Few can claim to have shifted the cultural landscape with only an album. For the Compton, Calif., collective of musicians known as NWA, Straight Outta Compton earned them a place in this small and privileged class. The iconography is indelible. Eazy-E and Ice Cube’s Jheri curls suggested they were exotic, slightly backward “country” folks still gripping a hairstyle long since passed from mainstream fashion. The black-themed, Crips-blue/Bloods-red neutral clothing they wore – black jeans, L.A. Raiders caps and L.A. Raiders Starter jackets – signified their emergence from a land fraught with the codes and rituals of gang life. Their name itself, an acronym for Ni**uz Wit Attitude, appropriated a racial slur not yet neutered by its many subsequent, NWA-inspired repetitions.
It’s been over 25 years since that Straight Outta Compton was serviced to the public on August 8, 1988. In the pre-SoundScan era, its appearance was less a flashy box office opening than a slow absorption. First, it continued a argument among hip-hop fanatics that had begun over group leader Eazy-E’s debut Eazy-Duz-It: Is West Coast rap a bastard of authentic East Coast hip-hop? (Even back then, the regional chauvinism that fueled an East Coast-West Coast rivalry simmered.) Rockist critics thrilled and groaned to provocations like Ice Cube’s salvo “Do I look like a motherfu**in role model?” -- the term “role model” being an albatross every celebrity was (and is) forced to carry. (There were few rap specialists in print at the time. The Source magazine had launched just months before as a radio programmers’ tip sheet.) Finally, America’s moral majority worried over the coarsening effects of claiming to be a gangsta, smoking “weed out,” using profanity, and threatening to “f*ck up” abusive cops. Add a threatening letter NWA’s label Ruthless Records got from the FBI that it gleefully publicized in the press, and by the spring of 1989 Straight Outta Compton was a pop phenomenon of the divisive kind, demanding that sides be taken.
Whether NWA were just mouthy kids rapping about their violence-torn neighborhoods remains a matter of debate. Eazy-E, who mythically launched Ruthless Records with cash earned from crack sales, seems to be the only certified gangster (whatever that means). Ice Cube was a teenage emcee who had already burned through two projects, CIA (Cru in Action) and Stereo Crew. Arabian Prince was a respected bass producer of dancefloor hits like “Innovator” and “Situation Hot”; he left the group before it blew up, but managed to make the album cover. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella emerged from the ashes of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, whose mid-'80s electro-rap generated a few minor hits, particularly Dre’s turntable scratch-a-thon “Surgery,” and his synth-funk slow jam duet with future wife Michel’le, “Turn Out the Lights.”
Electro was the language of primordial West Coast rap, and NWA signified the region’s growth into the kind of funky hip-hop typical of the genre’s golden age. On “Gangsta Gangsta,” Dr. Dre and DJ Yella used Steve Arrington’s “Weak at the Knees” as a rhythm bed for over a dozen sample effects. They added drum breaks from The Headhunters’ “God Made Me Funky,” the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President,” Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run,” and Kool & the Gang’s “NT” (according to the site whosampled.com). They used the vocal intro from The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Trogolodyte” (“What we’re gonna do is go back … way back”), the chorus from William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” (“Diamond in the back, sunroof top”), Bernie Worrell’s synthesizer melody on the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm,” and several lines from comedienne Lady Reed’s “Sonnet to My Idol.” There were vocal snippets from Boogie Down Productions’ “My Philosophy” (“It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality”), Beastie Boys’ “You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party” (“Yeah!”) and Slick Rick’s “La-Di-Da-Di” (“As we go a little something like this … hit it”).
While the duo’s pastiche of loops wasn’t as frenetic as Public Enemy, they aspired to a similar aesthetic of hip-hop as unvarnished news broadcast of street reality. Amid the East Coast homage was “Funky Worm,” and Dr. Dre later used that eerily undulating Arabesque for his true sonic breakthrough, NWA’s 1991 follow-up efil4zugg*N. However, thanks to the acrimonious departure of Ice Cube, that album was also a lyrically knuckleheaded debasement of Straight Outta Compton’s “street knowledge.” The group destroyed itself over sundry beefs and accusations of Eazy-E’s mismanagement, resulting in a too-brief, two-album oeuvre (three if you count the 1987 compilation NWA & the Posse) that, despite frequent half-hearted attempts at reunions (including a silly 1999 incarnation featuring Snoop Dogg), effectively ended with Eazy-E’s death in 1995.
Straight Outta Compton is remembered as the most important notch on the gangsta rap evolutionary ladder. First, there was Philadelphia rapper/producer Schoolly-D’s early singles, particularly “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?),”; P.S.K. stood for Park Side Killers. Brooklyn jokesters Beastie Boys and their White Castle hoodlum tales on Licensed to Ill were heavily inspired by “P.S.K.,” as was Ice-T’s single “6 N the Mornin’.” And at the same time as NWA shocked the world with “F*ck Tha Police,” Houston group Geto Boys released “Assassins,” a nihilistic screed so bloody that it would later be called the first example of horrorcore. When murder soliloquies reached an apotheosis in the mid-'90s, real-world violence signified by the shooting deaths of several well-known rappers, from 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. to Big L and Black C of RBL Posse, led fans and musicians to retreat into the less-volatile, more pop-friendly demimonde of “gangsta parties.”
Perhaps it’s just the nostalgic glaze of memories, but Straight Outta Compton seems genuinely historic in how it turned a reviled segment of society -- crack-dealing gangsters from South Central Los Angeles that seemingly killed each other over a block or “set” they claimed, or the color of clothing they wore -- into revolutionary antiheroes. Its impact is still felt, even as the changes it wrought seem banal. Today, gangsta rap themes are SEO bait for regional rap strivers and major label brands. It’s a mere parody of what Straight Outta Compton once was.