Straight Outta Compton, Street to Screen

In Spring 2015, Universal Pictures began its promotional campaign for the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton here in Los Angeles. From Culver City to Calabasas, you could find posters of the Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and DJ Yella on every bus shelter and construction. More poignantly, N.W.A’s image is currently painted on the wall of the City National Bank on the Sunset Strip, just before the border with Beverly Hills.

As a lifelong hip-hop fan and history buff, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of an unabashedly divisive rap group receiving this scale of attention nearly 30 years after the release of their debut album.

Hip-hop has been a revolutionary force in popular music and culture since Jamaican-born Bronx resident DJ Kool Herc invented the breakbeat in the early 1970s. But like every form of Black American music, hip-hop has also been a source of controversy. N.W.A portrayed themselves as street toughs unafraid to use profanity to express their contempt for police, women, and anyone else who got in their way. But to better understand the group’s nihilistic worldview, one needs to go back to mid ’60s.

Watts, located just three miles from Compton, was founded as an independent city in southern Los Angeles County. In 1926, the city was annexed by the city of Los Angeles, partially to prevent the growing black population from taking control of municipality. Several decades of discriminatory housing laws, the absence of medical services, and police brutality fueled a simmering rage among black residents. These tensions came to a head when a routine DWI stop in Watts on August 11th, 1965 escalated into a confrontation between the arresting officers and the mother of the accused. A street fight quickly coalesced into five days of street violence in Watts and the surrounding area.

The destruction made national news and revealed Los Angeles to be a crucial front in the struggle for Civil Rights. Out of the ashes came tremendous inspiration for Afrocentric writers and artists, as well as activists who wanted to take a more radical, Black Nationalist stance in the fight for equality. The US Organization was formed almost immediately after the smoke cleared in Watts, while a local chapter of the Black Panthers came into the existence soon after. Both organizations actively recruited gang members, thus indoctrinating impressionable young men with pride, self-determination, and military-style organization. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover viewed all black militant groups as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Via COINTELPRO, the FBI (with the help of the LAPD and local informers) infiltrated and destroyed all Black Power groups in LA. With liberation off the agenda, many revolutionaries turned to crime. Using their training and discipline, these young men formed some of the most notorious gangs in America, including The Crips, The Bloods, and The Black Guerilla Family.

But the worst was yet to come. The shuttering of heavy manufacturing plants that once provided stable, unionized jobs resulted in a dearth of economic opportunity. Even once-affluent areas, like Compton, were hit hard. The arrival of the cocaine trade in the late ’70s bought unprecedented gun violence on the streets and a militarized response from Chief Daryl Gates’ L.A.P.D. that would come to define the 1980s.

In 1986, former Compton drug dealer Eazy-E decided to use his filthy lucre to start a record company, Ruthless Records. Now, it should be known that the other members of N.W.A weren’t doing dirt in the streets. Producer Dr. Dre and DJ Yella were both part of the World Class Wrecking Cru, a flashy electro-hip hop group. The Arabian Prince (a founding member who’d leave the group before Straight Outta Compton) and MC Ren (Arabian Prince’s replacement) were also knocking about on the local hip-hop scene. And Ice Cube briefly studied architecture at the Phoenix Institute of Technology. Nonetheless, all these men’s lives had been shaped by the deprivation, drug violence, and the police harassment that defined life in Compton in the mid ’80s.

The nightly broadcasts of police smashing into trap houses with battering rams had inspired a local hip-hop hit, Toddy Tee’s electro-tinged “Batterram.” But the direction of hip-hop was still determined by New York’s fast-changing sounds and styles. Admittedly, the West Coast was, as author Jeff Chang put it, still stuck on “expensive purple leather suits and slick drum machines.” But all that would change with the release of an Ice Cube-penned, Dre-produced Eazy-E track, 1987’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood.”

The song had been intended for a New York group, HBO that Dre was producing for Ruthless. But when the New Yorkers balked at the impenetrable West Coast slang and walked out, Eazy was coaxed to get on the mic. The poignant mix of Dre’s stark production, Yella’s turntable play, and Eazy’s amateurish, yet intimidating, gangsta whine resulted in a LA classic. The record moved thousands of copies within its first year of release, and an edited version was a hit on local radio. (The tune can still be heard blasting from car stereos to this day).

The success of “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” prompted Eazy to pay a colleague for an introduction to Jerry Heller, a former promoter of blue-chip acts like Pink Floyd and Elton John. Electrified by what he heard, Heller shopped “Boyz-N-The-Hood” and a demo of “Fuck The Police” to labels until he landed a distribution deal with Priority Records, a label then known for the novelty hit “Heard It From The Grapevine” by the California Raisins.

Recorded in less than six weeks for a meager budget (anywhere between $8,000 and $30,000, depending on the source), 1988’s Straight Outta Compton painted a jarring portrait of life in Compton. N.W.A. didn’t invent gangsta rap (that honor can be shared by Philadelphia’s Schooly D, New York’s Boogie Down Productions, and L.A.’s Ice T), but they celebrated the street life with an almost comedic enthusiasm. With lyrics mostly written by Ice Cube and MC Ren, every track featured tales of senseless violence, crude misogyny, and a total disregard towards the idea of rapper-as-positive-role-model.

Unlike their sonic contemporaries, Public Enemy, N.W.A had no intentions of carrying on the legacies of the Civil Rights movement. To them, the American Dream and Dr. King’s dream were equally useless. As Ice Cube would proudly proclaim on “Gangsta Gangsta”:

Taking a life or two, that’s what the hell I do.
If you don’t like how I’m living, then fuck you.

The near total-absence of positivity (bar Dr. Dre’s solo turn, the profanity free “Express Yourself”) made for a rather bleak listening experience. But N.W.A stood by their right to free speech and admitted that while they liberally used hyperbole and braggadocio, their songs were inspired by what was going on the around them. They were particularly defensive of “Fuck The Police,” regularly citing their own experiences with L.A.P.D in interviews. If Public Enemy were the Black CNN, then N.W.A were the Black Fox News.

Unsurprisingly, N.W.A were a lightning rod for criticism. Black intellectuals and activists were aghast at the group’s refutation of “The Struggle.” Feminists decried the album’s celebration of rape culture. And white conservatives saw the group as the personification of their biggest fears about Black America. Unsurprisingly, Straight Outta Compton attracted the attention of authority figures. Police departments across the country refused to provide security detail to N.W.A shows, some even going as far as threatening the group with arrest if they performed “Fuck The Police.” The F.B.I. sent a letter to Priority Records, blasting them for distributing a music that they felt encouraged listeners to kill cops.

With zero airplay and very little touring, Straight Outta Compton still managed to go multi-platinum. This was partially due to curiosity of voyeuristic white teenagers across the country. Label reps at Priority Records estimated that 80% of the album’s U.S. sales came from majority-white areas. (Admittedly, much of N.W.A’s early success came from sales in the San Fernando Valley, 30 miles north and a world away from Compton).

Despite commercial success and national notoriety, N.W.A were splintering. Ice Cube refused to sign a contract with Heller while on tour and left the group at the end of 1989. Cube argued that he never received proper payment for his lyrics on Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-E’s solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It. The group adamantly soldiered on without Cube and recorded a sophomore album that anticipated the G-funk sound, EFIL4ZAGGIN in 1991. But Dr. Dre also felt suspicious of Heller and Eazy’s management of N.W.A’s finances and left to join Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. Having suffered the loss of its most talented lyricist and production guru, N.W.A disbanded quickly disbanded before the end of 1991.

Post-script: I wanted to write this essay to illustrate to the casual reader that N.W.A’s exaggerated negativity and nihilism was rooted in the troubled history of L.A. Similar to how recession and Thatcherism informed British punk and reggae, N.W.A were a product of their environment.

N.W.A set the precedent for the national success of regional hip-hop. They put L.A. on the map, and for the first half of the ’90s the West Coast was the prime rival to New York’s hip-hop crown. As pioneering gangsta rappers, they integrated grimy tales of urban life into the hip-hop canon. And their anti-police sentiments were echoed not only by other rap groups, but also by average black folk who reacted in horror at the broadcast of the Rodney King videotape.

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