So, about 2 months ago (at the time of writing this) I’m patrolling the YouTube movie trailer domains and I stumble across NWA’s cinema bound biopic. I had no idea this was even being done and what’s more I was bracing myself for some cheaply made daytime TV bound garbage that didn’t do the impact that crew made any justice at all. As it turns out I couldn’t be more wrong, so what’s the first thing I do after watching the trailer twice?…. I listen to the album that it’s named after from beginning to end.
Straight Outta Compton is one of the few releases in music history (let alone Hip Hop history) that cannot be properly scrutinised without acknowledging the significance, as well as the quality, of its music. The albums (and by proxy its creators) relationship with the media brought about a huge anti Hip Hop media driven undercurrent that will probably never completely go away. The clash between two generations of the music buying public, the mass broadcast of the tensions between the police department and the black community, the right to freedom of speech, the power of the media, civil rights (again), bigotry, sexism, gang violence and more were all brought to the worlds attention when O’Shea Jackson Sr uttered the most potent of opening bars “Straight Outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, from the gang named niggas with attitude; When I’m called off, I got a sawed off, squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off”.
“Whenever the media shows California, all they picture is beaches and pretty girls; they never go to our neighbourhood.”
Even by themselves those words were an immediate release for much of the frustration, angst and outright anger that many of the younger generation who lived and/or struggled on housing estates, projects or ghetto’s the world over, were harbouring. When coupled with a video that sent shivers down suburban America’s spine the effect can be multiplied a thousand fold. People who had never before spoken out were doing so with vigour. Overnight superstardom, anti-heroism and near systemic denunciation heralded the arrival of one of controlled US media’s greatest foes (or pastimes depending on your view of American media). The onslaught against NWA and Gangster Rap in general bordered incessant on some news networks.
“These rappers are role models for millions of impressionable youths. Teenagers are already trying to emulate how the hip-hop artists dress and talk. Will they now act like their heroes? Maybe the more relevant question is: Why even risk it?”
The key to the greatness of the album’s music at that time was that the quartet were simply taking a leaf out of catchphrases book and saying what they were seeing. Their detractors could lay into them, their characters and their off the mic activities as much as they liked but as hard as one or two critics tried, once you go beyond the song titles, apart from their graphic nature, the lyrical content itself simply could not be questioned. This wasn’t simply gangster Rap, this was a documentary with a sociopolitical edge.
“The parents, the police and the people of the local community are scared of what we say. We use the same kind of language as the kids use every day. In the black community, the ministers and teachers don’t deny that the problems we rap about exist, but they’d rather sweep it under the rug.”
That the FBI felt the need to issue an official warning over the lyrical content of Fπ¢¥ The Police would normally tell you all you need to know about the song. But quite apart from the overtly threatening rhetoric is a subversion of what was (as far as NWA and their peers were concerned) the legal norm. With that naked lack of respect and aggressiveness they were parodying many a prosecution lawyer’s own methods of ‘getting their man’. It is a clever piece of marketing to knowing full well that the song title was going to get attention, the wheels were already in motion and Dr Dre serving as the judge was damn near clairvoyance considering what he has now become.
What Nas did with ‘I Can’ and ‘Tupac did with Keep Ya Head Up’ the Ns With Attitude had already done with Express Yourself. This was the antithesis of everything else on the album in both subject matter and delivery. It served as an uplifting reprieve on the brow beating, uber machismo shown on every other track with ‘gangsters’ deriding the smoking of weed because, amongst other things, it dulls your mic skills. Its superior remix was more than enough of a head nod for those of us of a more neck snappy nature plus it utilised what will forever be one of the catchiest hooks in Hip Hop history.
“Wherever you go, reality is there to set you straight. There’s no Utopia nowhere, you know.”
The shrewd, market savvy prowess on show didn’t end there. While tracks like If It Ain’t Rough, Parental Discretion Iz Advised and Something Like That were harder with their lyrical content and they were much easier on the ears than the title track and FTP. Whether or not this was completely deliberate the fact remains that playing the album from front to back would be a lot less bearable for the parents of those kids who were buying into Hip Hop for the first time, if they were playing thirteen versions of Straight Outta Compton non stop. Plus there is a playful element to much of what is on show that is hard to ignore. To this day however I still feel that Something 2 Dance 2 should not have been anywhere near this album. I can understand the sentiment with 2 Live Crew doing their thing but throw away bonus or not, it just doesn’t belong.
“We’re a group that demands and deserves respect. There’s still some people that don’t give us the respect that we demand. There’s no ifs ands or buts. You give us our respect! We sell a lot of records.”
But waste of playing time aside their is a reason that the number of truly socially (and to an extent politically) influential Hip Hop releases that is Hip Hop is few and far between. Releasing good music is one thing but making it resonate on more than a aesthetic level, keeping the rhetoric accessible and timing that release is something else altogether. Plus the societal climate must be right otherwise such a release would simply not gain any traction. NWA not only shot a flare over the part of the world they were representing, they conveyed many of its views. Although women could have and should have been portrayed in a far better light (don’t these dudes have mothers?) They were put forth in a way their peers could get behind and it made everybody else prick their ears up and listen.
Straight Outta Compton is easily the most important and momentous ‘Gangster Rap’ album of all time but its by looking past that, by listening to what the foursome were trying to tell us instead of what they were saying, that it can be truly appreciated. Marvin Gaye took the boundaries of soul to new places while he questioned his own government on the troubles surrounding Vietnam. NWA took the boundaries of Hip Hop to a new level while questioning their own authorities on the way they conducted their ‘lawful’ business. This albums release was a watershed moment for not just Hip Hop music but the culture as a whole. It’s just a shame that the younger crop of today’s (and probably tomorrows) fans will never experience such moments in their lifetime.