Influenced: Rage Against The Machine, MC Eiht, Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, House Of Pain, Cypress Hill, Nas, 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Outkast, Eminem, DMX, 50 Cent, The Game, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels, A$AP Mob, Schoolboy Q, Danny Brown, Vince Staples, Migos
Influenced by: James Brown, Parliament, Average White Band, Schoolly D, Boogie Down Productions, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy
We often hear about cult classic albums being ‘word of mouth’ successes – that is, records that don’t necessarily benefit from the regular promotional cycle of posters, press releases, music videos and national radio play that the majority of artists utilise. Instead, word of mouth success stories rely on clued-up local entities, from club promoters to DJs, and small club nights, parties and internet forums. Frequently, they reach the peak of their popularity over a year after whatever label has released it, plugged it, and moved on to something else.
In the case of Straight Outta Compton, the beyond-legendary debut album from the short-lived but massively influential N.W.A, the deck was stacked against it from the very beginning, and ‘word of mouth’ was the only way it was ever going to be viable. In an era of media alarmism, Tipper Gore’s PMRC (responsible for all those ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics’ stickers) and Republican repression at the end of the Eighties, there was practically no mainstream support structure for the ferocious and outspoken N.W.A to utilise. And yet, in addition to selling 3 million copies, it has had more impact and influence on hip-hop as we know it today than practically any other album, both in its sound and visual aesthetic.
It’s initially strange to think that Straight Outta Compton is where it all began for one of the most influential figures in the last three decades of pop – the foundational cornerstone of Dr Dre’s media empire of Death Row Records, Apple Music and Beats By Dre headphones.
And yet, it makes perfect sense that a revolutionary sea-change in media should be instigated by a group like N.W.A, who threatened the established culture like very few things since. N.W.A’s debut was quite literally ‘Straight Outta Compton’ as its title suggests – the ideological, lyrical and sonic antithesis of the peace sign-wearing East Coast hip-hop acts of the late Eighties like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Laced with profanity and random hood violence, their tracks didn’t even have any of the positivity and constructivism that underpinned the righteous fury of Public Enemy. Straight Outta Compton was unfiltered to the point where it was almost cartoonish, emphasising grit, struggle and street-level realism, with hustling and sheer survivalism at its core rather than any of Chuck D’s exhortations to self-improvement.
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In contrast to the sample-dense hip-hop albums being made in New York at the end of the Eighties, such as It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Paul’s Boutique or 3 Feet High And Rising, the musical building blocks of Straight Outta Compton’s success are comparatively simple. Chunky, bass-laden beats, heavy DJ cutting and blasts of horns and guitar smashed into each other in the mix, more spacious and rhythmical than the whirlwind sensory overloads of The Bomb Squad’s Public Enemy productions. N.W.A sampled laid-back jazz, intergalactic loved-up P-funk, romantic soul and sugary doo-wop, but spread them out instead piling those influences on top of each other, leaving breathing space in the mix. Somehow, that seemed to chime with the physical differences between the West and East Coast styles – N.W.A’s sparser approach reflected the endless sprawl of L.A., rather than the tall buildings and claustrophobia of the narrower streets of New York.
From the very beginning, N.W.A was a volatile thing, an entity borne from an uneasy coalition of individuals and friendship groups who had differing backgrounds, skill sets and, ultimately, ambitions. In brief, the classic five-strong line-up of the group came together when frustrated local club DJ Dr Dre (real name Andre Young), his friend and colleague DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby) and young lyricist Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) saw a gap in the mid-Eighties party-dominated rap market for ‘reality raps’ – hard-hitting jams with lyrics about life as it was really lived by most black people. They persuaded Eazy-E (Eric Wright), a successful but equally frustrated local drug dealer, to plunge money into making music in this vein, and he brought his friend and lyricist MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson) into the fold.
Eazy-E, while a great stage presence in the group’s live performances as more of a bon-vivant character than Ren and Cube, seems to have brought little to the table in purely creative terms, but his role in the rise of N.W.A was critical, acting as de facto leader and focal point at the very start and whose amateurish yet gripping solo single ‘Boyz-N-The-Hood’ acted as a battering ram for N.W.A’s reputation when it was a huge local radio hit in March 1987. His Ruthless Records imprint was originally conceived of as a vessel for the solo efforts of N.W.A’s individual members and those of their friends and associates, with locally successful album titled N.W.A And The Posse coming out in November the same year.
The following year brought continued exposure on local radio, culminating in a management arrangement with slightly washed-up mogul Jerry Heller (who had worked with several highly successful acts in the early 1970s) and then a record deal with little-known R&B label Priority, who were flush with cash primarily because of a licensing deal for novelty act the California Raisins (who sang a rendition of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ for TV ads). Work immediately commenced on a debut album by the N.W.A collective acting as a unified group, with Dre and Yella behind the production desk. Straight Outta Compton dropped near the end of a scorching hot summer in August 1988.
Self-styled as the World’s Most Dangerous Group, N.W.A’s reputation was reflected back at them and magnified by the press as Straight Outta Compton rapidly spread by word of mouth and from censored MTV videos. They presented themselves as every suburban parent’s worst nightmare – subverting their teenagers with street slang and tales of gang-banging, hustling, picking up hoes and drinking 8 Ball straight from the bottle. In short, they were hip-hop’s Sex Pistols moment – held up to mainstream America as a clear and present threat to society, full of directionless, auto-destructive rage and incoherent rebellion.
And yet, underneath the hype, while their music was certainly dark, visceral and in some places certainly misogynistic, Straight Outta Compton was more often than not uncompromising in its descriptions of the world in which it was set, powered by an immensely talented writer and rapper in Ice Cube. In its best moments, Cube and his fellow rappers sound irreverent but refreshingly uncalculated in their delivery, something that couldn’t be said for a depressingly large amount of subsequent gangsta-rap. While it sometimes feels almost cartoonish in its sense of heightened ultra-reality, the exaggerations hit home because of the MCs’ detail and forcefulness.
While the majority of the record ranges from compelling to competent, in brutal honesty, Straight Outta Compton’s status as a hip-hop classic rests almost entirely upon the triple threat of its breathtaking opening salvo. The bracing title track, ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ represents arguably the strongest opening sequence of any album in pop history.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ may sound a bit dated now, but the snarling, smoke-black horns and chopped breakbeats that drive the track, combined the ominous declaration from Dre that you’re about to “witness the strength of street knowledge” make for one of hip-hop’s all-time finest moments, full of passion and prowess as well as brutal violence. In 1988, this was revolutionary almost to the point of insurrection. Cube, Ren then Eazy take turns with the mic and gives the impression of a nihilistic, menacing anti-hero. In these moments, it’s like an action movie, and you feel as if you’re right there with the crew, observing the heat, stresses and paranoia of the street through their eyes.
That’s followed by the incendiary anger of ‘Fuck Tha Police’, unquestionably one of the most controversial tracks in American pop history. Presented as a parody of court proceedings in which Dre acts as a judge hearing a prosecution of the LAPD, Cube, Ren and Eazy issue coruscating take-downs of racial profiling and police brutality. Exceptional lyrics such as “they had the authority to kill a minority” and “they put up my picture with silence / cos my identity by itself causes violence” show a seething intelligence and righteous indignation beneath the crew’s image.
‘Fuck Tha Police’ caused the FBI to write to Priority Records and warn them that the song encouraged violence against police, and on tour in Detroit, the group was arrested having been warned by the local authorities not to perform the track. Soon, the track’s central presentation of an inversion of the justice system would seem even more poignant and relevant in the aftermath of the Rodney King hearings in 1992 that triggered the L.A. riots, when the four policemen involved in his beating were found not guilty of using excessive force.
As if that wasn’t enough, we get the archetype-defining ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, whose central message is one of glamorisation of the life they’re living (“to a little kid looking up to me / life ain’t nothing but bitches and money”). In equal parts manifesto and party anthem, this is Cube’s lyrical tour-de-force, taking on three of the track’s four verses, with Dre and Yella pulling out one of their best productions, built on deep, springy funk samples.
There simply isn’t any album that could live up to such an enervating and classic opening sequence, and the pace and overall quality of Straight Outta Compton inevitably shifts down as it moves forward, but there’s still a healthy number of stand-out moments that render this minor criticism irrelevant. ‘I Ain’t Tha 1’, taking its pretty dated misogyny out of the equation (it certainly wouldn’t fly in 2018), is the record’s most slick and professional moment. ‘Express Yourself’ is an outlier in the context of Straight Outta Compton purely because of its message of positivity and absence of swearing amid such a hopeless and savage landscape, dealing in literate fashion with freedom of speech and self-censorship set to an awesome Charles Wright sample (the remix is even looser and more amazing).
‘If It Ain’t Ruff’ is Ren’s moment in the spotlight, the jacking rhythm taken from a brilliant Average White Band sample. A remixed version of ‘Dopeman’ is one of the earliest surviving N.W.A cuts, originally appearing on their ‘Panic Zone’ single the previous year, and showcases Cube’s abilities at an early stage. A similar overhaul is given to the booming, grimy beats of ‘8 Ball’, a tribute to the group’s tipple of choice. ‘Compton’s N The House’ is effectively a remix of another album track ‘Something Like That’, and is a bit long and bare-bones in its production, but is still a good summation of Dre and Ren’s abilities.
Obviously, Straight Outta Compton carries a lot of elements that would be considered problematic if released in 2018. Quite aside from the pretty unavoidable charges of misogyny – basically, women in N.W.A’s world exist to suck dick or be disposed of if they refuse – the insistences of ‘reality’ in their raps ring a little hollow. You hear the group acting, but there’s never any consequences to those actions, as if the world is simply their stage and everybody else is just a bit player, passing through. Whatever your judgment call and your views of revisionism in art, Straight Outta Compton simply wouldn’t get off the ground now.
The legacy of N.W.A and Straight Outta Compton has been told and re-told on so many countless occasions in the 30 years since its release that it almost doesn’t bear repeating. Except, of course, it really does. Three decades of subsequent hip-hop simply doesn’t make sense without it, providing the genre as it does with so many of its distinctive DNA strands.
Essentially, although what they created was borne from a lifestyle all about the sidelines of society, the perpetually demonised and harassed, what N.W.A unleashed very quickly became uncontrollable. Before Straight Outta Compton, the only rap artists that had hits made party-starting, feel-good songs. Afterwards, major labels swiftly released they could make a mint by selling shock, from hawking tales from the dangerous South Central streets to bored, white suburban teens all over the country. It had gone platinum with no major tour, virtually no airplay and on a nominally independent label. As such, it virtually defined the genre that quickly became known as gangsta-rap, and although it wasn’t technically the first album of its genre, it certainly brought it overground, with the aid of a clutch of brilliant MTV videos.
The most obvious and notable of the histories of N.W.A is the 2015 smash film Straight Outta Compton which, although it does by the very nature of its existence tell a rather Dre-orientated story that sometimes obscures his bandmates, gives a pretty exhilarating and informative overview of N.W.A’s rise and fall. History is, after all, written by the winners, and nobody can deny that Dre is the member of the band who has gained the most from the subsequent three decades of his career. Another incredibly detailed story of N.W.A comes with Terry McDermott’s 2002 ‘L.A. Times’ article, which is well worth reading.
The immensely talented Ice Cube quickly came to feel that he had outgrown the limitations of a band context and struck out on his own at the turn of the Nineties, making a brace of harrowing yet intelligent gangsta-rap classics such as AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate in 1990 and 1991 respectively. Despite a small handful of post-Cube gems such as ‘100 Miles And Runnin’, ‘Appetite For Destruction’ and ‘Alwayz Into Somethin’, his absence was far too notable on the group’s highly flawed and unloved follow-up album Efil4zaggin, almost a death metal/rap hybrid with MC Ren left to do too much of the heavy lifting and an increasingly disinterested Dre with his eye on new projects. N.W.A effectively disintegrated when Dre, under the aegis of the sinister figure of Suge Knight, left his contract with Ruthless to form the iconic Death Row Records in late 1991, an imprint which released legendary Nineties hip-hop albums by Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, as well as Dre’s own legendary solo album The Chronic.
READ MORE: Dr Dre // ‘The Chronic’ at 25 years old
As the years went by, particularly as Eazy-E’s Ruthless imprint flagged in comparison to Dre and Cube’s fortunes, a full N.W.A reunion was reportedly mooted in early 1995 before Eazy was hospitalised with complications from the AIDS virus. His death in March that year served to help change the general public’s attitudes towards HIV and AIDS, having been hitherto popularly misunderstood as a disease that could only affect gay men.
Partial reunions, particularly the 2000 Up In Smoke tour that reunited the Death Row and N.W.A circles, and various greatest hits packages over the years have always kept N.W.A in the public consciousness, however. As long as hip-hop is as wildly successful as it is currently, there’s no reason to suspect that will ever change. And it’s all down to Straight Outta Compton, an album that was initially sold out of Dre’s car boot.
Listen to Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 30 years old, 30th anniversary, classic 80s, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ed Biggs, hip hop, Ice Cube, MC Ren, N.W.A., NWA, Priority, Ruthless Records, Straight Outta Compton
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