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“Straight Outta Compton,” the title track from N.W.A’s first album, is violent even before anyone says a word, a strong backbeat overlaid by a nervous repeating snare fill that palpitates like coffee jitters, like a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, like an itchy trigger finger. The beat is scary all by itself in this song — too intimidating to dance to, really — not an in-your-face sort of deal like Public Enemy or Big Daddy Kane, but somehow ruthless, quietly intense. Under this, a single quarter note repeats, plucked on an electric guitar, and a thick, long tone — roughly sampled tenor saxophones, it sounds like — is deliberately underblown and brought up to a sour, wavering pitch, as if on a tape machine low on batteries. The sound fabric breathes, creepily alive. Faint cries can be heard in the background on the offbeats of three and four, as on Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two,” although they seem less cries of passion here than distant cries for help. An AK-47 shudders and, horrified, you can sense the beauty in the sound.
The rhymes on the album are clean, aggressive and profane — tropes on the word “motherfucker” and riffs riding on hopped-up 12-guage adrenalin. Alone among rap crews, N.W.A has four equal rappers, each with a characteristic voice and a distinct writing style. Ice Cube is an angry young man with a dusky tenor flexible as a viola, an intelligent but damaged hothead likely to go off randomly; Ren is the deep-voiced enforcer, loyal, violent and thorough; Eazy is laid-back and vicious, in control, funny as hell; Dre is clever, forceful yet tentative.
The vibe, when it’s not hardcore pissed-off, is easy, merry, casual, fun, as if the guys were just cutting loose in the studio in front of a live mike, the sort of carefully scripted heavy-bottom street-corner jive Parliament-Funkadelic did so well in the ’70s. (Songs are punctuated with staticky comments from the engineer’s booth, the thwee of rewinding tape, expressions of pleasure at the unexpected in-studio appearance of Eazy-E — on Eazy’s own record. It sounds like a bunch of guys sitting around listening to a record, not making one.) A song might take its form from a call-in radio show or an interview with a probation officer.
There are precedents for this sort of thing — Starsky and Hutch, Iceberg Slim’s novels Pimp and Trick Baby, Leroy and Skillet, over-the-top blaxploitation pictures like The Mack and Dolomite — although nobody ever assumed that Redd Foxx or Rudy Ray Moore had any moral authority over the nation’s youth. Take out the cussing and it turns out the gangster crime-spree narrative of “Gangsta Gangsta” is nothing the network censors would blue-pencil from an average episode of Wiseguy. The lyrics of Satan-metal bands like Slayer are unquestionably more violent.
N.W.A’s canny self-identification as a ruthless Compton street gang, though, is close enough to blur the knife’s edge between streetwise fantasy and funky cold experience. Excruciatingly detailed accounts of a burglary, a liquor store holdup, a bank robbery or a drive-by shooting make equally uncomfortable both the people who think N.W.A might not be fronting and the people who’re sure that they are.
A prominent Crip hung up on a journalist friend when she asked him about N.W.A; he thought they were just talkers (giving gangbanging a bad name, perhaps). A local rap promoter who’s been active in L.A. hip-hop as long as it’s existed swears N.W.A are currently active gangsters, gun-crazy, slinging ’caine. (He’s almost certainly wrong, by the way.) To celebrate the Eazy E and N.W.A albums last fall, Priority threw a pre-release bash at the World, a not-very-swanky disco in the Beverly Center. The doorman, thinking N.W.A were a bunch of thugs, refused to let them into the club for their own party. Eazy, at least a foot shorter than the doorman, threw a punch. N.W.A never made it inside.
N.W.A themselves, although they insist they know gangbangers but are not themselves gangbangers, are remarkably cagy about all sorts of basic facts: age, school, girlfriends, where they live, what they did before N.W.A.
It says something about who they are that what they’re trying to hide could either be criminal records or solid B averages and high-school diplomas. “You’re not bringing up our skeletons,” Eazy says, cocking a finger. “That’s dead.”
March ’89: The day MTV banned their “Straight Outta Compton” video, N.W.A is hanging out at the Torrance recording studio that’s the seat of the Ruthless empire. They are all surly — they were counting on the video, a brutal verite gang-sweep scenario directed by Australian Rupert Wainwright, to put them over the way that Tone-Loc’s did — and upset about a Compton flare-up between the Piru Bloods and the Atlantic Drive Crips: They’ve lost friends over the weekend. Concert-volume beatbox riffs whump from specially built 18-inch playback woofers in the engineers’ booth where Dre is recording the B-side for the next single, a stripped-down jam called “Give It to Dre.” He hunches over a record on a turntable like a studio guitarist over his ax and grimly scratches in the break time and again over the beat. “Give it to Dre .?.?. G-G-Give it to Dre. G-Give it to Dre and the boy is done.” He makes a mistake and Yella rewinds the tape. “Fuck the image!” somebody yells from the next room.