Straight Outta Compton, the new blockbuster biopic of NWA, is everything it should be. It’s a fire-spitting thrill-ride, charting the South Central LA crew’s journey from beaten-down teens, harassed by the police and surrounded by violence, to chart-topping legends – with all the parties, feuds and bloodshed in between. It’s a glossy, (far from) warts-and-all romp with all the expositional rock biopic trappings. But it’s a victory lap that’s well earned.
Today, now that gangsta rap sells to tween audiences, it’s easy to underestimate just how much of an impact the self-touting Niggaz With Attitude made when they burst on to the scene in the late Eighties. As F Gary Gray’s film shows, when half-pint Compton gangster Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Jason Mitchell) decided to plough his ill-gotten gains into a record label, and hooked up with DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (Cube’s dead-spit son O’Shea Jackson Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), it wasn’t just the authorities who weren’t ready for their fiery brand of ‘reality rap’.
In late Eighties, the East Coast ruled the airwaves. The sound was jazzy, upbeat, danceable and ‘positive’. The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff – the so-called Cosby kids of rap – topped the charts. The Afrocentric New York Native Tongues Posse launched on to the scene in dashikis. While Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a rude awakening, telling tales of police brutality and urban decay, it was fuelled by pious outrage. Straight Outta Compton, NWA’s legendary full-length debut, struck a far more nihilistic tone.
NWA didn’t comment, soberly, on gang life in their music – they embraced it and caricatured it with a no-fucks-given rebelliousness. On the title track, with sirens, snares and horns blaring, we’re introduced to ‘a crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube’ and Eazy-E, ‘the brother who will smother your mother’. It was a visceral, violent and chaotic mission statement, and it had everyone worried. In one hilarious scene in Gray’s film, a local Compton club owner – dressed like Eddie Murphy’s ‘Sexual Chocolate’ – lambasts resident dj Dre for getting Ice Cube on stage to perform ‘Gangsta, Gangsta’. ‘You trying to start a riot?’, he says, before sticking the slow jamz back on.
But it was NWA’s battles with the authorities that made them legends. After years of being pushed around, at the height of the LAPD crackdown on gangs that would later foment the LA Riots, Ice Cube penned the brashest protest song ever written, ‘Fuck tha Police’. The sentiment, muttered by many a black youth as they walked away from a cop car, was suddenly broadcast to the masses. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ looked cute by comparison. The FBI sent Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records a letter warning them not to perform the song, saying it encouraged ‘violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer’.