N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ turns 25
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” — the intro of N.W.A.‘s “Straight Outta Compton”
When the George Zimmerman verdict was announced and proclaimed “not guilty,” the first thing I did was put on N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. Specifically, “F**k The Police.” There was a certain energy I needed to hear and it simply was not present in any place in present-day rap music.
As the Straight Outta Compton album celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, much of the message of revolution and angst stays as relevant as when it was released.
America’s Worst Nightmare
F**k the police comin’ straight from the underground
A young ni**a got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority
N.W.A. comprised of DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-Z, MC Ren and Ice Cube and they exemplified the America’s worst nightmare at the time. They extolled a different set virtues, including profane language, denigration of women, and the infamous use of the N-Word, which had not been heard in such a brash fashion in music until that point. The lead track, “Straight Outta Compton” is one of the strongest introductions in history and the rest of the album followed suit.
“Gangsta Gangsta,” “8 Ball,” “Dope Man,” and “I Ain’t Tha 1” was an audio journal of young black men in South Central California. The details were so intimate, detailed and specific that it literally served as an education to those that simply saw Cali as a pretty place with pretty girls and palm trees.
Unapologetic and brutally honest
There was also a decidedly political side to Straight Outta Compton, which people gravitated to. It was, after all, released smack dab in the middle of the height of hip-hop’s political era.
During this period, black men were being mistreated by those in authority and it extended beyond the police. It was the system, and artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One rallied against the injustices. While it is not explicitly stated on Straight Outta Compton, the societal pressures, misfortune, stress, trauma, are felt on the album like dense humidity on a hot summer day. It was another way that African-Americans had to release angst and control the messaging on what was going on.
“Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out/Now I’m the mutha f*cka that ya read about./ Takin’ a life or two that’s what the hell I do/ You don’t like how I’m livin’, well f**k you!”
Unlike most present day hip-hop music, Straight Outta Compton created something that just about everybody could gravitate to — love it or hate it. The suburbs latched on to the raw rebellion of it, but also seemed to receive a first-hand education on what was going on with Black America in South Central. Even the FBI jumped on board as the controversy began to roll downhill.
The government agency sent a letter to Ruthless Records, the Eazy-E-helmed label that put the album out. The powers-that-were were fearful that the group would incite violence against the police, who were accused of brutality. N.W.A. just used the attention to further the controversy that drove Straight Outta Compton to double platinum with no airplay.
But, it was not mere controversy that captivated the masses that came to embrace Straight Outta Compton.
I can tell that you’re afraid to fight me
simple because you lost the crowd and
they had to invite me because you’re sweat as a puddle but there’s a puddle of sweat
I’m a threat, so get a cold rag and wipe your neck
and clean the dirt off your face that calls acne
It’s ridiculous thinkin’ that you can jack me (rob me)
The album was released during one of the most powerful periods in rap music history — 1988 — which yielded seminal, classic albums from Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One And Boogie Down Productions, Slick Rick, EMPD, MC Lyte, Eric B & Rakim and a smorgasbord of others. Other West Coasters like Ice-T and Too Short impacted in 88, but they didn’t quite compare to the blast NWA let off on the world with Straight Outta Compton.
Dr. Dre’s beats were reminiscent of his East Coast precursors, yet decidedly more aggressive. The primary lyricists, Ice Cube and the criminally underrated MC Ren, were penning raps that could compete with the best hip-hop had to offer at the time.
And then there was Eazy-E. Eazy’s legacy has been muddied through the years, but he was a lightning rod of controversy by doing everything from wielding guns to wearing straight-jackets to laughing at the Feds.
It all made for a mix that continues to impact the music industry to this day.
Why Straight Outta Compton still matters
But, the truth of the matter is, I had to learn to love N.W.A.’s perspective. I was steadfastly in to Public Enemy, KRS-One and other conscious rappers growing up. I didn’t know any b*tches, hoes or gang bangers for that matter. OK, maybe a couple. Ultimately, the legacy of Straight Outta Compton has been a two-edged sword.
The rap game has seemingly permanently adopted all of the “negatives” of the album and left the most powerful parts like table scraps. So we hear all the n-words, the b-words and tales of illicit behavior, but we miss the vivid, creative tales of protest that are like non-fiction novels.
Which brings us back to Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman…and Jordan Miles, Jordan Davis, Sean Bell, Abner Louima and so many more victims of brutality from those in authority. Those outspoken voices are now limited to 140 characters or, if we are lucky, a throwaway song. Fans live vicariously through the often-falsified lives of the rapper pretending to be wealthy or somebody like Chief Keef who does command the ear of the young, yet has no apparent political awareness.
Successful rappers are no longer considered future prophets outside of who can make the biggest profit. Perhaps this is the next level in rap’s influence — money and perception.
But, Straight Outta Compton was proof that paper is no match when a rap group called Ni**az With Attitude can channel the angst, politics and musicianship of a generation into a moment that changes everything.
Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur is a father, son and the co-founder of AllHipHop.com. He’s a cultural critic, pundit and trailblazer that has been featured on National Public Radio (NPR), BET, TVOne, VH1, The E! Channel, MTV, The O’Reilly Factor, USA Today, The New York Times, New York’s Hot 97 FM and like a zillion other outlets.