West Coast rap originally had little to nothing to do with gangsta culture. The biting, vicious gangsta rap that focuses on violence and anger—the West Coast rap that we have come to know today—was not found at the beginning of the West Coast rap scene. In fact, West Coast rap, as an entity separate from East Coast rap or Deep South rap, originated with the Watts Riots of 1965. Watts is a town just outside of Lynwood, south of downtown Los Angeles and north of Compton, that was predominantly an African American community. By the 1960s, Watts was an extremely poor town that suffered from some of the same issues many African American communities face today: a lack of employment and racist white police who harassed the black people who resided in Watts. This theme of corrupt, racist police is one that has permeated through West Coast rap until today, mainly because the issue is still prevalent through society.
In 1965, all of the tension in Watts rose to a boiling point, and the town exploded into six days of riots. The Watts Riots of 1965 were a civil rebellion that started after a racially fueled police traffic stop in August, eventually ending with thirty people killed, a thousand people injured, and three thousand people arrested. From the Watts Riots sprung the Watts Writers Workshop in 1967. The Watts Writers Workshop was an organization created by Budd Schulberg (a screenwriter and producer) that was supposed to give the residents of Watts a peaceful method by which to express their rage against the corrupt police and the racist American system. The Watts Prophets are the most famous group to arise from the Watts Writers Workshop, and they consisted of four poets and musicians named Anthony Hamilton, Richard Dedeaux, Otis O'Solomon, and Dee Dee McNeil all of whom had moved to the Los Angeles area from all around the country. They began to combine their experiences in Los Angeles with spoken word poetry, jazz, and Motown influences from outside of Los Angeles to create a new form of music—the spoken word over a musical backing track that soon became rap.
The Watts Prophets
One of the Watts Prophets' most famous songs/poems was called "What is a Man"
"What is a Man" is an early 1970s critique of the racism found in Watts and all around America. The Watts Prophets rap about how black people were treated as second class citizens throughout America, as white people "insist[ed] on keeping [black people] caged." They explain that "putting [black people] in a cage was a mistake" because all it did was "intensify hate" and lead to the Watts Riots. Essentially, the Watts Prophets blame the riots on the racism of white police officers; they argue that the Watts Riots of 1965 were justified. The Watts Prophets further argue that America should have spent time trying to solve racial problems within the United States rather than "fool[ing] around on the moon" and "look[ing] for another place to conquer" referring to NASA's Apollo program that ran from 1961 to 1972 and the Vietnam War, respectively. The Watts Prophets reference a common critique of America, one that calls America an imperialist nation that attempts to solve the problems of other nations around the world (like Vietnam) rather than its own domestic problems. Throughout the song, the Watts Prophets end each verse with the same line: "I threw another log on the fire." The Watts Prophets realized that they were creating controversy with their musical poetry; they accepted that they were throwing "log[s] on the fire" of racial dispute, but they believed that this controversy was necessary because "racial things...do take time." Overall, the Watts Prophets used this song to establish the fact that they were looking to create civil unrest that they hoped would facilitate the end of racism and aid the creation of racial equality for the African American community in America.