From Gunslingers to Gangsters to Gangsta’s
American popular culture has long been infatuated with the bad guys. In the pantheon of outlaw heroes a large number of mythical figures have become a part of American folklore. From Old West figures like Billy the Kid and Jesse James to Mob icons such as Al Capone and John Gotti to more modern day criminals like Pablo Escobar and The Supreme Team, the progression has changed with the times, from the gunslinger to the gangster to the gangsta.
American culture loves its bad guys; it’s like a national obsession with us. Pop culture has been fascinated with outlaw heroes since the Old West. The mythical legends of the gunslingers still resonate today. They are icons in modern society. As one generation has passed on its outlaw heroes to the next, new bad guys have taken their place in the chronicles of underworld and criminal lore.
In the 20th Century we had a different breed of bad guys- gangsters and rebel outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger- all the way up to more present day icons from the Mafia and Colombian cocaine cartels. Hip-hop has updated the genre even more with drug crews like The Supreme Team, hustlers extraordinaire with hitman mentalities and “get mine or be mine” attitudes.
A virtual cottage industry of movies, documentaries, books and magazine have emerged as Hollywood has glorified the criminal exploits of the chosen few, anointing them the Robin Hoods of modern society. And now with the internet and World Wide Web, sites and blogs have sprung up everywhere to romanticize and celebrate the worlds outlaw heroes.
Inspired by real life criminals, Hollywood has made the anti-hero a staple in modern cinema. From the litany of Westerns produced, characters such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have become household names. Daring and courageous gunslingers, who overcame impossible and dangerous odds to survive the turbulent and Wild West to become outlaw heroes of epic proportions. From the dime novels of the time to full length books to TV shows to Hollywood blockbusters, America has sated its appetite for stories of the Old West gunslingers.
These American counterparts to the Robin Hood myth underline our obsession with the underdog. The strong, by pure strength of will heroic villain, who takes the law into his own hands and succeeds by any means necessary. As our society has evolved from the wild frontier to a more urbanized culture so have our outlaw heroes.
Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lanksy- as America’s population diversified so did its bad guys. The Mob or Mafia and its wide array of gonzo characters have been highly romanticized. Movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather have seeped into our consciousness, entrenching the “Men of Honor” concept into our popular culture. Two more Godfather movies followed as did mobster dramas like Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco and more, which American audiences loved. From there, scores of documentaries, books and magazine articles profiling and interviewing mob guys have been produced and consumed by the public. With The Sopranos, Growing up Gotti and Mob Wives, the Mafia has become an accepted part of our popular culture. Forget about it.
In our never-ending search for the next outlaw hero, fictional characters from movies like Scarface and New Jack City have become our next favorite bad guys. Tony Montana might be the most celebrated gangster of all time and Nino Brown brought the hip-hop styled gangsta into flavor. With movies such as Blow, Traffic and King of New York, the cocaine trade has been explored and mythologized, making drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar a modern day anti-hero, whose face has graced numerous magazine covers, t-shirts, posters and DVD’s.
Hollywood propaganda has spawned video games, websites, and a number of other products, all aimed at the consumer, commercializing criminals and their exploits and turning them into celebrities. American’s craving and desire for infamous and notorious criminals has reached an all time high, as Irish mobsters like Whitey Bulger are portrayed in movies like The Departed and crack era drug lords like Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff are the basis for characters like Majestic in 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Gangsta’s like Supreme have been lauded in hip-hop lyrics, becoming urban outlaw heroes in their own right. Their criminal exploits have been turned into mythical and legendary tales that are commerica1ized by hip-hop.
As hip-hop and gangsta rap have exploded, our outlaw heroes have slowly become even more urbanized. Rappers like 50 Cent, Snoop Dog and Ice Cube have become household names and brands unto themselves whose music, movies and attitudes have translated to books, magazine profiles, video games and more. Their heroes from the hood have emerged into popular culture bringing gangbanging, pimps and drug lords into our stream of consciousness. Now the Crip walk, pimpology and crack barons such as Freeway Ricky Ross, the aforementioned Supreme and Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols have become the next evolutionary stage of outlaw heroes as the progression has gone from gunslinger to gangster to gangsta.
These street legends are an integral part of hip-hop culture. Before pop culture ever embraced them they were part of gangsta rap’s lyrical lore. The black and Latino gangsta’s from the crack era and inner-city underworld are taking their place in the pantheon of outlaw heroes and taking over where the Italian Mafia and Colombian cocaine cartel figures left off. The roll call is as notorious as it is infamous.
The Hollywood effect will be next, as movies of these drug lords will hit the big screen. Its already starting, as American Gangster starring Denzel Washington, has shown that this genre can be a commercially viable. It’s really nothing new, its just the same old Hollywood rise and fall narrative that has existed since the 1920’s, when Hollywood gangster classics starred famous actors like Edward Robinson and James Cagney. These new productions just add an urban and hip-hop twist, with the rappers staring in them themselves. Several films featuring the above drug lords are now in production and will hit big screens near you very soon.
But already a print frenzy has erupted as magazines like Don Diva and F.E.D.S chronicle these gangstas’ lives and the genre has its own documentary shows in BET’s American Gangster series and the History Channel’s Gangland series. Several true crime books have hit the market also, following in the steps of the Mafia and Colombian cocaine cartel true crime stories. It’s just the latest installment of America’s infatuation with the bad guy.
Rap and crack were both born 30 years ago and the criminal folklore spawned by the drug lords has infected hip-hop culture. The legendary figures of the drug game were once the province of myth and hearsay until hip-hop artists like Nas, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, Fat Joe, Noreaga and Jadakiss romanticized and glorified their exploits unapologetically in verse. Hip-hop has embraced and celebrated their ghetto superstars and as the music became more mainstream so too has the impact of their urban outlaw heroes on popular culture, which has promoted a national progression of the anti-hero from gunslinger to gangster to gangsta.