Hype is nothing new in hip-hop. The latest rap albums are given extensive marketing campaigns, rappers are promoted throughout the media, and tantalising snippets of music are supposedly ‘leaked’ online to whet the appetites of hungry fans. But the hype built up around the film Straight Outta Compton is something else.
Cover stories and reviews have filled the pages of publications from Rolling Stone to the self-proclaimed ‘home of rock music’ Uncut. These have then been splurged across online forums and picked apart by pop culture’s resident analysts and cellar rats, with debates raging as to the purpose of the film and the music which lies therein. Even HMV have taken some of the product from their disappointingly small hip-hop section right to the front of their shops, proclaiming that N.W.A CDs are ‘now trending’, as if we’re too stupid to see that they’re just jumping on the bandwagon of this film (and selling some cool shit at the same time). So, with all this media furore, the question is: why?
Straight Outta Compton is a biopic telling the story of the rise and fall of rap group N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude). Hollywood has never been known for giving an unbiased view of things however, and this film focuses less on members DJ Yella and MC Ren and more on Dr Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E, all of whom are nowadays household names. Dre and Cube even helped finance the project, with their producer roles unavoidably steering the film towards a focus on the parts they played in the N.W.A story.
Even so, that doesn’t stop Straight Outta Compton from being a great film, one which is much better than the James Brown biopic Get On Up from last year, whose sole redeeming feature was the music. Indeed, hearing the awesome funk of songs like ‘Sex Machine’ blaring out of cinema speakers was the only thing preventing me from wanting to ‘get on up’ out of my seat and leave that film forever. But I digress.
The film Straight Outta Compton provides a powerful introduction to N.W.A’s music, or even as a straight-up dope story, man. But the success of the film and Dr Dre’s accompanying album Compton (not so much a soundtrack; rather music ‘inspired by’ the film) made me wonder why N.W.A are still important. Tell me if I’m wrong, but from where I’m standing we’re living in an era of throwaway culture, in which ‘stardom’ happens overnight and then disappears just as quickly. So how can some musicians retain their immense popularity years, sometimes decades, after their implosion?
I used to think that most of N.W.A’s popularity stemmed from their notorious ‘Fuck Tha Police’, a song packed with anger and bitterness over the mistreatment of black communities by so-called ‘law enforcement officers’ in late-80s LA. Whilst ‘Fuck Tha Police’ is a brilliant rallying cry though, the popularity and notoriety of N.W.A run much deeper than that.
If rap is (or at least was) the music of the streets, then it will surely always need a sort of street politics to keep it current, to engage with us listeners at ground level. Now, some of the most profound politics and sloganeering to be found in rap music were espoused by classic-era Public Enemy, but N.W.A brought the black intellectualism of Chuck D’s ebony tower down to street level, with lyrical themes bred on the everyday injustice faced by the thousands of black inhabitants living in Compton, Los Angeles. It is this empathy with the everyday struggles of these communities which ensure the ‘street’ credibility of N.W.A, whose songs feature a Dickensian cast of drug dealers (as in ‘Dopeman’), pimps, struggling jobseekers, and gangsters. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, these characters initiated the record-buying public into the dark underbelly of American society, where guns and violence were the law of the streets.
From this perspective, N.W.A’s music is often credited with starting the ‘gangsta rap’ genre, an argument which is explored in detail in Jeff Chang’s illuminating book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. The street or ‘gangsta’ perspective of N.W.A’s politics, Chang argues, ensured that the sheer bloody-minded dogma and discussion typically associated with politics were replaced by swift action; the group would ‘toss the ideology and go straight to the riot’.
Whether or not N.W.A truly are ‘gangsta rap’, it is this essence of rebellion and revolt without the bullshit which N.W.A’s music encapsulates so well – like punk in the late 1970s, songs such as ‘Fuck Tha Police’ gave a voice to the disillusioned by reminding them of the need to constantly fight for freedom and free speech, the need to work together in unity against injustice and oppression, whether they occupied the role of hero or villain in the hood.
Sadly, as the Straight Outta Compton film makes clear, the dreadfully mundane combination of unpaid royalties, musical differences, and infighting drove Ice Cube out of the group after their first album, thus ending the classic line-up. But it is perhaps this very temporality which makes N.W.A’s early music culturally relevant, even two-and-a-half decades later. The fact that they meant such a lot to so many people across such a short space of time shows how vital their music and outlook were to those suffering from injustice, from Compton or otherwise.
Music is here to take us away from the everyday, the mundane stuff that gets you down until you listen to a song and drift away, suddenly realising that everything else is utter bollocks. N.W.A showed the world that the oppressed have a voice, and that cultural rebellion can sow the seeds to help improve the lives of ourselves and future generations. To some, the music of N.W.A changed their lives for the better, and for that reason alone, N.W.A are still important, and always will be.