Gangsta rap is a form of hip hop, also called rap music, that first became a popular and controversial art form in the early 1990s. The first song to be part of this genre is usually considered to be the 1987 Ice-T song 6 n the Mornin. Earlier musicians likely influenced this type of music, and Reggae music has a long history of describing conflicts with the law. The Bob Marley song I Shot the Sheriff, released in 1973, predates most gangsta rap by almost 20 years.
Generally speaking, gangsta rap tends to reference illegal activities, including gang involvement, trouble with the law, prostitution, rape of women and many references to violence. References to violence were nothing new in music; heavy metal is replete with them. This form of rap often seems to glorify violence, however, as well as sanction gang involvement and drug use, and denigrate women.
Despite the controversial nature of the subject matter in gangsta rap, or perhaps because of it, it soon pushed rap into the mainstream, making it by far some of the most popular and best selling music in the US. Early artists include Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Spice 1, and Sir Jinx. They are considered some of the most influential people in the movement.
Rivalry also arose between west coast and east coast artists in gangsta rap, which furthered its unsavory reputation. Many feel life imitated art as this rivalry culminated in the death of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. lead Biggie Smalls. Though some, like Puff Daddy, claimed that the deaths had caused the death of the genre, albums continued to be made and were the most popular among hip hop fans.
What gangsta rap is vastly depends on the artist. Some artists like Ice-T are articulate and poetic, critics of the society. Gang life is not glorified but shown as the place where most poor blacks end their lives. Cops are viewed as abusive and racist. These experiences were taken seriously, especially from the early architects of gangsta rap, who were generally people who had lived the kind of lifestyle they addressed. Later, rappers were more imitative, and many find them less socially relevant, focusing only on the sensational instead of on social critique.
It should be noted that gangsta rap has evoked the ire of many critics. Some criticize the way in which it contributes to negative opinions about the African American community, or how it demeans women. Others see it as a threat to the security of society, and are infuriated by the obscene language.
Since the early 2000s, gangsta rap has started to lose its steam and more upbeat artists, like those in the "Crunk" movement, became more popular. Constant criticism by key members in the African American entertainment community, including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, may also to an extent have influenced this downturn in popularity. On the other hand, most music goes through phases of popularity, and it may just be that this particular genre has had its day and the public is ready for new music forms.