Dr. Dre and the language of gangsta rap
The hip hop world knows Dr. Dre as one of its most skilled producers and as a significant mentor to other prominent rappers – including Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and 50 Cent – but not as one of the genre’s most significant wordsmiths. However, Dre’s influence on the vocabulary of English is enormous even despite his lack of a marked lyrical prowess; there are several terms that he will be remembered for introducing and popularizing in American culture.
More than any one figure in the history of hip hop, Dr. Dre brought gangsta rap into the mainstream. A genre that emerged out of the hardcore hip hop scene on the US West Coast in the mid-1980s, particularly out of the South Central area of Los Angeles, gangsta rap offered a window into the violent life of African-American street gangs, often including criminal, profane, and anti-establishment themes.
Gangsta, which is a variation on the word gangster and reflects an African-American vernacular pronunciation of the word, originally referred to a member of a gang, but in its adjectival form came to more broadly refer to the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle, especially following the emergence of gangsta rap as a major musical genre in the US.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows this shift in detail, tracing five distinct senses of gangsta as a noun and adjective, with citations from rap lyrics included in the evidence. An early citation for gangsta meaning ‘a member of a territorial gang’ citing the title of the third track (‘Gangsta, Gangsta’) of N.W.A.’s seminal 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. (The hook of the song is ‘Gangsta, Gangsta! That’s what they’re yellin’.’) For the sense of gangsta as an adjective meaning ‘of or relating to gangsta rap or its performers and followers’, the OED cites rapper Lil’ Nation in the 1990 CPO song ‘Ballad of a Menace’: ‘As I groove a gangsta melody.’
Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang
Often cited as one of the most important hip hop songs of all time, and the biggest single off of Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic, the cultural relevance of ‘Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang’ cannot really be overestimated. But what exactly does the ‘G’ in ‘‘G’ thang’ refer to?
In this particular instance, it is likely that the ‘g’ in question is an abbreviation of gangsta, and that the ‘G thang’ refers to the ‘gangsta’ lifestyle of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. A related term is O.G., which stands for ‘original gangster’, a gangsta or drug-dealer with extensive knowledge or experience; Ice Cube memorably used the term as the title for a 1991 album.
In his online dictionary of hip hop slang, Matt Kohl notes that ‘G’ can refer to a ‘guy’ or a ‘gangsta’, and probably comes from the abbreviation of gangsta or god. ‘G’ is also used as a term of endearment, as in Sean E Mac’s greeting to Ice T in the opening skit of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous’: ‘Yo, Ice, what’s poppin’, G?’
Another mark that Dr. Dre has left on the hip hop world is the term ‘G-Funk’ (or ‘gangsta-funk’), which described a subgenre of gangsta rap that emerged in the 1990s, which employed synthesizers and unaltered samples from the 1970s funk collective of Parliament-Funkadelic (known as P-Funk).
Although Dr. Dre’s career as a producer encompasses dozens of albums and working relationships with as many artists, his own musical career – outside his involvement with N.W.A. – is often summed up by his landmark 1992 album The Chronic. The album that broke gangsta rap into the mainstream also introduced the American public to a choice new slang term for marijuana – chronic. According to the OED’s definition, chronic specifically refers to ‘high-grade or particularly potent marijuana.’ For more information on chronic and other marijuana-associated words, check out our post on the language of marijuana.
The OED cites the title track of Straight Outta Compton for an early example of word in the sense of ‘word to [blank]’, where word to functions as a greeting or compliment. The sense also appears in phrases like word to the (also your, my) mother and similar variants, which are used as ‘general expression of affirmation or agreement, or to give force to a declaration’.
The language of rap and hip hop has always been a strong populizer of new English vocabulary for several decades now, so Dr. Dre is just one of many rappers who appear in the citations of OED entries. Other notable artists cited in the OED include Ice Cube, the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Big Daddy Kane, Lauryn Hill, and the Beastie Boys.
Photo credit: Flickr/Jason Persse