing the urban legend that Suge Knight wanted to sign Freestyle Fellowship's P.E.A.C.E. to Death Row, but decided that he was too wild even for them. It is understanding that LA's place as an epicenter of industry means that some of the best hometown rappers are actually transplants. It is Beck, raised in Silver Lake, beholden to no genre, but unmistakably forged in the crucible of gangsta rap. It is ScHoolboy Q dedicating songs toRaymond Washington overPortishead loops and Vince Staples, a Crip from north Long Beach, rapping over regenerated Detroit techno and house produced by SOPHIE and Flume.

Breakthroughs on breakthroughs

You can split LA hip-hop into subgenres all day, but space will always exist for the idiosyncratic. Take Delicious Vinyl, the eclectic LA label founded in '87 by Mike Ross and Matt Dike. A revered DJ who was once Basquiat's assistant, Dike and The Dust Brothers sculpted the sound of the Beastie Boys' sampledelic bricolage, Paul's Boutique. Apart from Dre, the label did as much as anyone to bring West Coast hip-hop to the masses. In 1989, they released the first two platinum hip-hop singles ever: Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina." Young MC's "Bust a Move" ushered in a family-friendly form of hip-hop that will forever live on wedding playlists. On The Pharcyde's sophomore album, Delicious Vinyl introduced Detroit's J Dilla (then Jay Dee), who became a permanent fixture of hip-hop production's Mount Rushmore.

Dilla eventually moved to Los Angeles in the middle aughts to become the latest Midwest visionary in search of a better climate and more economic opportunities. His instrumental tapes, Slum Village soul deconstructions and albums for LA's Stones Throw sparked a new phylum of unquantized sample-based hip-hop. Among the most inspired was his close collaborator Madlib, whose hallucinogenic odysseys in funk, soul and jazz made them the Pete Rock and Premier for a generation of analog romantics forced to digitally coexist with an algorithmic world. Most famously, Tyler, the Creator merged these ideas with those of The Neptunes to create his own carnival of sea foam funk and treehouse jazz. And when it came time to pick a stage name, Earl Sweatshirt found inspiration from Stones Throw artist James Pants.

Amid the post-Napster disarray, the LA underground thrived. People Under the Stairs and Murs and Living Legends toured worldwide and sold hundreds of thousands of vinyl records. Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples scored major label deals, and the latter even nabbed a Hot 100 hit with the Kanye West-produced "This Way." One of Dilated's first collaborators, the Beverly Hills-raised Alchemist, evolved from one of hip-hop's best hired guns into a legitimate auteur — transcending generations and standing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside his grimiest inspirations. Dom Kennedy built a lifestyle brand of laid-back blunt cruise rap. And despite the meddling of unimaginative major labels, San Pedro's Blu balanced tradition and futurism as well as any '80s baby.

Dr. Dre cast a long shadow over it all. Commercial hip-hop became the victim of Aftermath's near-stranglehold on the levers of the machine. The history of '00s major label LA hip-hop largely amounts to The Game, whose impressive ear for beats and shameless-but-endearing loyalty to his gangsta rap idols mostly compensated for a deficit of originality.

It briefly seemed like gangsta rap was dead. In the late '00s, a faddish dance-rap craze, jerkin', offered a party-friendly alternative in stark contrast to the last two decades of pistols and palm trees bravado. For about a year, entrepreneurial, sex-obsessed teenagers in skinny jeans formed large decentralized crews and went viral on MySpace hitting tricky dance moves over minimalist spaceships-on-Slauson funk. It briefly conjured an alternative reality where LA hip-hop went straight from Uncle Jamm's Army into the year 2009 — with a detour in the Bay to strip hyphy for parts.

Things swiftly reverted to the mean. The chief survivors of the jerkin' era were Compton's YG and his DJ-turned-producer, Mustard — whose ratchet beats laid sinister house piano plinks over jerkin's 808s. In the process, the discoverer of "Rack City" became LA's first hit-making super-producer since Dre. YG burnished his reputation with underground street hits, including "Bitches Ain't S***," a slightly altered rework of the G-funk original. To the young LA streets, YG and his across-the-aisle collaborator, Nipsey Hussle, became a millennial Blood-Crip iteration of "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted" — if each was one part 'Pac and one part Snoop.

As long as there are LA gangs, there will be LA gangsta rap. But as the subgenre got old enough to get grays, it required reinvention. Dr. Dre again had the answer. On his 2012 Aftermath debut, Kendrick Lamar unmoored the tradition from its post-2Pac stasis. good kid, m.A.A.d city was firmly rooted in gangsta rap signifiers: the threat of violence, regionally specific references to Tam's Burgers and Gonzales Park and cameos from Dre and MC Eiht. But it was unquestionably a generational update, complete withBeach House samples, cautionary tales about alcoholism and Drake brooding about girls posting seductive vacation pics on Instagram. Of course, Lamar's Compton genealogy remained an inextricable part of his music. To make his allegiances unmistakable, his next album opened with afunkadelic sermon from George Clinton.

As the last decade drained on, the realities of the street became radically distinct from 20th century cliche. To '90s babies, khakis, Chuck Taylors, old-school Chevys and smoking on "hydrochronic" felt like anachronisms from their parents' time. No one called it "gangsta rap." The voice of the latest generation was the convention-shattering "foreign whip crasher" Drakeo the Ruler. The South Central rapper claimed no gang, but rapped about his nervous lifestyle, which entailed driving around in a Rolls Royce Dawn with people trying to kill him at any given red light. He bragged about Neiman Marcus shopping sprees, sipped Actavis and beat a highly publicized murder rap after going up against the prosecutor daughter of the former district attorney. Liberating LA hip-hop from the orthodoxy that stifled it, Drakeo became the most original new stylist since Snoop. His flows, vocabulary and cadences continue to define modern California street rap.

Drakeo wasn't alone. His "evil twin," Watts' 03 Greedo, divined voodoo hymnals from Baton Rouge pain rap, radioactive Atlanta Auto-Tune and the triumphal spirit of the Jordan Downs projects. Greedo's "emo music for gangbangers" was warped, damaged and left blood on the tracks. While repudiating himself from the West Coast tradition, Greedo openly admitted his love for T-Pain, the Florida singer whose horny computerized warbles have come closer to Roger Troutman than nearly anyone.

The beat goes on

For those still alive and able to remember the beginning, it must all seem strange. The venues that nurtured hip-hop are distant memories. The bulldozers have come for the Sports Arena, Skateland and the After Dark. The Roadium swap meet no longer exists. LA's hip-hop stations no longer even regularly play local music — save for KDAY, which died and was resurrected two decades later as a classic hip-hop shrine. The soil has become too expensive. Widespread gentrification led to rising property values and community displacement. Popping and locking went to freaking to jerkin' to whatever is hot on TikTok this month. If funk remains an integral part of the tradition, it is now the cookout music of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, its influence a matter of generational osmosis.

Gangsta rap remains the first thing that people think about when they think about LA hip-hop, but the power has come with a price. Its tropes were truisms. What gave the tradition its life-or-death stakes has repeatedly trapped those caught within its vortex. Most recently, the gang-related murders of Nipsey Hussle and Drakeo the Ruler have cast a pallor over the city in ways unseen since 2Pac was killed — and both deaths were compounded by the local slayings of out-of-towners Pop Smoke and PnB Rock. If Greedo was the great remaining hope, a prison bid for drug trafficking robbed him of five years of his prime.

Despite the changes, LA remains LA. The lethal reality of the LAPD and Sheriff's Department — organizations plagued with high kill counts and brutality scandals — still prevails. The court system remains infamously corrupt. Everyday survival has rarely been more difficult. A quarter-century after gangsta rap became hip-hop's most popular form, what is now recognizably from LA has reverted back to its regional underground identity. Still, even if the sonics have changed, the themes of N.W.A remain as relevant as ever. But don't quote me.

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Where to start with Los Angeles rap:

  • Toddy Tee and Mixmaster Spade, "Batterram" (1985)
  • Ice-T, "6 'N the Mornin'" (1986)
  • N.W.A, "Straight Outta Compton" (1988)
  • Dr. Dre, "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" (1992)
  • Snoop Dogg, "Gin and Juice" (1993)
  • Freestyle Fellowship, "Inner City Boundaries/Bomb Zombies" (1993)
  • DJ Quik, "Down, Down, Down" [feat. AMG, Suga Free and Mausberg] (1998)
  • Tyler, the Creator, "Yonkers" (2011)
  • Kendrick Lamar, "m.A.A.d City" [feat. MC Eiht] (2012)
  • Drakeo the Ruler and 03 Greedo, "Out the Slums" (2020)
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Jeff Weiss