Many writers mourning the death of our 40th president fail to mention that Ronald Reagan's administration brought on a poverty and despair that inflicted an entire generation of minorities and changed the sound and reality of ghetto life from a pursuit of the dream deferred into a descent into the American nightmare. The children of that era are many of the progenitors and purveyors of modern hip-hop, and Reagan's presidency single-handedly changed that music. Ronald Reagan is hip-hop's first president, and while America mourns, rappers are still rapping about the rusted legacy he left behind.

His turn to the political right and its affects on the inner city are best chronicled in what so many have come to call 'gangsta' rap and not in the history books. While hip-hop culture had been a vibrant thing long before Reagan's administration, his policies coalesced the Jamaicans, Black Americans and Latinos under the same struggle and as their lifestyles changed, so did the music that filled their streets. Whether politically conscious or celebratory, the fact is there is no such thing as 'gangsta' rap: Rap music is just hip-hop journalism, and its job is to report about the people, places and times that incubate it. The Reagan era was all about hard times and surviving at any cost for a lot of us.

East Cleveland, the inner-city suburb where I grew up, was changing but it wasn't a dangerous place in 1980 when I was a ten-year old kid. You could still walk the streets unmolested, and everyone knew everyone for blocks. It wasn't glamorous, but people were content--and it was home to me. Two years after I moved to suburbia to pursue a better education, I felt like my mom and I crashed landed somehow: somewhere on the way to a 'better life,' we'd made a wrong turn. I didn't know much about politics, but I knew that after Ronald Reagan got elected, my mother had to work a lot more and a lot harder for less than we'd ever had. I went from eating cheese by the slice to cutting it off of a chunk, making powder and water into milk and my mom monitoring me by phone between jobs. In fact, all my friends parents were working harder and longer and it showed. In 1982, parents were on the clock and kids were on the streets. And Grand Master Flash's new record was banging from every car window:

Don't push me, cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to loose my head
It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

Reagan had been the subject of a number of hip-hop novelty records---in fact he was probably the first president mentioned by name. Melle Mel didn't mention him by name, but he didn't have to. I didn't know anybody outside of my grandfather who was tuned in to politics, but when the rapper stopped rappin', me and everybody else on the streets got The Message.

The desperation Reagan brought on made the America's inner cities very dangerous places to live and that is reflected in the art and music that came out of them. Mario Van Peebles 'New Jack City' dramatizes the birth of the crack trade and encapsulates a pervasive idea in the caricature of nihilist drug kingpin Nino Brown, who says with an evil grin 'You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan Era.' For many black folks, rarely had such a truism been spoken onscreen. Brown was just like many other young black men, tired of playing by the rules of a gamed seemingly rigged against them, and desperate for their own piece of the pie.

Reagan was ambivalent about civil rights legislation and cuts to social programs, and consequently, he widened the prosperity gap and accelerated a caste system in the black community. While some did well, many on the come-up were pulled back into the bowels of poverty, and they in turn formed the underground economy documented in Peebles' film, the first true hip-hop video verite'.

In the course of a few years, hip-hop went from being a celebration of a hard but tolerable life into the cries of youth on fire. Reagan's new conservatism was the impetus that changed the attitudes of peoples of color for a generation or better.

Hip-hop lost its innocence in the Reagan days.


jimi izrael ( is a journalist and opinion writer living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Philadelphia Enquirer. His column appears every-other Weds. On, and he blogs occasionally at