As the N.W.A. biopic ‘Straight Outta Compton’ hits UK cinemas this Friday, the initial chaos surrounding the group’s arrival - as well as their messy dissolution - offers a glimpse of how five kids from Compton rewrote rap’s rule-book in the late 1980s. Throw in those now-famous spats with the FBI and Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, and the later mainstream successes of Dr Dre and Ice Cube, and it’s clear N.W.A’s formidable legacy continues to loom large over hip-hop to this day.
Things all kicked off with 1987’s ‘N.W.A & The Posse’, the quasi-compilation overseen largely by Eazy-E which pulled together a bunch of affiliated acts from LA’s hip-hop and electro scenes. Ice Cube, who’d previously recorded with local rap outfits C.I.A. and the Stereo Crew, penned most of the verses, while Dr Dre and DJ Yella - fresh off success with LA-based electro troupe World Class Wreckin’ Cru - manned the boards. Cuts like ‘Dopeman’ and ‘Boyz-n-the-Hood’ hinted at what was to come, but it was on 1988’s full-length follow-up, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, that Cube, Eazy, Dre, Yella and MC Ren really set the detonators.
The subsequent explosion saw N.W.A. tap into the gang culture, poverty, violence and crack economy of their surrounding Compton environment and use it as the framework to fully formulate what would become gangsta rap. Up until then, the reality rap sub-genre had only been roughly sketched out on records such as Ice-T’s ‘6 N The Mornin’, Schoolly D’s ‘P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)’, and Boogie Down Productions’ ‘Criminal Minded’ a year or two earlier.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ filled in the gaps, providing a geographically-specific focus and a distinct ethos and attitude. With Compton and other poorer districts in the city facing more aggressive policing tactics by the LAPD - whose Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (C.R.A.S.H.) anti-gang unit stood accused of disproportionately targeting African-American and Hispanic communities (C.R.A.S.H. was later dissolved in 2000 amid a corruption, drugs and police brutality scandal) - it all made for a simmering and tense backdrop to N.W.A’s arrival.
Hip-hop’s notoriously snobbish and insular New York nerve-centre was shaken to its core by this raucous band of outsiders based a few thousand miles out west. Ice Cube would later contend in an ITV South Bank Show hip-hop special in 1994 that “N.W.A didn’t give Compton its reputation; Compton gave Compton its reputation”. But the album - whose tone rapidly switched back-and-forth between hard-boiled realism and large-than-life black humour - helped place the previously unheard-of city in south Los Angeles County firmly on the map. Its vivid subject matter - neighbourhood turf wars, dope dealers and police brutality - would become familiar and enduring hip-hop tropes over the next decade or so.
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Such graphic content ensured ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was one of the first rap LPs to have Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory stickers slapped on it, but that only lent the rapidly-accelerating N.W.A juggernaut further notoriety. The controversy over the group’s lyrics proved to be an early skirmish in hip-hop’s censorship wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which saw Miami’s 2 Live Crew booked on obscenity charges and west coast stalwart Ice-T tussle with his Time-Warner label over thrash metal track ‘Cop Killer’.
Yet even as N.W.A began to fall apart amid accusations of financial impropriety, they continued to tear up the rule-book. The game-changing diss records that flew back and forth between the former friends (Ice Cube’s ‘No Vaseline’; Dr Dre’s ‘Fuck Wit’ Dre Day’; Eazy-E’s ‘Real Muthaphuckkin’ Gz’) were unlike anything that had gone before – way more vicious and personal than any of the frivolous battle raps of the period - and would help set the harder, meaner tone of hip-hop beefs in later years involving the likes of Tupac, Biggie, and 50 Cent.
Ultimately, though, it was the way in which they brought a more roughcast, spikier edge to the protest rap of the late ‘80s with ‘Fuck Tha Police’ that fully forged N.W.A’s outlaw status and solidified their rep as much more than just a bunch of west coast crime-rhymers.
Sure, the track may be imbued with a youthful nihilism. But lines such as “Police think they have the authority/To kill a minority/Fuck that shit ‘cause I ain’t the one/for a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun/to be beating on, and thrown in jail…” and “Searching my car, looking for the product/Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics” formed a searing critique of the LAPD’s treatment of young black males, and chimed with the sense of a community feeling under siege at the time.
‘Fuck Tha Police’ later prompted the FBI to send a furious letter to the group’s label Priority Records in August 1989 condemning the song’s content. But when amateur footage of four LAPD officers beating motorist Rodney King was beamed around the world in 1991 - the officers’ subsequent acquittals sparking the L.A. insurrection a year later - it only bolstered N.W.A’s earlier line of argument in the eyes of many.
More than a quarter-century on from its release ‘Fuck Tha Police’ remains the benchmark by which all other rap songs about the constabulary are measured, its influence heard in the likes of Run The Jewels, Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples. And with the relationship between US law enforcement and the African-American community under renewed scrutiny following events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, and police associations Stateside voicing fears that the new biopic may spur on anti-police sentiment, the pulsating, prescient study of police brutality and racial discrimination remains no less vital and compelling today.
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Words: Hugh Leask