This article contains strong language that some readers may find offensive
The director of Straight Outta Compton, a highly anticipated new NWA biopic out in US cinemas this week, has hailed his subjects as the forefathers of modern hip hop. “There’s no Eminem if there is no Dr Dre. There’s no Dr Dre if there’s no NWA", says F Gary Gray. "NWA is the origin story.”
The group’s 1988 debut album, also called Straight Outta Compton, promoted hip hop, and specifically a sub-genre dubbed gangsta rap from the underground into the American mainstream. For over two decades, hip hop would dominate the US charts and its youth culture. But the era was one of controversy; debate about the music’s lyrical content stretched from the ghettos of Los Angeles all the way to Washington DC.
America loves the outlaw, the gangster, from Billy the Kid to Al Capone
The streets of South Central Los Angeles in the mid-1980s epitomised a problematic pattern that could also be seen in many other US cities. After World War Two, discriminatory real-estate policies and rapid suburbanisation led to huge overcrowding and poverty in urban areas like Compton and nearby Watts, both largely populated by African-Americans and other minority groups.
In LA, recession and de-industrialisation led to mass job losses (in 1983 youth unemployment was nearly 50%). Hundreds of rival gangs sprung up – the most notorious being the Crips and the Bloods – and a crack-cocaine epidemic raged under an increasingly brutal police force, who adopted a ‘Batteram’, an armoured military vehicle to smash into suspected crack houses.
On Straight Outta Compton’s title track, Gangsta Gangsta (from which the term ‘gangsta rap’ was coined) and the controversial single, Fuck tha Police, rapper Ice Cube and NWA offered an uncompromising view of life as young black men on the streets of LA, delivered with unswerving aggression, braggadocio and dark humour.
“America loves the outlaw, the gangster, from Billy the Kid to Al Capone,” mused Ice Cube in 2010. “It was the same thing with us. We were saying the things people wanted to say.” Shocking to many, the plain truth to others, the sound of NWA was called ‘the new punk rock’ by the press. Despite neither radio airplay nor promotion from their label, Straight Outta Compton went gold in six weeks – and eventually, double platinum.
Gangsta rap forced America to confront the issues in its ghettos
“Straight Outta Compton defined the West Coast sound,” explains the Chicago Tribune music critic and writer Greg Kot, who reviewed the LP when it was released in 1989. “The Dr Dre production was lean, driving, and funky, with rhymes dropping like nails atop the beats.”
Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, called it “the new Blues”. “With their urban-canyon echoing drums and casual descriptions of explosive violence,” he wrote, “the new myths of crack, guns and gangs sounded a lot larger than life.” For a new generation, these sounds held an enthralling appeal.
Parental discretion advised
It was the crossover into mainstream white American culture that provoked concern among the US establishment, parent groups and the religious right – and caught the attention of law-enforcement agencies. “Gangsta rap forced America to confront the issues in its ghettos, and its realities were shocking when presented so explicitly on a recording that white suburban teenagers coveted,” Kot suggests.
Straight Outta Compton was one of the first records to receive a Parental Advisory Label (PAL), the ubiquitous black-and-white stickers that warn parents of explicit content. The emergence of the Parental Advisory Label sheds light on the atmosphere of the decade – one in which music was the subject of rigorous cultural and even political debate.
The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was a committee formed in 1985, after its co-founder, Mary ‘Tipper’ Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore, recognised references to masturbation in a song her daughter was listening to: Prince’s Darling Nikki. In addition to Gore, the PMRC also included Susan Baker, wife of Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, and other prominent women who were referred to as the ‘Washington Wives’.
Their considerable political clout enabled them to bring a senate hearing debate on “porn rock” and, along with the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), encourage the Recording Industry Association of America to introduce the PAL. To avoid losing sales, record companies had artists re-record songs and albums with ‘clean’ versions that could be sold alongside those bearing a PAL. Some songs were deleted from albums altogether and retail chains such as Walmart refused to stock PAL-stickered records in an attempt to brand themselves ‘family-friendly’.
Sociology professor Mathieu Deflem explains how the issue of race came into the debate: “Initially, the PMRC was focused mostly on heavy metal, which was very popular in the ‘80s, and thus on white people’s music. There was however a distinct shift towards rap [and] hip hop in the early ‘90s, which brought about an additional racial issue, especially because the black music of hip hop had a wide appeal and crossed over into white markets.”
The negative attention only gave NWA further fame and with it, album sales. They called themselves ‘the world’s most dangerous group’ and on their most notorious song, Fuck tha Police, told a story of police brutality and discrimination in a retribution fantasy in which Ice Cube raps that “police think they have the authority to kill a minority”.
By the summer of 1989, a right-wing backlash against the group was in full force. A newsletter called Focus on the Family Citizen ran the headline: “Rap Group NWA says ‘Kill Police’”. This prompted FBI assistant director Milt Ahlerich to issue a letter to NWA’s record label, which stated, “Music plays a significant role in society”, and claimed the song “encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer.”
The letter arrived while NWA were on tour, where police were showing up at each concert. The group’s promoters tried to encourage them not to perform the offending number. At a show in Detroit, while the crowd chanted ‘Fuck tha Police’, Ice Cube attempted to start the song. The police rushed the stage and the band scattered. But later, after pressure from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the FBI backed down.
‘Our raps are documentary’
Gangsta rap remained a political hot potato into the 1990s, with politicians such as Bill Clinton admonishing Sister Souljah and Dan Quayle criticising Ice-T’s Cop Killer – in what some would call cynical attempts to garner easy votes with conservatives. Journalists scrapped over provocative articles like The Rap Attitude by Newsweek’s Jerry Adler. More than 30 music critics wrote to the magazine’s editor, protesting the article "made [rap] seem gigantically more violent, obscene and confrontational than it is... artists who might be controversial were misrepresented." Gangsta rap also divided the hip-hop community, with some denouncing apparent reinforcing of negative racial stereotypes, sexist and homophobic attitudes. The recent NWA biopic has been criticised for skating around these issues of misogyny and violence and resorting to hagiography.
In a 1989 interview, Ice Cube defended NWA’s refusal to compromise or apologise for their lyrical subject matter. “Our raps are documentary. We don’t take sides,” he said. Greg Kot adds: “When Chuck D described rap as the ‘black CNN’, NWA was the type of music he was talking about”. Many describe Straight Outta Compton’s vision of South Central as prophetic – foreshadowing Rodney King and the LA riots of 1992, and in the wake of the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – prescient.
Last week, Dr Dre – NWA’s super-millionaire and mentor to countless rap superstars – released his first solo album in 16 years. He described it as his ‘grand finale’, passing the baton to young rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, who also hails from Compton. The neighbourhood’s streets are no longer as mean as in the late 1980s, when violence and homicides peaked.
The Parental Advisory Label still exists – even in a largely digital market – but the emergence of new technologies and declining sales means its importance is greatly diminished. “The sticker is here, and it is tolerated, to the extent it is even known,” explains Deflem. “Of course, the decline of the music industry has made the issue much more marginal than in the ‘80s and ‘90s when music sales were huge.”
And nearly 30 years after they released Straight Outta Compton, the hoopla about NWA, gangsta rap, music and censorship that raged across the United States has also faded – but the issues the album gave voice to have not. “In retrospect,” says Kot, “the ‘controversy’ over what NWA represented and how authorities tried to repress the group and its music speaks volumes about the realities of race and power in America.”
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