Gangsta’s Paradise

(Tommy Boy)

Tha Dogg Pound

Dogg Food

(Death Row/Interscope)

By Franklin Soults

In the past few years rap music has become more profitable than ever, yet from where I stand it has never mattered less. Even though hardcore rap albums regularly top the pop charts, they seem to have little or no lasting impact in the cultural marketplace. If anything, their innovations are just technical refinements for the hip-hop cognoscenti, their rebel stance a mark of defensiveness and insularity. Given the racial mistrust and misunderstanding in this country–which makes efforts at integration feel almost counterproductive–it’s only logical that some rap fans take pride in the genre’s ever-strengthening independence. But if that reaction is understandable, those of us who believe in the mysterious power of cultural miscegenation see this trend as a one-way trip to irrelevance.

Two of the biggest rap albums of ’95 put this critique to the test–Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise and Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food. Like no other contenders, they are at least trying to demonstrate hip-hop’s continued significance. When put together they offer a de facto morality play between the Bad Rap Duo and the Good Rap Hero, staged in a media theater as big as the nation. Tha Dogg Pound–Dat Nigga Daz and Kurupt the Kingpin (Delmar Arnaud and Ricardo Brown)–demonstrate their “cultural impact” by earning all the official condemnation any self-respecting outlaw could want. Time Warner dumped the crew’s label, Death Row/Interscope, after the outcry over an album that does indeed embody Bob Dole’s “nightmares of depravity.” Coolio (Artis Ivey) couldn’t be more different. On Gangsta’s Paradise, his second album, this former delinquent and crack head has made a monumental effort to deepen the success of his rose-colored 1994 hits “Fantastic Voyage” and “I Remember” without selling out. Unlike any other multiplatinum rapper, he tries to show the “reality” of his hood without playing a gangbanger, a strategy that could potentially make him a rap superstar for everybody.

Ironically, these two contrasting albums became such big sellers for the one element they both have in common–music that came straight outta Compton. These days that refers not only to a neighborhood in South Central LA, but also to the influence of its most famous resident, Dr. Dre. With the multiplatinum success of his 1993 album The Chronic, Dre single-handedly replaced hardcore rap’s harsh, declamatory vocal style and deep, tricky mixes with casually disdainful raps and plush, simple grooves. If you want to be nice about it, you might say Dre opened hardcore to the pop market without compromising its rebel stance. If you don’t, you can say he turned the west coast sound into pimp music. Either way he’s largely responsible for rap’s newfound commercial strength, as both Coolio and Tha Dogg Pound have once again proven.

No surprise with Tha Dogg Pound–after all, they were Dre’s personal discovery. On Dogg Food Dre’s right-hand rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg adds guest vocals and Dre himself mixes most of the album to make sure it sounds like The Chronic Part II. Though it’s not nearly as catchy, its deep bass textures, whining synths, and casual beats supply the same long, hedonist mood trip as Dre’s original. Coolio can’t match Tha Dogg Pound’s canine fealty to their master, but you can hear how much he owes Dre on his album’s title track. In it Coolio transforms the haunting synth hook from Stevie Wonder’s melancholic and introspective 1976 song “Pastime Paradise” into a melodramatic motif signaling high gothic doom. It worked just like the doctor ordered too. Originally released on the Dangerous Minds sound track last summer, “Gangsta’s Paradise” quickly became the biggest hit of the year.

But if Coolio and Tha Dogg Pound share the ability to grab attention with their music, they differ widely in their ability to hold it with their message. Essentially, the sound of both groups registers as juvenile spectacle: broad, simple, disposable. Tha Dogg Pound never go beyond that. Like the records of so many gangsta rappers, their album offers a lot of violent sexual abuse of young black women and brutal slaying of young black men, with a smattering of narcotics abuse and homophobia on the side. These antics are supposed to make your jaw drop in disbelief; more likely it’ll only drop to release a loud yawn. At this late date, the only people who earnestly react to this warmed-over platterful of pathologies are high-strung school administrators, roles filled in this case by a record company and a presidential candidate (stern Principal Dole). If anything, Tha Dogg Pound’s “cultural impact” was just the firing mechanism necessary to set off a preplanned counterattack by these authority figures.

Like Tha Dogg Pound, Coolio aims his music at seventh-grade tastes, but to a far more compelling end. If the title track’s ominous tone is as simple as the tolling of a funeral bell, well, you might think Coolio has read Hemingway. Using as a model Stevie Wonder’s original lyrics about people stuck in a racist belief system, he drops a careful, thoroughly believable rap about a gangbanger doomed by his own code of violence. (The melodramatic chorus is handled by a singer named L.V.) He repeats this technique with other classic soul and R & B numbers throughout the album–Sly Stone’s strange 1971 meditation “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” is changed into a pledge of devotion to his kids, Kool & the Gang’s 1980 dance number “Too Hot” is turned into a public service announcement about AIDS, and on and on. It’s the most shameless series of hip-hop rip-offs since Hammer, yet it feels as innocent as the new words you make up to fit an old song. For example, he could have easily rewritten the Kool & the Gang hit as a simple pun on thievery. “Everybody wanted me to write ‘Too Hot’ about a car or some regular ol’ neighborhood shit,” he noted in a press release. “When I put it together, I knew it wouldn’t be what people expected me to do.” His version is as light as the original, but in the verse he drops rhymes like: “Everybody and they mama preachin’ abstinence / These kids ain’t checking for absta-shit / So put a condom in they hand and hope it don’t bust / Another victim of the lust, in God we trust / What started off as a plan ended up in a plot / Why they can’t cool it off, ’cause it’s too damn hot.”

Not every cut is as striking as this, but they’re almost all within the same range, alternating compassion, anger, humor, and frustration with slices of advice that never preach or condescend. Tha Dogg Pound demonstrate that even when rap reaches out today, it all too often grasps nothing but hot air. Coolio is a throwback. He sounds so easy, so inevitable, so poignant; he makes the loss of hip-hop’s booming, varied voice in the pop marketplace even more distressing to bear.