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20 years after Tupac Shakur’s death, a St. Louis author looks back on the birth of West Coast rap

2Pac (Tupac Shakur), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Sr.) and Eazy-E (Eric Lynn Wright).
Wikimedia Commons
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2Pac (Tupac Shakur), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Sr.) and Eazy-E (Eric Lynn Wright).

St. Louis-based journalist and author Ben Westhoff has written for outlets such as Rolling Stone, Vice, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal. He also wrote for the Riverfront Times and is the former music editor of L.A. Weekly.

It was during that stint in L.A. when Westhoff took the opportunity to interview the surviving original musicians who birthed the West Coast rap scene. Through those interviews and more, which evolved over the years, Westhoff recently published “Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Easy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and the Birth of West Coast Rap.”

West Coast rap of the ‘80s and ‘90s, often known as gangsta rap, often used lyrics and themes that brought life to a “thug” or “gangster” lifestyle. The hip-hop form continues but not with the same name: you can see its influence on trap and ratchet music today, Westhoff said.

The book was released on September 13, the 20th anniversary of the Tupac Shakur’s drive-by shooting death, which remains a mystery.

In the book, Westhoff charts the rise of hip-hop group N.W.A., which was the subject of the Academy Award-nominated movie “Straight Outta Compton” last year. He also follows the life and death of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

When Westhoff was growing up in Minnesota, he remembers hearing about Compton — that’s part of what brought him to write “Original Gangstas.”

“There were movies like ‘Boyz n the Hood’ and ‘Menace II Society,’ places like South Central and Compton, which seemed simultaneously like a very cool place but also a very scary place,” Westhoff said. “And, indeed, in the 80s and 90s, there was a historically high murder rate. The Crips and the Bloods were clashing, it was the explosion of the crack cocaine era … it was from those circumstances that this music really arose and N.W.A. sought to bring it to mainstream America.”

Westhoff said you don’t necessarily have to be the world’s biggest hip-hop fan to get something from the book. Names like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are still huge players in the pop culture world today. Likewise, Westhoff draws connections between the black empowerment message put for from music of that time, which he argues informs the Black Lives Matter movement today. Songs like N.W.A.’s “F*** the Police” have been used at protests from Los Angeles to Ferguson as a way to galvanize members of those movements.

Journalist and author Ben Westhoff poses with his new book, "Original Gangstas."
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
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Journalist and author Ben Westhoff poses with his new book, "Original Gangstas."

“I really focused on storytelling,” Westhoff said. “You don’t have to be a hip-hop fan, you don’t have to know this music to appreciate it. It is really a story about underdogs who grew up in tough situations and succeeded despite that and went on to influence world culture in ways no one could have imagined.”

Westhoff also aimed to complicate the narrative about some of these figures in hip-hop, who are often portrayed in a solely negative light.

For example, although N.W.A. rapped about “8 Ball,” malt liquor, they would often pour out the bottle before a concert and replace it with apple juice.

“They rapped about some very serious social problems but they themselves tended to live more on the straight and narrow,” Westhoff said.

Westhoff will speak at Left Bank Books about his book on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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