NEW BOOKS NETWORK -- In 1985, Greg Mack, a DJ working for Los Angeles radio station KDAY, played a song that sounded like nothing else on West Coast airwaves: Toddy Tee’s “The Batteram,” a hip-hop track that reflected the experiences of a young man growing up in 1980s Compton. The song tells about the Los Angeles Police Department’s battering ram truck, an emblem of the city under Police Chief Daryl Gates, and which terrorized largely African American neighborhoods across Los Angeles under his watch.
In “To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America” (Harvard University Press, 2020), historian at San Francisco State University Felicia Angeja Viator describes how rap leapt across the continent from its New York roots in the mid-1980s and took hold in Los Angeles. Often gaining popularity by word of mouth and mobile DJ parties, local groups like N.W.A pioneered a new, harder-edged, style of hip hop music that reflected their experiences as youth growing up in Gates era LA. Viator explains how the rapid rise of West Coast rap became engulfed in the culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s and shaped perceptions of the 1992 LA uprising. When gangsta rap hit the American mainstream in the early ’90s, the artform changed the face of popular music and American culture forever.