In 1988, N.W.A.’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton, was both sparkling and startling. Their talent — featuring one of the greatest emcees (Ice Cube), producers (Dr. Dre) and characters (Eazy-E) rap has ever seen — jumped out from the first note. Their anger, a harbinger of what would happen after the Rodney King verdict, leapt from the speakers as soon as Cube grabbed the mic. Their youth — nearly every rhyme was written by someone under 21 — was on full display, in ways good and bad. And everything spoke to the disillusionment of black life in post-Civil Rights Movement Los Angeles.
And it only took 11 minutes to get the point.
That’s how long it takes to go from the title track, through “F— Tha Police” and to “Gangsta Gangsta,” and it takes no longer to see how and why it changed everything. It was less about how dope they were on the mic and more about how quickly they’d hurt you. Rather than say they were a crew or a posse, they called themselves a gang. None of it, no matter how immature or hedonistic it could be, sounded like fun.
But it did sound real, or what reality was to teenagers. The world was no bigger than their side of town, and there was little more to talk about than drinking, getting laid and making sure everyone knew how tough they were. The rhymes were over-dramatized, intentionally profane, immature, chauvinistic and loaded with phony braggadocio (Cube and Dre have been called “studio gangsters” more than once).
And it was street, exciting, ridiculous, necessary, indefensible, powerful and brilliant.
Cube, still the gold standard for socially conscious gangsta rappers, may have gone from an unknown to the best rapper alive by the end of his verse on “Straight Outta Compton.” “F— Tha Police” took the protest song to another level, taking what was usually defiant and making it fierce, aggressive and threatening in a way the FBI couldn’t ignore. “Gangsta Gangsta” would be a great party song…if you want to throw a party where N.W.A. shows up and indiscriminately stomps dudes out and screams at all the women in the house. It was the full gamut of self-absorbed, causeless rebellion. They raged against racism while shamelessly indulging in and promoting misogyny; they hated being hassled by the police but reveled in the machismo of their perceived criminality, and defended their fictional, first-person accounts as reality.
And that was just the first 11 minutes.
Of course there was more, from “Dopeman” to “Compton’s In The House.” But it didn’t take more than the first three tracks to capture the resonance of Straight Outta Compton and understand why it was so influential. They used the value of an American entertainment favorite — violence — and made it both flippant and frightening, making it impossible to tell if they were a symptom or the disease. It was a joke to those who laughed at them and a disheartening way of life for those who, like N.W.A., seemed to laugh to make the best of their confined reality. And they sold two million records with little radio play, mostly to young, suburban white guys in the process.
They were so successful outside of the mainstream that mainstream came to them. N.W.A. was powered by incredible talent (each member released at least one platinum solo album), but their appeal to the lowest common denominator made them — and, subsequently, others — unlikely stars. Record stores (that’s where we used to buy music, kids) were soon flooded with gangsta rap from the west, much of it prominently featuring Compton. Within five years, songs for which content and diction were once deemed too obscene for radio and MTV would dominate playlists. Rap fans appreciated its grittiness, but the foolishness was more contagious. Once the labels caught the bug, nothing would be the same.
That duality is why Straight Outta Compton remains compelling. No one involved with the album thought it was a social statement, or that it would have a place in a time capsule. But what better portrait of black Los Angeles in 1988 — long past the Watts riots but just before Rodney King — could you ask for? The hope that sent black folks to the west, fleeing Jim Crow, had long been extinguished. Drugs, those that Congresswoman Maxine Waters alleged the CIA brought into her community, were the local economy. And the militarized police force under Chief Daryl Gates, who recruited Southern whites to become officers because of their experience dealing with blacks? Well, f— ‘em.
But while Compton is a long way from Hollywood, it sounded like a movie to many. To others, it hit close to home. But for everyone, it mattered, whether it sounded like the world was going to hell in a hand basket, or that we were already there. And when you hear someone like Drake, the Fresh Prince of his generation, trying his damnedest to sound hard and balance his sappy sensitivity with countervailing venom for women, you hear a piece of the worst of Straight Outta Compton. It’s a shame we don’t hear more of the best, but for better or worse, it’s clear N.W.A. was heard.