After the smoke cleared—after the threatening letters from the FBI, after the police skirmishes at tour dates, after the millions of dollars were cashed and after MTV buckled under the weight of street knowledge—the principals were at each other’s throats. N.W.A, one of the most creatively and commercially important groups in all of rap’s history, couldn’t stay together to properly follow up their masterpiece. And so Straight Outta Compton, the LP that shifted the balance of power West, away from New York, and Trojan Horsed gangsta rap into suburban homes around the country, stands as the only dispatch from the full group at the height of its powers. The album has been studied and dissected and formatted for cinema screens; it’s been sampled and rehashed and stripped for parts—even becoming fodder for later feuds between group members.
Yet while Straight Outta Compton has been accurately placed in hip-hop history (and in the flow chart of American pop culture at the end of the 80s), it’s never been properly understood as an inflection point in the musical history of Los Angeles County. When one of those intrasquad feuds reached a fever pitch—with “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s,” Eazy-E’s scorched-Earth Dr. Dre diss from 1993 –– the group’s founder was mocking its producer for having adopted N.W.A’s ruthless, relentless street image relatively late in life. What Eazy was forgetting (or conveniently omitting) is that that had always been the group’s strength: N.W.A wasn’t just the product of America’s malignant racism and California’s craven justice system. It was also the product of bold, brazen boardroom maneuvering, and of glossy, decidedly grown-up disco clubs. Straight Outta Compton is easily reduced into a couple of key mission statements, sure—fuck the police jumps to mind. But it’s just as fascinating when read as an act of synthesis.
Today, the mere mention of Compton carries staggering moral and narrative weight in hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar, the most critically celebrated artist of this decade, was able to use the city’s name as shorthand for an entire lineage that rap fans have internalized. In the 50s and early ‘60s, Compton was a desirable suburb for black Angelenos; by the ‘80s, when Dre, Eazy, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella (and founding member Arabian Prince) were coming of age, it was decaying and over-policed.
As has been the case across cultures and eras, this brutal hardship spawned brilliant music—but at first, very little of it was street rap. The creative underpinnings of N.W.A can be traced back to Eve’s After Dark, the nightclub on Avalon Blvd that spawned the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, a DJ crew that included Yella and Dre. The Wreckin’ Cru ran the gamut from R&B to electro, and served as a proving ground for Yella and Dre to hone their skills on the decks and to learn to manipulate crowds. It was also at Eve’s that the DJs formed an alliance with Ice Cube.
When Eazy got the itch to form his own record label—and, shortly after, to become one of its flagship artists—he knew he needed a producer to serve as its musical backbone. The legend goes that, in ‘87, Eazy bailed Dre out of jail in exchange for his production services. What Dre brought to N.W.A, aside from the technical wizardry and in-studio coaching skills that turned Eazy from an amateur into one of rap’s most inimitable voices, was a broad musical palette. By the time N.W.A was recording Straight Outta Compton, its songs were folding in bright, airy grooves (“Gangsta Gangsta”), the all-id panic of Public Enemy (the title track), and playful jabs (“I Ain’t Tha 1,” “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”). The album even ends with “Something 2 Dance 2,” an extended DJ showcase that has more in common with “Planet Rock” than with “P.S.K.”
Of course, the enduring images of Straight Outta Compton are of the group in all black, walking through fire, hurling rocks at the police; the defining voice is Ice Cube’s, lashing out at abusive cops, still getting swoll off bread and water. It is, to be sure, a protest record. These were marginalized voices shouting above the din. But the music that accompanied those shouts was anything but utilitarian. It was a complex survey of the instincts that Dre et al honed over dance-obsessed childhoods in America’s second-biggest city, in one of its most culturally diverse neighborhoods.
As mentioned, shards of Straight Outta Compton were wielded by N.W.A’s warring members against one another: Dre’s proclamations of being drug-free, from “Express Yourself,” made him an easy target for Eazy; when Ice Cube dropped “No Vaseline,” one of the most celebrated diss tracks ever released, in 1991, he sampled Eazy rapping “Ice Cube writes the rhymes that I say” from “8 Ball.” But for a minute N.W.A struck on a perfect blend of commerce and swagger, sarcasm and fury. Straight Outta Compton stands in stark contrast to the greedy, glossy image of prosperity that unfurled from Wall Street in the Reagan years, and it helped set rap on course to becoming the dominant form of American music. Thankfully, it also serves as a time capsule of all that was happening on the wide boulevards and in the cramped clubs of Los Angeles at the time it was made.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.