Beyond Boundaries pt. 1: The History of SD Street Gangs and Gangsta Ern’s Political Raps
June 13, 2011 28 Comments
Here’s something a little bit different for you this week. Mychal Odom is currently a professor of history at the University of Texas Pan American. However, hailing from Long Beach and spending 11 years in San Diego (he obtained his bachelors and masters degrees at USD), his primary research interest is the history of Southern California gangsta rap. He recently composed a lengthy essay entitled “Beyond Boundaries: The History, Culture and Politics of San Diego Gangsta Rap.” We’ll be looking at
three two select excerpts from his essay this week.
The first excerpt details the history of street gangs in San Diego and examines the socio-political aspects of Gangsta Ern’s music. The second excerpt available here talks about Complex of the E-Mortal Gang and his critique of police brutality. If you’d like to read the rest of the essay, you can download the entire essay by clicking here.
… the proliferation of local Bloods and Crips gangs—as well as out of town cliques from Los Angeles—formed the impetus for San Diego gangsta rap. According to Perry, drug dealing (and gang banging) as metaphor reflected an actual category of human existence as well as providing a symbolic method of communicating a kind of power within the hood, an overwhelmingly powerless context, and an exploitation of the power created by fear of the ghetto by outsiders (thug mimicry).
Street gangs are just as much a part of San Diego’s recent history as it is Los Angeles County’s. While San Diego street gangs and party crews existed before the 1970s, the first Crips and Bloods appear in the early 1970s. The East San Rapper and East Dago Mob Crip Lil CS explained that gangs are nothing new to San Diego in an interview he stated:
Muthafuckas underestimating Daygo, we got some heat out here, you know, muthafuckas been on that gangsta shit out here for the longest, you know people ain’t heard about Daygo that much besides Jayo [Felony] but they don’t really know how it is, you know what I mean? But there’s been Bloods and Crips out here almost as long as L.A. had em, you know L.A. started like in the late 60′s, Daygo’s first gangstas was prolly like 72, 73 or so, so we grew up in that shit just like they did.
The first gangs in San Diego were mostly Crips, while Blood gangs began to appear later on. Gangs appeared in San Diego via a Los Angeles County Probation Department effort titled “Operation Transfer.” African American gang members were transferred to San Diego, where they quickly began to re-create the budding culture already taking place in Los Angeles County. In 1972, a Crip was transferred to San Diego where he started a chapter of his Los Angeles set, the East Coast Crips. The San Diego gang was called West Coast Crips but retained the moniker “The Businessmen,” which was a nod to an East Coast Crips clique in LA (as well as an older East Side gang). Similarly, a member of the 5/9 Brims—a dormant Brim set in San Diego—was transferred to San Diego and created a new base for his set. The Neighborhood Crips and Skyline Pirus also have direct roots in Los Angeles County. From the early 1970s on, the San Diego and California street cultures mixed and gangs grew.
Southeast San Diego is where most but not all of the Black gangs still resided. Though the Crips were the first to settle in San Diego, the Bloods have grown so profoundly that some refer to San Diego as “Blood Capital.” San Diego is home to Crip sets such as: the West Coast Crips, Neighborhood Crips, East Dago Mob Crips, and Linda Vista Crips. Some of the Blood sets are the 5/9 Brims, Little Africa Pirus, Emerald Hills Bloods, Lincoln Park Bloods, O’Farrell Park Banksters, and Skyline Pirus. Throughout history, San Diego’s rap crews have reflected hood or gang loyalties as well as alliances: Wrongkind Records consists of Emerald, Lincoln and 5/9 Brims members; The E-Mortal Gang consisted of Neighborhood Crips; The Hound Foundation consists of 5/9 Brims; Bomb Leery rappers tend to be West Coast Crip; and The Mobstaz were East Dago Mob veterans.
Gangsta Ern, a 5/9 Brim was the first gangsta rapper to send shockwaves beyond San Diego. While Mally [Mal], a former member of the Emerald Hills Bloods, did not know Gangsta Ern, he bought his cassette tapes from the local shopping center, Fam Mart. He remembered being very proud that a San Diego rapper seemed to make it but also feeling sad in 1992 after finding out Gangsta Ern was killed. From 1986 to 1992, Gangsta Ern recorded raps that, similar to NWA and Ice T, transcended local gang conflicts and addressed larger issues. Two tracks, “Nation of Drugs” from his 1989 EP 2 The Hard Way and “That’s How it Happened” from the 1992 EP Up Against It, critique the cocaine epidemic, influx in the growth of the prison-industrial complex, racism, economic disparity and biased policing.
By 1985 and 1986, crack cocaine became a national epidemic. While many rappers neglected to address this in their rhymes others did. The crack cocaine epidemic gave rappers from West to East a common topic to address. California did not only experience the arrival of crack cocaine but it also experienced a rise in street gangs and easy access to weapons. All of these elements created a very unique experience in the streets of California. It also helped to separate California’s brand of rap—originally referred to as reality rap by Ice T; it was later branded as gangsta rap. While most of the historical analysis of this era has focused on rappers from the Bay Area and Los Angeles County, the rise of San Diego rap paralleled the others as opposed to following it.
Gangsta Ern “Nation of Drugs”
Similar to NWA’s 1987 track “Dopeman” but with a deeper analysis, Gangsta Ern critiqued the presence of the crack cocaine epidemic [on "Nation of Drugs"] and even suggested that the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations were complicit in crack cocaine’s appearance in Black neighborhoods. Gangsta Ern acknowledged, that “the problems over here started overseas” but also acknowledged the differential treatment by way of the criminal justice system when he asked, “The penalties are stiff for all drug addicts, but why don’t the drug lords ever get static?” While Democratic and Republican state and federal legislators were authoring tough mandatory minimum laws, Gangsta Ern’s tracks addressed issues that legislators of both parties would not address until almost a decade later with the release of Dark Alliance by journalist Gary Webb. Gangsta Ern extended his critique to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign when he rapped, “Why do poor black addicts go to prison, when rich white addicts all go to clinics?/They got a war on drugs, they’ll never win/Until the white collar crime all comes to an end/Nancy Reagan, she said say no to drugs/Did it work? (Hell No) All we got was blood.” In Gangsta Ern’s quaint observation, the disproportionate blame being placed on poor African Americans was not only racial but a poor allocation of resources. Gangsta Ern went on to state:
Kids selling drugs, to stay alive
While politicians in the closet, gettin’ high
All the check points, drugs still getting through,
Judges and lawyers, gettin’ paid off too
They don’t deal in g’s out the keys,
They deal in tons, from overseas
Cartels straight cut ‘em off,
So they mad, because they profits loss
So they ready for war, no matter the cost
Spending multi-millions and Bush is the boss
In a nation of drugs…A nation of Drugs
We got Bush on tv, making all these speeches
Wantin’ more money, but we know we gon’ need this
Push a drug war to the class who’s coolin’
Doin’ this and doin’ that but who are they foolin’?
You, not me, ‘cause I’m not buyin’ it,
Ask the politicians and they keep denying it,
Drugs in America, he says he won’t have it,
But how can he stop, a crazy bad habit?
My mother’s on drugs, my brother’s on drugs
Just because they use it, they’re labeled like thugs
Reagan to Bush, I really don’t understand
It seems like Richard Nixon, made this plan
In a nation of drugs…In a nation of drugs
But Gangsta Ern’s critique was not only applied to the government. His last verse was a warning to younger generations to not become political pawns:
We got a little workers that’s in every town,
Give ‘em a little forty and they try to clown
Give ‘em a sack and they pass it out
Not a street dealer, ‘cause you got the clout
Tellin’ all the girls that he got the dollar,
Walkin’ ‘round town wit’ gold on his collar
Rollin’ so hard, but it came to an end
Caught a federal case, now you in the pen
Pushin’ behind this is win or lose,
So if you come up short, that was the President’s move
In a nation of drugs.
Gangsta Ern “That’s How It Happened”
“That’s How It Happened” reflects what Imani Perry calls “hip hop realism”. Perry states, “hip hop realism is filled with metaphors and metonyms of existence that trouble listeners or commentators from a wide range of political, social, and intellectual perspectives.” But Gangsta Ern’s realism is not metaphoric, instead—in a reflection of the extreme local aspect of San Diego gangsta rap—Ern uses his verses to talk about senseless acts of violence that took place in Southeast San Diego and to even castigate OG gang members who have snitched on others gang members for fear of going to prison. The first verse of “That’s How it Happened” refers to the 1988 shooting death of Officer Jerry Hartless. While the facts of this case are worthy of a full-length book, it is important to point out that Gangsta Ern once again showed keen foresight when he proclaimed that the person the police arrested for the murder was not the person and questioned the reliability of San Diego’s confidential informants. The defendants in this case were eventually freed.
Reading be fun though: