“Here’s a li’l somethin’ ’bout a nigga like me…”
—First line, third track, heart of the matter: “Gangsta Gangsta”Cali pride personified: (Clockwise from top left) Dr. Dre, Yella, MC Ren, Eazy E and Ice Cube
When N.W.A dropped Straight Outta Compton 20 years ago, their hood reportage functioned as art from the Negro underbelly always has: pulling back the curtains on the realities, dreams and unyielding nightmares of a subset of this country’s African-derived have-nots. With droll black (as in folks) humor, it made deft (should that be def?) performance of hood truths and ghetto fantasies. That combo struck complicated chords because truth and fantasy were trickily overlapped, blurred. It was vent and vindication for many, but jolting news flash to multitudes who weren’t already in the thick of it: the black middle and upper classes, many of whom lived — and still live — half a paycheck away from brutal niggerdom; white folks and non-Negro minorities clueless as to the realities of modern-day native sons. Its greatest and most unfortunate legacy may be that it folded neatly into a lot of folks’ (including Negroes’) long-standing fetish for dysfunctional niggers. It opened some doors of social dialogue and set the template for countless rap careers, but it also helped pave over other avenues of black expression, stoking a global market for shrunken, restricting notions of “real” or “valid” blackness.
Technically, the first words spoken on the now classic album are, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” What follows are biting political anthems (“Fuck tha Police”), irresistible social commentary (“Gangsta Gangsta”) and gender wars as cultural critiques (“I Ain’t tha 1”). The tales are told through detailed but no-frills street vocab, through raunchy call-and-response and poetry rife with off-the-cuff homophobia and misogyny. Compton reflects and embodies the discomfiting and the infuriating, the illuminating and the cathartic. Today, Straight Outta Compton not only holds up, but blows away most of the rap released this year. Dre’s studio handiwork is clearly from many hip-hop cycles ago, but it’s far from dated. His blood-raw beats and shrewd samples (“Here’s hopin’ you sophisticated muthafuckas hear what I gotta say…”) ably illustrate one of the disc’s most famous lines: “I’m the typa nigga that’s built to last.”
To help the consumer feel this new collection is worth her time, digital wizardry has been performed (remastered; the sound is great), and bonus tracks include covers by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Snoop Dogg & C-Murder, Mack 10 and WC. They’re all fine, but what really makes the collection relevant is… just how relevant the record remains.
Nooses are in this season, hanging from dorm-room doors of black college students, office doors of black professors and a famous statue of Tupac; black children are incarcerated at an alarming rate, given sentences far out of proportion to whatever knucklehead antics they get up to. In this new gilded age, gentrification, a fucked housing market and population shifts have black folk vanishing from San Francisco, D.C., New York and parts of L.A. that were once buh-lack and going… where? The list goes on and yet there is no serious conversation about any of this.
Turn up the music.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION | N.W.A | Priority Records/Capitol
In 1989, Jonathan Gold profiled N.W.A for the L.A. Weekly. Here’s an excerpt. February ’89: On the morning his solo record was certified gold, Eazy E stood blinking in the well-kept backyard of his mother’s house in Compton, 15 minutes south of downtown. He is tiny, his neat Jheri curls just so beneath a black Raiders cap, the gold chain around his neck thick as his frail wrists. He slouched, eyes puffy, as if his body couldn’t believe it wasn’t still in bed. He and his friends in N.W.A had hung out at a Bobby Brown gig, holding court, until late. Two days earlier they had hosted a segment of Yo! MTV Raps (though MTV would refuse to play their video); later that afternoon they will be interviewed by Word Up!, a black-teen pinup magazine; the next day they will fly to New York for something called the Urban Teen Awards.
Eazy, who signs checks as Eric Wright, is sole owner of Ruthless Records, an independent hip-hop production company that releases music through Atlantic, Elektra/Asylum and Priority, a compilation label run by a former K-tel executive who had never before dealt with an act, unless you count the California Raisins. The Ruthless touch, the raw, danceable Compton street sound, is hot, and each of the label’s three Dre-produced rap albums — by Eazy, N.W.A and J.J. Fad — is certified gold, well on its way to platinum. This spring there’ll be three more, plus an unexpurgated N.W.A video album and, for squeamish retailers (and the armed services), a self-censored version of Straight Outta Compton minus “Fuck tha Police,” half the violence and all the cuss words. (The censored version of Eazy-Duz-It reportedly accounts for close to 200,000 of the roughly 900,000 copies sold.) The final figure hasn’t been released yet, but Ruthless is rumored to have shopped around the Dr. Dre–produced album by rapper D.O.C. for a cool million, and Sylvia Rhone of Atlantic A&R snapped it up. When this summer’s projected tour with Ice-T fell through last week, Eazy arranged a 60-city Compton Posse tour himself, with N.W.A headlining over MC Hammer and Too Short.
Each of the five members of N.W.A writes songs for each of the Ruthless albums, whether dance, rap or squishy soul. Each member of N.W.A — young Compton men who all grew up in the same couple of blocks — will probably earn in six figures this year. Eazy’s manager, Jerry Heller, who was instrumental in breaking Elton John and Pink Floyd, supposes $75 million in retail sales for Ruthless next year might be about right, and thinks Eazy might be the most important black-music entrepreneur since Motown’s Berry Gordy.
“I’ve been in the music business 30 years,” Heller says. “Eazy is the most Machiavellian guy I’ve ever met. He instinctively knows about power and how to control people. The couple of times I’ve gone against him, I’ve been wrong. And his musical instincts are infallible. In a few years, Ruthless could be as big as A&M.”
Today, N.W.A is being photographed. “If this is going to be on the cover, we should find us an alley or something,” Eazy says. “Man, if we get us in an alley for this picture, niggas gonna know we drove to an alley in a Benz,” Ice Cube says. “Let’s do it right here in the back yard.”
They pose, first by the stagnant green water of a fountain, then near some steps, assuming a formation familiar from every published photo of the band.
“What, no AK?” somebody asks. Eazy looks disappointed. “Shit, man, this is my mother’s house. All that stuff is at my place.” He straightens from his crouch and goes inside. A minute later he reappears with a heavy-canvas duffel bag and empties weaponry onto the grass like a Little League coach pouring out bats and balls — 9-millimeter repeating pistols and 12-gauge shotguns and a couple of small-bore rifles and a .38 and a mean-looking sawed-off, clips, sights, scopes and boxes of ammunition, an arsenal bigger than Sergeant Samuel K. Doe needed to overthrow Liberia. But no AKs. Not at Mom’s house.
N.W.A swarms over the guns: “Give me the revolver, man… Put in the gunpowder, boom. Give me the scope, man… No, man, that’s a BB gun, ain’t nothing in that one… That one is an ugly motherfucker right here, man, you got to hide that, yeah… John F. Kennedy. John Fuckin’ Kennedy — that scope is def.”
“You look like an orange, like something up at the range… Those scopes with the little red dot is hard… What’s that got?… One of those Public Enemy things in there, the crosshairs… Give me the nine, off with this motherfucker What you mean, man, that’s a magnum, that shit look kind of crazy… I be like comin’ from the hidden, still be comin’, pop you off right in the ditch… Pow! This shit is kickin’. Roll over and die, motherfucker.”
Click. Click-click. Click. Click.
“Hey, Eazy, your momma give you this Daisy-ass shit?… I can really shoot you, right?… Crispus Attucks… No, man, never hold it where you can only see the scope — that’s a long-ass shotgun. Get it right, soldier. I want your ass… I need that ass… I want your radio. Ten guns, sheriff guns, chrome guns, shotguns, old black movies… You see the smoke and the bullet.”
Click. Click-click. Click. (The photographer shoots back.)
“Public Enemy uses plastic guns, you know,” Ice Cube says.
Click here for Gold’s entire N.W.A profile.