Bang! The Long, Loud History of Gunshots in Music

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From Tchaikovsky to NWA to Madonna, firearm noises have been used to amp up songs' drama—and have sometimes caused real-world drama themselves.

RihannaGun man down 615.jpg

Rihanna in her "Man Down" video.

Don't call it a comeback, or even a sequel—no, on Nicki Minaj's new album, the rapper (along with her diabolical alter-ego, Roman), is Reloaded. The gun metaphor in the title is apt: The record boasts a full clip of frenetic rap and booming dance numbers that Minaj will spend the coming months unloading on the public in a vibrant barrage.

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But in case the conceit isn't clear enough, she uses the title track to emphasize it. "Roman Reloaded" starts with the click of a gun's hammer being cocked, followed by a loud shot in time with Minaj's voice: "Bang. My shit bang. B-bang, bang."

Bang, indeed. Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded debuted on the Billboard 200 chart this week at No. 1 (with a bullet?) according to figures released Wednesday, unseating Madonna's MDNA. That makes for two consecutive weeks in which the bestselling albums in the country have songs that feature gunshot sounds figure prominently: Minaj's "Roman Reloaded" and "Gun Shot," and Madonna's "Gang Bang" (and if we're counting music videos, Madge is the target of a drive-by shooting in that of her lead single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'").

Cue parents' councils' handwringing about a new, violent normal in pop music? Maybe not. A look back through the charts reveals that the shots discharged on Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded and MDMA are right on schedule. The rate of rifle sounds in mainstream releases has been sporadic but consistent over the past few years: The last big album to feature them was Eminem's Recovery in 2010, and a gun is fired at the end of Rihanna's single "Russian Roulette," from her 2009 album Rated R. At various in times in history, firearm clacks have been the sonic tool of hardened rappers, Caribbean dancehall DJs, scorned country singers, and even 19th century classical composers. It's been a used as token of aggression, a nod to historical battles, and a shortcut to starting parties—making it one of the most surprisingly pliant gimmicks that music has.

In Jamaica, the sound was 'used as a metaphor to suggest that something reflects the power of a police or militia officer.'

What's perhaps different now—a micro trend, but noticeable nonetheless—is how female pop stars like Minaj, Madonna, and Rihanna have picked up the pistols to communicate empowerment and dominance. Certainly that was the case with M.I.A., whose 2007 sleeper hit "Paper Planes" used gun blasts in its chorus as percussive shorthand for a symbolic armed robbery—the sound of the third world coming to eat the first world's lunch. Where other musicians might have distanced themselves from what could be seen as a gimmick, M.I.A. appears to have adopted it as something of a calling card, one that reinforces her self-styled agitator image. In February, she bust a cap during her rap cameo in the video for Madonna's "Give Me All Your Luvin'," and pointed her gun fingers in her own single, "Bad Girls."

Credit M.I.A., then, for updating a well-worn rap staple that has circulated through the genre for at least 20 years before "Paper Planes." Some of the most renowned gunshots in music belong to the 1980s and '90s eras of Los Angeles gangsta rap and its Scarface/Goodfellas-inspired New York counterpart, through songs like NWA's "Gangsta Gangsta," Eazy-E's "Eazy Duz It," Dr. Dre's "Bang Bang," Nas's gun-personifying "I Gave You Power," Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Brooklyn's Finest," and Mobb Deep's "G.O.D. Pt. III," to name a few of thousands. These days, firearm-obsessed rappers like Gunplay and Waka Flocka Flame carry on the tradition—the latter's "Luv Them Gun Sounds" and "Bustin At Em" advance the cliché almost to the point of parody.

As hip-hop made the sound of firearms mainstream, did the public become desensitized to it? The censors at MTV still found the gunshots on "Paper Planes" too hot for TV in 2007, replacing them with less-recognizable, muffled thumps. Ditto for CBS, which put a silencer on her Late Show with David Letterman performance. As you can imagine, M.I.A. was not pleased, posting on MySpace that MTV "sabotaged" her video. As for Letterman: "I felt soooooo bad for what they did to my sound .... on the actual taping my sound was sooo different from what I'd agreed." Writing in the Village Voice, music critic Tom Breihan accused MTV of hypocrisy over the move. "The weird thing about all that is that MTV is totally cool with airing commercials of movies or video games that prominently feature guns," he wrote. "Any impressionable little kids watching MTV are learning that violence is cool anyway. So why bother removing gunshot noises from a song? Would the uncensored version of 'Paper Planes' really offend anyone?"

In their book In the Limelight and Under The Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, authors Diane Negra and Su Holmes regarded MTV and CBS's censorship of the gunshots on "Paper Planes" as a form of cultural discrimination: "What these moments suggest... is a discomfort in broadcasting such sounds and images in association with a figure such as M.I.A. An exotized, female Other preaching against assimilation into U.S. capitalistic culture was obviously deemed by producers as too disruptive a spectacle to be sending out to Late Show and TRL audiences."

Drake's 2010 music video for "Find Your Love" was also scrubbed of its gunfire by MTV. At the end of its uncensored version, the rapper is murdered by his love interest, with three shots heard as title cards appear onscreen. The video's director, Anthony Mandler, complained that the network's censorship had somewhat diminished the clip's narrative power: "whether it's guns or bullets, or sound effects or things that create the whole story," he told MTV UK.

The network also silenced Lady Gaga saying the words "gun" and "Russian roulette" on her 2008 hit "Poker Face," as well as "gun" and "bullet" from Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks" in 2010. At the same time, they did air a cleaned-up version of Rihanna's "Russian Roulette" and left Green Day's "21 Guns" untouched in 2009.

The gunshot sound in music is likely an import from a time and place that never had to take broadcast censors into account: Jamaican dancehall reggae culture in the late '70s and early '80s. One of its earliest entries in the genre came in 1982, on Michael Palmer's "Gunshot A Bust," continuing through to Eek A Mouse's 2004 track "Lick Shot" before Vybz Kartel's "Mi Talk With Gunshot" in 2008, and so on (Minaj's "Gun Shot" features reggae star Beenie Man). Dancehall DJs' samplers are usually equipped with an arsenal of gun samples. Ethnomusicologist John Constantinides explained the cultural origin of the sound in his University of Montreal thesis, The Sound System: Contributions to Jamaican Music and The Montreal Dancehall Scene:

"Originally, the deejay would call out a respectful legal! (as in members of the law) to the militiamen around the dancehall, inviting a gunshot salute in return (or vice-versa). The call was later used as a metaphor to suggest that something reflects the power of a police or militia officer. Sound effects which can be commonly heard at dances and on recordings include firecrackers, air horns and gunshots (real or imitated). These are essentially used to heighten the energy of the dance and reflect the celebratory nature of these events. They can also serve as a communication tool for the audience in reaction to the performance. Historically, gunshots either came from lawful persons as a salute, or from gangsters seeking to disrupt the dance (referred to as licking a shot in Jamaican slang). Their inclusion on the records serves as a reminder of live events and adds to the intensity of a piece."

There are a few instances of recorded shots that preceded dancehall. Bill Withers' 1971 song "Better Off Dead" ends with a loud shotgun report. And some songs used drums to simulate the sound of guns for storytelling purposes: a drum fill on the Bobby Fuller Four's 1966 version of "I Fought The Law," and Jimi Hendrix's electric imitation of a machine gun in his Vietnam War statement "Machine Gun," as examples.

If there's one common thread between almost every musical shot mentioned here, it's narrative: They all intend to convey to listeners the visceral quality of gun-related experience, often serving to illustrate tales of suicide, like on Eminem's "Space Bound," the conclusion of The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Suicidal Thoughts" in 1994, and Pink Floyd's 1983 song "The Final Cut."

It's not a purely modern trope, either. Musicians have used artillery to engender shock for centuries, dating back to classical music of the late 1700s. As conductor Leon Botstein wrote in The New York Times, "The anticipation and experience of soldiers marching and the ominous sounds of battle have been captured by music." Sometimes this has been done quite literally, the most obvious example being Tchaikovsky's "The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, Op. 49," a.k.a. the "1812 Overture," with its climactic cannon part. This was actually not the Russian composer's idea—less famously, Italian opera composer Giuseppe Sarti did it first with his "Te Deum," also known as the "Russian Oratorio" in 1789 to celebrate the Russo-Turkish War's Seige of Ochakov. Beethoven also tried his hand at composing with sounds straight from the battlefield. His "Wellington's Victory," a commemoration of the Duke of Wellington's triumph at the 1813 Battle of Vitoria in Spain, calls for muskets. It's known as one of Beethoven's worst works.

As for the future of gunshots in music, the only certain thing is that they do indeed have a future: M.I.A.'s as-yet-untitled fourth studio album is set for release this summer.

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Jason Richards is a writer from Toronto who has contributed to New York Magazine, Gawker, and RollingStone.com.

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