"Straight Outta Compton" and the prehistory of #BlackLivesMatter: How gangsta rap shaped our culture

A new N.W.A biopic is more myth than history -- but the group's profane revolution shocked many Americans awake

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 12, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

You can tell that a musical movement has radical potential as soon as white people with bad haircuts start trying to destroy it. I certainly remember that gangsta-rap supergroup N.W.A’s 1988 debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” was greeted with a mixture of outrage and consternation by those forces in society who always fail to recognize that they have cast themselves in the roles of prim schoolmarm and/or hypocritical preacher. (Either they pretend not to remember that the same thing happened with Elvis, with comic books, with horror movies, with heavy metal and punk rock and video games, or they soberly assure us that this case is very different.) But I had forgotten that N.W.A’s first national tour was greeted with riled-up demonstrators who bought piles of “Straight Outta Compton” LPs and CDs simply in order to crush them with bulldozers.

In director F. Gary Gray’s crowd-pleasing new N.W.A biopic, also called “Straight Outta Compton,” group co-founders Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) look out a tour-bus window at the angry crowd of record-crushers in bemusement. Those people bought the damn thing, right? They can do what they want with it. That moment is no more than a comic footnote in Gray’s film, a sprawling, overstuffed, formulaic but highly entertaining story of pop stardom and its discontents in which the pioneers of gangsta rap are burnished to a high mythological gloss. (Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, surviving N.W.A founders turned showbiz zillionaires, are among the movie’s producers, so this should be viewed as the authorized and somewhat sanitized version of history.)

But I think the symbolic violence of the record-crushers has a resonance that reaches both backward and forward in cultural history. Those people would never have heard of N.W.A or their obscure Los Angeles neighborhood if it hadn’t been for one song on that album, of course – and the way America reacted to that song eerily prefigured our current social and racial divisions over police violence and African-Americans. At the time, N.W.A specifically rejected any activist role or perspective; gangsta rap was partly a reaction against the didactic, “conscious” hip-hop of Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions. At its most nihilistic, gangsta rap had a lot in common with the “no future” ethos of early punk rock; N.W.A was closer to the Sex Pistols than the Clash, and their music portrayed a world in which black lives didn’t matter.

All that looks a whole lot different with a quarter-century's worth of hindsight, and Gray’s film seeks to connect the historical dots somewhat, while varnishing over the less savory details. As Stereo Williams of the Daily Beast has explored, “Straight Outta Compton” never mentions Dr. Dre’s history of alleged violence against women, or the pervasive misogyny of the gangsta genre. But let’s get back to those white folks who wanted to destroy N.W.A so badly they gave them lots of free publicity and bonus record sales. That response (as well as being idiotic) reflects a deep-seated American anxiety about the corrosive social effects of pop music in general and black music in particular. At the time, it clearly echoed a bizarre and revelatory event from less than a decade earlier, the notorious Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Field in July of 1979. Lured by a local rock DJ who vowed to rid the world of the scourge of disco music – which to many whites of the 1970s was tainted both with blackness and gayness – nearly 50,000 people showed up to watch him blow up a bin of dance records between games of a White Sox doubleheader. The crowd was virtually all white and heavily dosed with beer and weed, and the result was essentially a riot: Fans stormed the field, climbed the foul poles, tore up the bases and the pitching rubber and tried to invade the Sox owner’s private box. All to prove that disco sucked.

At least Disco Demolition Night had an undeniable libidinal energy, although the usual double standard of American life applied: A drunken white mob engaged in pointless property destruction are high-spirited hell-raisers, perhaps regrettable but essentially comic. Almost any group of black men, outside an authorized context, is perceived as inherently threatening. In “Straight Outta Compton,” we see a fictionalized retelling of the episode that supposedly sparked “Fuck tha Police,” N.W.A’s most controversial and influential song. While recording their album at a studio in Torrance, a middle-class and mostly white community on L.A.’s southern beachfront, the group’s members are harassed and humiliated by abusive local cops, one of them an African-American who assures their white manager (played by Paul Giamatti) that rap isn’t music and he’s wasting his time with these gang-banger criminals. Whether or not it really happened that way, that cop plays an important role in the film as the sole spokesman for the middle-class black community’s discomfort with gangsta rap.

That was the song, of course, that brought down the ire of the protesters with the plaid shorts, the white sneakers and the rented bulldozers. “Fuck tha Police” was widely understood in mainstream white America not as an angry complaint or a cynical chronicle of street reality – or, in structural terms, as an outlet for youthful aggression, closely akin to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” – but as an actual incitement to violence. It’s amazing to look back and see the extent of the hysteria: Five young men from an obscure Los Angeles suburb made a self-produced record for a small indie label, which was almost entirely banned from radio play and attracted official warnings from the FBI and the Secret Service. Authorities in several cities refused to let them play, and the movie depicts N.W.A driven from the stage and arrested by Detroit cops after defying an order not to play the Song That Shall Not Be Named. (Reality is a bit more prosaic: Their show was shut down and the band members were questioned at their hotel, but no one was arrested.)

It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that only whites were offended by that song, or by the other sagas of dope deals, promiscuity and casual violence written by Ice Cube and MC Ren, the group’s principal lyricists. Ever since rap music emerged in the late ‘70s it has been divisive within the African-American community, and for many middle-class black people at the time the braggadocio, misogyny and apparent celebration of criminality in gangsta rap seemed to embrace all the worst stereotypes about their community.

None of that debate about rap within the black community directly surfaces in “Straight Outta Compton,” which was scripted by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, from an original story by Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus. For longtime hip-hop fans, however, the Dark Side of the Force is more than evident in R. Marcos Taylor’s terrifying performance as Suge Knight, the brilliant entrepreneur who did so much to market hip-hop as a global generational brand, and arguably did even more to destroy it. Knight is depicted here as a violent hothead surrounded by sinister companions and obsessed with humiliating his rivals, but needless to say the most damaging rumors or allegations surrounding him go unmentioned. (In a case of life imitating art imitating life, Knight currently faces murder charges for running over a music industry rival with his car – after an altercation on the set of this movie.)

For those who launched a remarkably counterproductive campaign against N.W.A, the problem wasn’t simply that a rap group from L.A. had cut a record expressing dreadful disrespect for law enforcement. It was the disturbing and destabilizing effect that record had, and exactly the same is true for those who stand with Darren Wilson, or try to depict #BlackLivesMatter protesters as hoodlums and anarchists. As we see in the movie (although it goes unmentioned), by the midpoint of N.W.A’s 1989 tour their audiences were often one-third to one-half white, and sometimes more; almost 80 percent of sales of “Straight Outta Compton” came outside major cities.

Exactly what kind of vicarious thrill or identification those white fans got from chanting along with "Fuck tha Police" is a complicated question much discussed by music critics and hip-hop scholars, and not one this movie even tries to address. But that moment of cultural rebellion shifted the consciousness of young Americans in one direction, and this moment of political direct action is doing the same in another. There are plenty of people who don’t want the national consciousness shifted, and indeed would like to unshift it as much as possible. Those people will fight back however they can, and are unquestionably dangerous in the moment. History ultimately renders them pathetic.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Dr. Dre Eazy-e Fuck Tha Police Hip-hop Ice Cube Los Angeles Movies Music N.w.a Rap Music Straight Outta Compton