“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
Those words, spoken by future mogul Dr. Dre, are the introduction to one of the most influential albums ever, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton.
We’re now three decades from this particular musical moment, and time and respectability has diluted — if not obliterated — the impact of Straight Outta Compton to the point where nobody blinks an eye at the fact that a major motion picture dramatizing that moment even exists.
But in 1988, to a privileged white twentysomething like me, Straight Outta Compton felt a bit like a transmission from outer space, where I couldn’t really relate to the circumstances under which it was created, but it sure was fascinating to me.
Which I think was my excuse to absolve the misogyny that permeated a lot of the songs, and honestly now bugs the fuck outta me, though I still love the moment in “Gangsta, Gangsta” where Ice Cube instantly pivots from insulting a woman who ain’t giving him any play to getting into a fight. I saw a level of irony and abstraction there — talk about a short attention span — that made that verse utterly hilarious to me.
Which is one of the things I always loved about Straight Outta Compton: despite the serious topics being covered, there was always a sense of playfulness underneath all of it. And in fact, that sense of playfulness probably is what gave both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube the futures that in retrospect seem inevitable.
Also: the best tracks are still bangers, and there are still very few track ones side ones on any record more exciting than “Straight Outta Compton.” Not only does it instantly set the time and place while introducing the players, the production was a West Coast variation of what the Bomb Squad were doing for Public Enemy, leveraging the ubiquitous dynamic “Funky Drummer” break and a looped sample of a half-catchy and half-annoying guitar (I think) riff.
And over the top of it, Ice Cube, Ren and Easy-E introduce and mythologize themselves. Cube with a crime record “like Charles Manson,” Ren shooting motherfuckers “in a minute” and Easy-E who “doesn’t give a fuck.” These raps were all so well-written and delivered with just the right amount of energy and life that it didn’t even matter whether or not they were true. Because they were no doubt true for somebody, if not necessarily the middle-class O’Shea Jackson.
And, of course, mythologizing your hardness is a great pop tradition: Johnny Cash didn’t really shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, either, a point that was totally lost on all of the cultural gatekeepers who flipped the fuck out over songs like “Fuck Tha Police.”
In the end, someone exclaims, “Damn, that shit was dope!” and all these years later, they’re still right.
“Straight Outta Compton”
“Straight Outta Compton” official video
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