BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM explains the seminal, inflammatory rap scapegoat, Straight Outta Compton, and the role of N.W.A.’s original gangsta, Ice Cube.

*   *   *

TWENTY years ago, a seismic change happened in hip-hop. People at the time didn’t realise the magnitude of the quake coming from South Central Los Angeles, a singular album was released that caught the industry and mass media by surprise with its massive underground popularity. Today, Straight Outta Compton still startles, a punch in the face with depraved lyrics, violent wet dreams and some frankly deeply offensive lyrics. But N.W.A. were playing characters, adopting the black buck personas to sell records. And it worked. Nine millions copies, two re-issues, canonisation in rock-dominated best-of lists, and setting up the template for the gangsta lifestyle, the influence of this album cannot be understated. But its immediate aftermath was shifting the paradigms within hip-hop, no easy feat in a genre that marginalised institutionally and commercially – suddenly rap became a bad word as far as the mass media was concerned, and the ensuing moral panic did a lot to sell the genre.

Hip-hop was borne out of the Bronx, a multi-ethnic set of genres and cultural practices that spread quickly to resonate with all sorts of people around the world. Early hip-hop largely celebrated the party, but with figures such as Grandmaster Flash, it started becoming used as a tool for political means. It gained a bit of occasional press, and certain successes suggested a genre of considerable potential, but by and large, hip-hop was largely ignored in a critical sense. However, murmurings of a different direction were heard from “gangster” performers such as Boogie Down Productions. But it was an independently released album by a bunch of kids from LA made up of high-school dropout drug dealers and middle-class artists which shifted the focus of hip-hop towards the East Coast. Figures such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E became iconic names in musical history and the gangsta lifestyle which Straight Outta Compton espoused became the template for future success.

The thing about Straight Outta Compton was that the mainstream music press tried to pretend that it didn’t exist. It barely got reviewed, and there was little engagement with the album as a piece of artistic merit. None of the major publications – Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times touched it in their review sections. Most radio stations refused to go near it. MTV refused to air any of the band’s videos (which isn’t that unsurprising given that MTV refused to play “black” music until the mid-80s because it wasn’t “commercial” enough – this included barring figures like Michael Jackson, Prince etc.). This refusal to engage with the album aesthetically (and it’s fair to say, in terms of the album’s production, the album is quite incredible) helped confirm popular beliefs that hip-hop was simply ‘crude utterances’ and ‘not music’.

But the media did get involved when it was obvious that Straight Outta Compton was a huge hit. The band were dubbed the “world’s most dangerous group.” A moral panic ensued over hip-hop and its threat to decent values and the media refused to differentiate between different forms of hip-hop. In particular ‘Fuck tha Police’ a song which seemed to openly advocate violence on policemen caused consternation that “black” audiences would go on a killing rampage after listening to the song. It is interesting to note that the media didn’t consider whether the extensive “white” audience of the album would also constitute a threat to policemen. It also helped racialise the genre: rap became known as “black” music. This ignored its subcultural roots in Jamaican immigrants, Puerto Rican communities, “white” entrepreneurs, and confines initially within Brooklyn. Rap and “blackness” became so integrally tied together, that hip-hop is still assumed to be a “black” genre. The media with their coverage of N.W.A. and hip-hop helped reinforce the idea that “blackness” was inherently violent, sexist, and homophobic. As theorist bell hooks noted with some irony, violence, sexism and homophobia are hardly “black” only traits.

“Adopting personas from gangster movies like Scarface, and referring back to the centuries-old dangerous “black buck” mythology, the album was indeed sexist, violent and homophobic. But whereas Scorsese can have a line in Goodfellas “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster” and have his film called high art, N.W.A. macho posturing was roundly condemned.”

And it wasn’t just the media who were scared of the album. Milt Ahlerich, the assistant director of the FBI wrote a letter to the band and the record label (Ruthless Records) castigating the band’s violent stance, particularly on the song ‘Fuck tha Police.’ It was the first time the FBI had directly written to a band to tell them off. The album was forced to carry a warning sticker about its offensive content, thanks to efforts of the Parents Music Resource Centre, which Ice Cube et al all wore with relish. Police refused to provide the customary security for gigs (pushing up insurance premiums to uneconomical levels), and the band were forced to sign contracts saying they wouldn’t perform ‘Fuck tha Police’. When they did in Detroit, the police rushed the stage and called the concert off.

But of course, the band dressed themselves up as stereotypes to sell records. Adopting personas from gangster movies like Scarface, and referring back to the centuries-old dangerous “black buck” mythology, the album was indeed sexist, violent and homophobic. But whereas Scorsese can have a line in Goodfellas “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster” and have his film called high art, N.W.A. macho posturing was roundly condemned. Calling themselves “niggaz”, and rapping about things like smacking “bitches” on the head “with nine inches of limp dick” or “playin’ with the trigga” of Uzis and AKs, there’s no doubt as to why the mainstream media might read them in such inflammatory ways. The band claimed they were discussing reality, and there’s no doubt areas like Compton were economically ravaged by ‘70s and 80s reforms and economic depressions. They were playing on a very real frustration and anger, which was so evident in the LA Riots a few years later. But there’s no doubt N.W.A. did a lot to help perpetuate the stereotypes that the mainstream press were using to attack the band.

This nihilism though helped the album sell like nothing else. The band’s follow-up Efil4ziggan hit number one on the Billboard Charts. Ice Cube’s post-Compton departure proved successful with his debut solo Amerikkka’s Most Wanted selling over a million copies. He adopted a similarly uncompromising tone in his solo work. But despite the creation of the gangsta rap genre, few successful albums ever matched the sonic template of Straight Outta Compton. The deranged production, unapologetic nihilism and the outrageousness of the lyrics represent a one-off kind of project (notwithstanding later N.W.A. albums, or the work of other affiliates of the N.W.A crew). Yet this didn’t stop the moral panic labelling all sorts of “rap” as gangsta rap. Thrash songs such as Ice T’s ‘Cop Killer’ became known as gangster rap, when it was nothing of the sort. The hard-edged but politically brainy work of New York’s Public Enemy became also known as “gangsta rap.” The gangster connotations became so pervasive that N.W.A. seemed to symbolise everything about rap – De La Soul, Run DMC, even New Zealand’s own Upper Hutt Posse became dipped in the same dirty sauce N.W.A. created.

But record companies realised that something was up. It wasn’t simply poor “black” dudes in the ‘hood who were buying this stuff, but it was middle-class “white” boys and girls too. It’s of no surprise that an album such as this, dripping with sentiments most people still find reprehensible, has been re-released twice by two different major labels. Hip-hop suddenly became played on MTV frequently. But something had altered between N.W.A.’s stance and the subsequent hip-hop artists that record labels were in a flurry to sign. Gone were the politics and uncompromising stances. Gone were the things which brutally confronted the audiences about racism and prejudice. Unless of course, it was in a simplistic, unchallenging kind of way. But the things which the media were so supposedly concerned about – sexism, violence, homophobia, excess consumption – they all remained. In fact, they became the key components to sell hip-hop. Other forms of hip-hop remained underground because it wasn’t gangster enough, so record companies wouldn’t touch them for the most part. The media continued in their merry way by shitting themselves over the Tupac/Biggie war, the rise of Eminem (probably the Elvis figure as far as the commercialisation of hip-hop was concerned), and the star personas of 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg as dangerous to today’s youth. Public Enemy’s Chuck D wrote that “many in the world of hip-hop have begun to believe that the only way to blow up and become megastars is by presenting themselves in a negative light.” It was the runaway success of Straight Outta Compton that helped create this shift.

And it’s something that Ice Cube still acknowledges now. While his career seems to have shifted somewhat – to family movies and awful Hollywood films, his hard-edged persona still exists in his music. His latest album Raw Footage has him repeating similar sentiments to the early N.W.A. days. “I’m Utah I’ve got multiple bitches” for example. He waxes on political riffs – the use of the word “nigger”, George W, and a general nihilism, but it’s not as pointed or as disturbing as the early work. However, he acknowledges that he’s all part of a game: “so if I act like a pimp, ain’t nothing to it gangsta rap made me do it // if I call you a nappy-headed ho, ain’t nothing to it gangsta rap made me do it.” Nonetheless, the same devotion to raw beats and witty humour that made N.W.A. such a fascinating band to listen to still remains. But Ice Cube ultimately knows what he needs to do to sell records. After all, he helped write the rules.