Straight Outta Compton – And Into The Dubious Mainstream

As moviegoers flock to the N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) biopic Straight Outta Compton this weekend (it’s expected to earn close to $60M at the U.S. box office…the biggest R-rated opening ever for an August release according to USAToday), one can’t help but reflect on the cultural nerve the movie’s protagonists have touched, both now and over a quarter century ago when the historic rap group was still active.  The movie’s success, and that of the group itself during the late 1980s and early ’90s, can no doubt be partially credited to the life and times in which both entities existed.  In the late 20th century, although it wasn’t as well publicized outside of places like Compton, California, the topics of which N.W.A. spoke in their songs were uncomfortable ones but ones that needed to be brought to the American consciousness for there to be any attempt at justice for those who were oppressed.  This was proven only two months before the debut of their second full studio album, Niggaz4Life (also titled EFIL4ZAGGIN), when the Rodney King beatings took place in L.A. on March 3, 1991.

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The N.W.A. album, EFIL4ZAGGIN, became the first gangsta rap album to hit #1 in June 1991. It benefited from a landmark change in Billboard’s chart methodology just a week earlier, in which BB began using data from actual bar-code scans of sales, rather than man-made lists from record store managers. By contrast, their first full album, 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, sold more but only peaked at #37 on the chart.

Fast-forward to 2015, and those same topics and images (particularly those involving the treatment of blacks by the people who are supposed to be protecting and serving) are now more a part of our collective awareness thanks to social media and the existence of camera phones, and they are still just as prevalent.  There was little doubt (in my mind at least) that the themes of Straight Outta Compton – both the movie and the 1988 album from which it drew its title – would prevail in making this movie commercially successful.

But a further examination of the differences in what N.W.A. represented in its ’80s/’90s heyday and the life and times in which we now live would do this topic some justice.  It’s clear that the two biggest beneficiaries of N.W.A.’s fame – besides record companies and movie studios – are Ice Cube (who left the group in between its first and second proper studio albums) and Dr. Dre, who has become one of the most successful music producers and – arguably – the richest black entrepreneur in America.  The unlikely rise of Dre and Cube from the streets of which they spoke to their current high perches among mainstream America is both ironic and compelling.  Hence, most of this article will focus on N.W.A.’s rise as told from the perspective of an admittedly unexposed, unenlightened mainstream kid (myself) who 27 years ago only knew of the group’s topics from reading headlines and rap lyrics.

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Ruthless Records, owned by N.W.A. member Eazy-E and distributed by Priority Records during the group’s heyday, marketed N.W.A. as the World’s Most Dangerous Group during its heyday.

As I recall N.W.A. and its rise to fame, I’m reminded of where I was in the late 1980s…both geographically and musically.  I recall with clarity the year 1988 (when the album Straight Outta Compton was released).  I was entering my senior year at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.  I was a big music lover then, as I am now, and my main sonic diet consisted of pop, R&B and safe rap music (not very different from what it had been for the first two decades of my life and, as some would argue, since then).   Admittedly, I was not as moved by the late-’80s rap and hip-hop scene as I had been earlier in the decade when I followed the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Whodini as well as L.L. Cool J. and Run-D.M.C.

Despite my propensity for pop and R&B music (and safer rap), I was well aware of N.W.A., Boogie Down Productions, Ice-T, Public Enemy and other such fledgling acts – the street-knowledge purveyors who were rising to prominence in the late ’80s.  However, most of their music and lyrics (especially those of N.W.A.) didn’t resonate within my naive, sheltered, pop-oriented mind at the time.  In my view, N.W.A.’s music amounted to loud, sample-heavy, melody-less, profanity-laced noises to which I had no connection.  What their songs lacked in melody and musical content, it compensated for (or attempted to) with angry, in-your-face, misogynist and street-inspired “reality” themes of police brutality, sex, drugs, gun violence and other societal ills that just didn’t describe my immediate surroundings.  Sure, the sense of urgency and anger that fueled the rhymes of then-young Cube, Dre, MC Ren and Eazy-E, (and sometimes DJ Yella) represented a youth counterculture not unlike the anti-establishment, anti-war hippy movement of twenty years earlier, and it did so with young black America as its primary audience.  But the N.W.A. movement somehow missed me and those who were part of my immediate surroundings.

Instead, we were content with the limited amount of dance-oriented rap we consumed at the time.  Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” was popular, as were jams by Tone Loc, DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, MC Hammer (pre-Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em), Salt-N-Pepa, EPMD, De La Soul, Slick Rick, and LL Cool J.  Those artists created songs that resonated on the radio and on the dance floor, which was all I needed to satisfy my rap music palette.  It wasn’t until the 1990s when gangsta rap incorporated more clever sampling – with emphasis on beats and melodies – and became something you could also dance to (see hits by Biggie, 2pac, Dre, Snoop, Bone Thugz-N-Harmony and others) that I began to really embrace the sub-genre.

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Straight Outta Compton is largely credited with ushering in the gangsta rap sub-genre. This year alone, there have been nine #1 rap albums on the Billboard 200 chart, eight of which are by artists who can trace their style and lyrical content (or the freedom to use it) to N.W.A.’s breakthrough success in 1988.

Now, with a quarter century of hindsight and perspective available to me, I find myself listening to Straight Outta Compton in a different light.  As a man quickly approaching 50 (although I’m not as old as Dr. Dre), I’m well aware that the prevalent anti-establishment themes are just as uncomfortable to parts of mainstream America now as they were then.  That part hasn’t changed – and it still doesn’t reflect my immediate surroundings just as it didn’t in 1989.  However, there is a major difference between then and now.  Today, the music that delivers those themes has become a part of the mainstream – a huge part.  And its main delivery men, Dre and Cube, are as much a part of the mainstream as the music they helped pioneer.

If someone had told me in 1989 that, over a quarter-century later, Hollywood would be “celebrating” the release of a film about N.W.A., that same “dangerous” group who was once chided by the F.B.I. for its protest track “Fuck Tha Police” from the landmark 1988 album whose title the film bears, I would have had that person committed.  First of all, this was a group whose music – even by 2015’s standards – was way over the top lyrically.  Secondly, N.W.A. wasn’t even the best rap group out at the time (that judgment is where my 25 years of hindsight and perspective come into play).  They weren’t even the best socially conscious (if you want to call their music that) rap group out in 1988-89 – by many accounts, that honor belonged to Public Enemy.

The success of this new movie comes with the recognition that, even today, critics argue that N.W.A.’s legacy should not be celebrated because, unlike its contemporaries in groups like P. E. and B.D.P., Compton’s Fab Five wasted its gift and an opportunity to educate a socially unaware public, instead opting to issue obscenity-laced, narrowly focused tracks that ultimately laid the groundwork for what hip-hop was to become (and still is today).  Today’s hip-hop is predominantly a malicious art form, one that glorifies and perpetuates the ugly underbelly of the black community (and which largely profits those who aren’t African-American).  By many accounts, N.W.A., with all its N-word/B-word dropping and hedonistic subject matter, was arguably never really anything more than a group of record-company puppets who set “gangsta rap’s” wheels in motion and illustrated to corporate America just how lucrative and profitable the art-form could be.  And N.W.A. rarely offered anything to counterbalance the images – either musically or otherwise – further perpetuating the stereotypes that still dog African-Americans today.

Now that’s a huge social burden to place on a group of five young men who emerged from difficult circumstances and achieved fame in their quest for the American dream, something for which no person – rich or poor, black or white – should ever be faulted.  In fact, the more I think about it, maybe I’m giving N.W.A. too much credit (or blame) here because it’s probably more accurate to characterize Hollywood’s latest motion picture triumph as not being so much a celebration of the rap group itself, or any of the revolutionary, hard-hitting messages they delivered back in the day.  Instead, maybe it’s a recognition by Hollywood (through the unwitting help of Dre, Cube and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomika Wright) that this group’s greatest contribution to rap history may not have been their music but their story.  In addition to its against-all-odds and rags-to-riches sub-plots, N.W.A.’s story contains many melodramas (the Eazy-E/Dr. Dre/Ice Cube beefs with each other and with Ruthless Records label co-founder Jerry Heller, and the subsequent initiation of the “Uncivil War” between rap’s east and west coasts), all of which have the makings of a great screenplay.

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Dr. Dre and Ice Cube in a promotion for the movie (and likely Dre’s album, Compton). Even today, Ice Cube – 23-year-married father of four – would have you believe that scowl is reflective of his life’s current circumstances.

So Dre and Cube and the others who helped produce Straight Outta Compton – the movie, likely recognized that fact.  In fact, they wouldn’t have been the savvy businessmen they’ve both become had they not taken advantage of their vast resources and America’s current love affair with “reality” hip-hop to produce this film that serves to illustrate the art-form’s beginnings.  Certainly, Dre and Cube are no longer in the same set of gritty, Compton-based circumstances as they had just emerged from in the ’80s when they released their first albums.  The minute they put their rhymes on wax and sold their first million albums (which happened by 1989), they became businessmen, whether they wanted to embrace that street-cred-reducing title or not (I believe they’ve embraced it by now, despite the never-smiling scowls that fill their still photo shots to this day).   These two men are now the epitome of mainstream America, and with that status, they are likely better positioned to tell N.W.A.’s story, the Hollywood version.

Let me take a minute to remind you of just how far Dre and Cube have come since that landmark 1988 Straight Outta Compton album that has sold 3.5 million copies and is credited with ushering in gangsta rap as we’ve known it for nearly three decades.

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Ice Cube, who went solo between Straight Outta Compton and EFIL4ZAGGIN, released chart-topping singles and albums on his own and later starred in and produced some of the most memorable films of the 1990s and ’00s, including the Friday franchise and the family-friendly Are We There Yet.  With the help of the snarl that he made famous as part of N.W.A. and his solo rap career, he’s even become the face of commercial products like Coors Light beer.

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As for Dre, he’s arguably one of the most successful producers ever (see where he ranks on the djroblist of top black music producers by clicking here).  His Beats by Dre headphone venture has helped make him one of the richest black entrepreneurs in America.  And, as if he still needed to, he surprise-released Compton, the film’s soundtrack, which will debut at #2 in next week’s Billboard album chart with sales approaching 300,000 copies in its first week (this from a man who likely has already received his AARP membership card).

With those types of credentials, Ice Cube’s and Dr. Dre’s commercial successes easily overshadow those of fellow band mates MC Ren, DJ Yella and Eazy-E, the latter of whose career was cut short by his untimely AIDS-related death in 1995.  But even without their former group members joining them in their recent triumphs, the rags-to-riches stories of Dre and Cube (and to a lesser extent Eazy), as well as the success of hip-hop music since N.W.A.’s heyday, are enough to re-cast the mainstream legacy of the group in two ways.

First, there’s the legacy of its members, particularly Cube and Dre, who have morphed from gangsta-rap poets/producers into successful business moguls who now own their own huge slices of the American dream (and likely don’t worry about the police as much anymore).

Then there’s the legacy of the band’s music.  Gangsta rap has become, for the most part, as mainstream as any other form of music…perhaps even more so.  There have already been eight rap albums this year to reach #1 on the pop albums chart in Billboard, (with Dre’s album just missing the mark), and every one of them contain elements of what N.W.A. brought to the table with its landmark albums of a quarter-century ago.  And, while I didn’t embrace N.W.A.’s music during the group’s heyday, as a music follower, I can certainly give credit (or discredit, depending on your social perspective) where it’s due.

N.W.A. and its key members basically changed the rap game forever…and for that they will always be an important part of mainstream music and cultural history, whether we like it or not.

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The players and creators of the movie, Straight Outta Compton, which was directed by accomplished director F. Gary Gray.

Let me leave you with this video for “Express Yourself,” from the Straight Outta Compton album.  The video and song (which sampled Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s song of the same title) are probably the closest N.W.A. came to sending uplifting, socially conscious messages to its audience.

As always, thanks for all the love and support!

DJRob

For a listing of all the #1 rap albums in history to top the Billboard pop chart, including EFIL4ZAGGIN, along with access to a special DJRob Spotify playlist, click here.

And to see where N.W.A. ranked on the djroblist of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time, click here.

 

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