Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Wren Graves looks back at how N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton changed the direction of hip-hop forever.
Let’s talk about a technological disruption, a bit of engineering ingenuity that solved a problem for drug dealers. You see, while marijuana is relatively popular, the price that consumers are willing to pay for it is only a little higher than the production costs. There just isn’t a lot of money in selling weed, especially at the lower levels of the trade. In this sense, cocaine is better, with wonderful profit margins, but the problem throughout the ’70s was that you had to know rich, white people if you wanted to sell your product at a premium. The full innovative force of Capitalism was brought to bear on the problem, and a solution was found: a new manufacturing process that allowed the drug to be profitably sold for a couple of dollars per dose. The exact moment of inspiration is lost to history, but by 1981 crack cocaine had made its debut.
What followed has been called an epidemic, as crack spread from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city like a virulent disease. According to The Department of Justice, from 1984 to 1985, “The number of people who admitted using cocaine on a routine basis increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million … cocaine-related hospital emergencies rose by 12 percent, from 23,500 to 26,300; and in 1986, they increased 110 percent, from 26,300 to 55,200. Between 1984 and 1987, cocaine incidents increased fourfold.”
The money and illegal nature of the business attracted guns, which attracted violence, which attracted newspapers, which attracted the office of the President of the United States. Ronald Reagan endorsed a program called Drug Abuse Resistance Education, of which the Surgeon General said in 2001, “Meets the criteria for Does Not Work.” For her part, First Lady Nancy Reagan offered, “Just say no.” Meanwhile, in the span of a few years, poor neighborhoods were transformed by the guns and gangs into warring kingdoms, with plenty of civilian casualties scattered among the fallen soldiers. For every million crack users, there were several million more people who felt the impact even though they didn’t use themselves. We could see this in hundreds of cities around the United States, but today we are most concerned about the city of Compton in Los Angeles County, California.
“When something happens in south-central Los Angeles, nothing happens. It’s just another nigga dead.”
This is how Ice Cube launches into the first track off N.W.A’s 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton. The subject matter was unprecedented. “Back then we was calling it reality rap,” Ice Cube told Rolling Stone in 2015. “It was the media that called it gangsta rap.” It’s not hard to see why. Many murders take place throughout these songs; if N.W.A had offed this many people in “reality,” they would have been the most accomplished serial killers in American history. On the other hand, words like “gang” and “gangsta” appear with some regulatory. Just look at the first four lines of the very first verse:
Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggas Wit Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off
Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off
Remember, this is the height of the crack epidemic. Compton is depicted as a violent hellscape and N.W.A as lords of the land, who occasionally pause in their rampages to attend parties or pursue pretty women. On “Straight Outta Compton”, Ice Cube sums up the tone: “Here’s a murder rap to keep you dancing.” It’s an intoxicating mixture that influenced generations of musicians. And if we go back in time, to the very beginning, we will see that it had three key ingredients. O’shea “Ice Cube” Jackson would supply much of the vocabulary for the gangster rap movement. N.W.A’s producer, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, saw how all the pieces would fit together. But from its very beginning, gangster rap has been a genre obsessed with authenticity. And N.W.A’s authentic hero — or antihero if you prefer — was former drug dealer and gang member Eric “Eazy-E” Wright.
Before forming N.W.A, the three had collaborated together in 1987 on the deliriously dangerous “Boyz-n-the-Hood”. Sixteen-year-old Ice Cube wrote the lyrics, and Dr. Dre produced. But it was Eazy-E, armed with authenticity and a high-pitched charisma, who delivered the message.
The setting is the drug-ravaged inner city. The “hero” of the song is a dangerous, even frightening man, who happens to enjoy cracking jokes. Smart-ass villains have been popular since Shakespeare, and Eazy-E’s performance turned the song into a local LA hit. The three men had a lead single before they had an album or even a group identity. N.W.A., Niggaz Wit Attitudes, was quickly assembled.
From his old group, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Dr. Dre poached turntablist DJ Yella and rapper-producer Arabian Prince. Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson was plucked from high school, like Ice Cube. Together with associates such as Krazy Dee and the Fila Fresh Crew, they released N.W.A. and the Posse in November 1987. N.W.A then jettisoned the posse and repurposed the best songs for other projects. “Boyz-n-the-Hood (remix)” went to Eazy-E’s 1988 solo effort, Eazy-Duz-It. Straight Outta Compton claimed “Dopeman (remix)” and “8-Ball (remix)”.
The differences between the originals and the remixes show a rapid evolution. Here’s the original “8-Ball”. Note the heavy reliance on the turntable.
The basic story of a man with no definite plan and an 800 brand Olde English 40 oz. malt liquor remains the same. Eazy-E crashes parties, picks fights, and generally raises hell — a portrait of a night on the town. But “8 Ball (remix)” is funkier — less scratchy and more melodic — foreshadowing Dr. Dre’s later g-funk beats. The verses are tighter, too; on the original, Eazy-E raps, “Police on my tail, I don’t like jail/ 40 oz. in my lap, and it’s cold as hell.” This is a fine little detail, but the second draft is much more evocative: “Police on my drawers, I have to pause/ 40 oz. in my lap, and it’s freezin’ my balls.” N.W.A had polished their skills.
Much of Straight Outta Compton is like this, concerned with the physical world and what to do with your body for safety and pleasure. But one of the highlights of the album shows the group in a more philosophical light. “Express Yourself” was written by Ice Cube and performed solo by Dr. Dre (a neat bit of substitution that would become a trademark of Dre’s on his solo albums.) The music is built off a Charles Wright song of the same name; the way a single phrase is used as the backbone of the beat has been copied many times since, such as on Kanye and Jay Z’s “Otis”.
The song contains no expletives, but it does reflect on the use of swear words in music. “Some musicians curse at home/ But scared to use profanity up on the microphone/ Yeah, they want reality, but you won’t hear none/ They rather exaggerate a fiction.”
The song is also notable for a claim made by Dr. Dre. “I don’t smoke weed,” he says, only a few years before releasing The Chronic, an album-length ode to that singular herb. Perhaps Dr. Dre was himself exaggerating a fiction; even purveyors of “reality rap” can’t afford to let reality get in the way of a good line.
With singles like “Express Yourself”, you might have expected N.W.A to build a career off the radio. That didn’t quite happen, but the lack of radio support wasn’t a problem. They were helped along by one of the most controversial songs on this or any album, a howl of rage that caught the attention of everyone who heard it.
Ice Cube: “Fuck the police! Comin’ straight from the underground/ A 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!” It’s a masterful protest song written by a pair of rappers, Ice Cube and MC Ren, who weren’t old enough to legally drink.
At this point in 1988, the relationship between the police and the black community had become strained, plagued by complaints about racial profiling and police brutality. (“Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for product/ Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics.”) This would reach a boiling point in 1991 when race riots followed the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. “Fuck Tha Police” tapped into black anger in a way that was either exhilarating or uncomfortable, depending on the perspective of the listener.
Most concerning to critics were Ice Cube’s threat to “Swarm/ On any motherfucker in a blue uniform,” and MC Ren’s boast, “I’m a sniper with a hell of a scope/ Taking out a cop or two, they can’t cope with me.” It got to the point where an assistant director at the FBI sent a scolding letter to N.W.A., accusing them of “advocating violence and assault…” and actions “discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.” The letter was meant to shame N.W.A, but its mere existence led to more breathless newspaper articles, such as the LA Times piece linked to above. Because of that letter, N.W.A received priceless publicity in the form of news coverage. The letter is now enshrined, along with N.W.A, in the Canton Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
From this point forward, rappers would use controversy to sell records. It’s a trick Dr. Dre pulled several times, most famously with Snoop Doggy Dogg and Eminem. The question is, did N.W.A do it on purpose with “Fuck Tha Police”? Or was the resulting publicity merely a happy accident? I think there’s evidence that N.W.A knew exactly what they were doing, and that’s their own song, “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”.
The title is a reference to a campaign by the Parents Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore, wife of senator and later Vice President Al Gore, to restrict children’s access to music containing violence, sex, and curse words. In the fall of 1985, the PMRC testified before the Senate, calling witnesses as diverse as Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver. Eventually the Recording Industry Association of America agreed to place Parental Advisory stickers on certain albums; these were nicknamed “Tipper Stickers.” But the Senate hearings didn’t do what Tipper had hoped they would do; rather, many Americans seemed glad to know where to look for some nice, dirty lyrics. Tipper Stickers were good for business.
“Parental Discretion Iz Advised”, which boasts an Isley Brothers sample, features N.W.A gloating about their transgressions. Swearing, sex, and violence — everything the Parents Music Resource Center couldn’t stand. With help from collaborator and occasional ghostwriter The D.O.C., Dr. Dre sneers, “Lyrics for the adults, children have been barred.” It’s a combination: a stunt track and a direct challenge to the censors of the world.
Straight Outta Compton was the first true N.W.A record and the last to boast Ice Cube. What followed — the successes experienced by Cube and Dr. Dre and the tragedy of Eazy-E — have been written about enough at this point. It’s hard not to wonder about the music that might have been, but the little that we have is more than enough.
N.W.A claimed a tiny corner of the map: the city of Compton in Los Angeles County, California. They were able to hold up their hometown as a broken mirror to the world. Crack and gangs and Compton. Police brutality and Compton. Censorship, race, language, controversy, vicious violence, sly jokes, the joys of getting drunk and getting laid, and Compton. It’s a world in miniature, which is how it manages to contain everything.