You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge
The release of the album Straight Outta Compton in late-1988 proved to be a moment of truth in the journey of NWA. Artistically, their formula was becoming more refined as they became more familiar with themselves and their vision. As a group, these individuals played beautifully off of one another. Dr. Dre’s production talents, already close to brilliant on Eazy-Duz-It were confirmed as such on Straight Outta Compton. Ice Cube’s equally genius lyrical tours of duty rode Dre’s beats to some deep, dark places. MC Ren was the perfect role player coming off the bench. Good enough for a solid verse here and there, yet also able to hold it down by himself on a cut or two. Eazy-E played his part as the ‘boss’ well, getting the last verse on collaboration jams, and he was clearly at his best with someone else writing his rhymes. NWA presented an album that featured tales of the streets from the bottom looking up, with beats that reflected the grime, grit, introspection, and celebration associated with that life. It was a 13-song expedition into a place that, before hip-hop came along, society had largely managed to silence and push out of view. For some young people, the album reflected relevant aspects of their day-to-day environments. For others, it introduced these issues for the first time. Adults who attempted to hate on culture like Straight Outta Compton just made their children want to hear more about it.
Several songs on Straight Outta Compton helped NWA push themselves into the national consciousness and dialogue. The first attention grabber was the song “Straight Outta Compton.” The video for the song was very publicly banned by MTV as the network, according to David Toop in Rap Attack, attempted to “prohibit videos that glorify violence and/or show gratuitous violence.” In response to this, Dr. Dre positioned NWA in the now familiar role of ‘reporters’ within the culture of hip-hop, which has been described by Chuck D, of the group Public Enemy, as the ‘Black CNN.’ Dre pronounced, “We’re not on the good side of violence, we’re not on the bad side, we’re in the middle.” Indeed, throughout society in general it seemed tougher than ever to distinguish between news as information and the thrill of voyeurism. Predictably, MTV’s decision to ban “Straight Outta Compton” sent thousands of young people out on a mission to buy it.
Second came the song and video “Express Yourself.” Lyrically this track seemed somewhat preachy. For instance, Dr. Dre disavowed marijuana smoking:
I still express yo I don’t smoke weed or cess
Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage
And brain damage on the mic don’t mange nothin
But makin a sucka and you equal
Don’t be another sequel
This stanza is ironic, given that Dr. Dre would later define his career and public image as a chronic smoking lowrider. It says a lot about the state of the hip-hop nation at the time that Dre wasn’t necessarily seen as corny, but instead trying to remain clear-headed and sharp in order to maximize microphone potential. “Express Yourself” also called out rappers who “forget about the ghetto and rap for the pop charts,” musicians that “cuss at home but scared to use profanity when upon the microphone,” and those who “say no to drugs and take a stand, but after the show they go lookin for the Dopeman!” The lecture-like, almost parental tone of this song was a bit of a departure from the image NWA was developing for itself. However, it spoke to the diverse, effective, and varied artistic nature of NWA, all of which would make the group a controversial success on their own terms.
The beat of the song featured in the video was different than the one that appeared on the album. The remix version contained a high pitched, screeching hook that would later become a signature of the West Coast ‘G-Funk’ sound. Remixing and re-releasing songs with new and improved beats was something that was then still an emerging marketing strategy in hip-hop music. “Express Yourself” was convincing evidence that it could work.
The video for this song began with the group bursting through a sign that read, “I Have a Dream.” The use of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a famous advocate of non-violence, by a group that was widely perceived in the general public as the exact opposite was a clever twist.
The video also tellingly juxtaposed past and present injustices done to the African-American community throughout U.S. history. The scenes shifted alternately between a slave-era cotton field and the present day streets of Los Angeles. The overseer in the cotton field and the police officer harassing the group in LA were clearly the same White man. As a priest, this same individual also gave Dr. Dre his last rights while Dre was shown being executed in an electric chair at the end of the video. NWA was making a clear statement regarding their views on how White males in positions of authority destroyed the lives of African-Americans throughout history.
On the album Eazy-Duz-It, the NWA production brain trust had displayed a commercial sensibility with songs such as “Radio” and “We Want Eazy” that were more radio friendly. Straight Outta Compton also contained a commercial dance track, the fast paced, techno-based “Something 2 Dance 2.” It stuck out from tracks such as “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Parental Discretion Iz Advised,” and “Compton’s N the House,” like a sore thumb. While Ice Cube was stirring the pot on male-female relationships in “I Ain’t the 1,” “Something 2 Dance 2” was talking about:
This is what I want you to do
Feel the groove bust a move
Yo yo I’m tired what about you?
Man this is something 2 dance 2
In the end, it was song number two on Straight Outta Compton that created the greatest controversy. Following its release, the album rode a wave of underground buzz, which saw Straight Outta Compton sell 500,000 copies in six weeks with no video or radio play. This unprecedented grass roots level of success raised NWA’s profile and brought increased attention from mainstream critics and pundits. It wasn’t long before law enforcement agencies began to hear about one NWA song, “Fuck the Police.” The song was essentially a statement against police brutality, racial profiling, and harassment. It featured members of the group as court officials in the trial of a police officer:
Right about now NWA court is in full effect
Judge Dre presiding
In the case of NWA vs. the Police Department
Prosecuting attorneys are:
MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Eazy Muthafuckin E!
This time NWA’s attempt at self-definition put them at direct odds with law enforcement. Almost on cue, the track generated a letter of protest from the FBI. According to David Toop in the book Rap Attack, the note “accused the group of ‘encouraging violence and disrespect’ towards police. Police forces used their fax machines to warn other departments in cities due for a visit from NWA.” The group held the letter up like a badge of honor in front of the hip-hop nation, and anyone else who happened to be looking. For a younger generation, facing the FBI and refusing to back down was inspiring. After all, 1988 was less than two decades removed from a time that, given the United States government’s track record with young black male social agitators like Bunchy Carter, could have brought about deadly consequences for NWA.
Straight Outta Compton established several important precedents within hip-hop music. First it showed that it was possible to produce angry, funky music, and still have significant record sales. Second, it appeared that the more controversial you were the more the mainstream media, which was beginning a lengthy flirtation with hip-hop music, would begin to pay attention. Finally, NWA had begun to transcend rap in the traditional sense of the group simply being some MCs and a DJ. Instead of rhyme-writers they had become entertainers, their image as public figures becoming almost separate from their work as hip-hop musicians. This would open the door for other artists who would take the idea of transcending hip-hop to the proverbial ‘next level.’
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