Felicia Angeja Viator

To Live and Defy

A new kind of rap origin story

How is it that gangsta rap—so dystopian that it struck aspiring Brooklyn rapper and future superstar Jay-Z as “over the top”—was born in Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood, surf, and sun? 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, crime-infested housing projects, and graffiti-covered subway cars. To many in the industry, LA was certainly not hard-edged and urban enough to generate authentic hip-hop; a new brand of black rebel music could never come from La-La Land.

But it did. In To Live and Defy in LA, Felicia Viator tells the story of the young black men who built gangsta rap and changed LA and the world. She takes readers into South Central, Compton, Long Beach, and Watts two decades after the long hot summer of 1965. This was the world of crack cocaine, street gangs, and Daryl Gates, and it was the environment in which rappers such as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E came of age.

By the end of the 1980s, these self-styled “ghetto reporters” had fought their way onto the nation’s radio and TV stations and thus into America’s consciousness, mocking law-and-order crusaders, exposing police brutality, outraging both feminists and traditionalists with their often retrograde treatment of sex and gender, and demanding that America confront an urban crisis too often ignored.

What reviewers are saying

“[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

"Ultimately, To Live and Defy in LA is much more than the story of the creation of gangsta rap, the rise of NWA, or the history of early West coast rap in general. It's a cultural history. What one is left with at the book's end is the powerful idea of how art can be formed out of pain and suffering, and how injustice can be the crushing weight that can incite change." – Under the Radar

"This book was really fun to read... Felicia gives a comprehensive, interesting view of how this genre came to change our culture." – LA Review of Books Radio Hour

"Rattling hatchback trunks and terrifying suburban parents, gangsta rap went harder and further than everything that preceded it. Suddenly, everyone was listening and the media wagons began to circle. In To Live and Defy in LA, San Francisco State University professor Felicia Angeja Viator excavates this music's unique political, social, and mercantile origins." – The Wire

"[It's] an eye-opening, solid companion to resources like Slate’s third season of its podcast Slow Burn, about Biggie and Tupac, which delves into cultural panic and censorship, and Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which traces hip-hop’s evolution from the chaos of the Bronx in the 1970s. To Live and Defy in L.A. presents gangster rap as originally a people’s movement, albeit one with enough shock value and profit motive to make it ripe for commercialization." – KQED Arts & Culture

"Great book!" – Greg Mack

“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

"To Live and Defy in LA is a riveting social and political history of Los Angeles and the growth of both 'gangsta' and socially conscious hip-hop music and culture. Viator provides a breathtaking yet nerve-racking and uncompromising history that weaves in essential 'underground' information and insight, describing the contrasting beauty, violence, and racism of the city." – Marcyliena Morgan, author of The Real Hiphop and Executive Director of the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute

"The culture that spawned gangsta rap has never been covered with the detail and depth of Felicia Viator's To Live and Defy in LA. By devoting her attention equally to the era's superstars and the lesser-known participants in pop culture and public life – the Coalition Against Police Abuse, radio DJ Greg Mack, label owner Don Macmillan – Viator unearths the long-hidden Los Angeles origins of hip-hop's most notorious era." – Eric Harvey, author of Who Got The Camera?

Available at

Book cover of To Live and Defy, How Gangsta Rap Changed America by Felicia Angeja Viator