Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No. 144: Straight Outta Compton

Band: N.W.A.
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Probably the seminal gangster rap record, "Straight Outta Compton" is a flurry of violence, sex and inner city 1980s life. Crack, crooked police, ghetto women and gang-rule all occupy N.W.A.'s world and few people could have told the story as well as N.W.A. did.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not for the faint of heart. It's not for conservatives. It's not for Tipper Gore. It's not for most people.
Best song: The first three tracks -- "Straight Outta Compton," "Fuck tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta" -- are great.
Worst song: "Something Like That" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It is. It's a hugely important record.

Released twice in the late '80s (once in 1988 on vinyl and later in '89 on CD), "Straight Outta Compton" is the album that introduced America to Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube. For that, the record should be on this list and is hugely important. I mean, if they weren't putting together the foundation for gangster rap (let's say they were rapping about basketball and partying), it'd still be important.

But, they weren't rapping about parties and basketball. N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) was one of the first acts to layer tragic ghetto imagery with fierce beats (Dr. Dre wouldn't perfect G-Funk for a few years). Threatening, street-smart and unstoppable, Ice Cube and Eazy-E played off each other as well as anyone. Cube's voice, a picture of masculinity in his delivery starts off the record with the fantastic opening lines:

Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I'm called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off

Taking the standard boast rap and adding the element of ultraviolence was the group's specialty. Adding violence and aggression to a classic socially conscious song created one of the genre's endearing songs, "Fuck Tha Police." Playing out as trial against the racist police -- in skit form beginning and ending the song -- the song's first rapped lyrics again come from Cube:

Fuck the police
Comin’ straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority


I've talked a little bit about gangster rap in this space and it's hard to discount what affect it has on the black community. Whatever the impact is now, this record was influential and out-there enough to make a huge impact on rap music.

And, a plea: The idea of "outlaw country" is something that is celebrated in a lot of places. Johnnie Cash was celebrated for shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Or getting hanged by the townspeople. Or robbing others.

"Outlaw country" is based on the idea of cowboy vigilante justice, something our culture celebrates a great deal. There is even a certain place for gangster vigilante justice in that "The Godfather" is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made.

And gangster rap is vilified.

Certainly, the "Clockwork Orange"-style hyperbole of gangster rap is too much. But, it's also not too different from the thematic styles of outlaw country. Vigilante justice. Sheriffs trying to arrest the protagonist. Protagonist in the right. Bodies pile up, etc.

Obviously, it's not looked upon the same. Black people in this country don't have a lot of power, so those in power probably want to continue keeping them without power. So... Gangster rap is vilified.

Plus... White people generally find black culture scary. Rock and roll was vilified because it was black music. Hip hop has gotten the same thing.

I wouldn't say it is a conspiracy; It isn't. I think those in power subconsciously don't want those without power to gain any. It's pretty simple; The status quo is celebrated by those who wish to maintain it.


Nevertheless, "Straight Outta Compton" is a great record. It started one of the preeminent genres of the 1990s and built a foundation for future rappers.

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