To Live and Defy in L.A.: How Gangsta Rap Changed America (Harvard University Press)

PLEASE NOTE: Due to public health concerns, this event has been postponed. Please email with any questions. 

We all take for granted how synonymous hip-hop music, which dominates the music charts around the world, is with American culture today. This is a product of Los Angeles rap in the 1980s, argues Felicia Angeja Viator in her compelling new history TO LIVE AND DEFY IN LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America (Harvard University Press). Her book tells a unique story about black LA to explain how and why the region's rap artists, labels, and audiences forever transformed American popular culture.

Viator, who worked for years as a DJ, tells the history of a sub-genre of hip-hop considered so dystopian that it initially struck aspiring Brooklyn rapper and future superstar Jay-Z as "over the top." In the Reagan era, hip-hop was understood to be the music of the inner city and, with rare exception, of New York. Rap was considered the poetry of the street, and it was thought to breed in close quarters, the product of dilapidated tenements, drug-infested housing projects, and graffiti-covered subway cars. To many in the industry, LA simply wasn't hard enough to generate "authentic" hip-hop. The assumption was that defiant black youth music couldn't come from La-La Land. Yet, by the end of the '80s, these self-styled “ghetto reporters” from Compton, South Central, Inglewood, Crenshaw, and Long Beach had fought their way onto the nation’s radio and TV stations, and thus into America’s consciousness. In doing so, they exposed the nation to police brutality, mocked law-and-order crusaders, outraged moral guardians, minted rebel anthems, and demanded that America confront its flaws.

From Eazy-E and Toddy Tee to Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, Viator takes readers inside the world in which they were born and raised, giving fresh insight into the formative influences on their music. Concluding with Kendrick Lamar’s political and powerful 2016 Grammy Awards performance, which was praised as the most important performance in perhaps the entire history of the award show, Viator connects the current LA rap scene to the Black Lives Matter movement. One can't understand Lamar's art nor his powerful pop culture platform, Viator says, without understanding what LA rappers managed to do in the late 1980s. The lasting legacy of LA gangsta rap is not a hip-hop genre co-opted by the mainstream, but rather a twenty-first century pop culture landscape co-opted by hip-hop.

Praise for To Live and Defy in L.A.:

“Rich with drama and details, To Live and Defy in LA tells the story of Los Angeles hip-hop during the eighties, a much-mythologized but often misunderstood period.”--Hua Hsu, author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific

"[H]er understanding of the hip-hop music and the musicians that first emerged from the streets of LA in the '80s is deep and profound."--LA Weekly

Felicia Angeja Viator is Assistant Professor of History at San Francisco State University. Prior to writing about music, she worked as a DJ in the Bay Area, where she was born and raised.

Event date: 
Friday, March 27, 2020 - 7:30pm
Event address: 
1818 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America Cover Image
ISBN: 9780674976368
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Harvard University Press - February 25th, 2020