Straight Outta Marketing
I’m about to talk about some old school rap, but it might be more meaningful or relevant to catch up on more recent releases directly related to the Black Lives Matter movement, so start with my article from last December if you feel so inclined. (Has it already been that long?!)
On to the topic du jour. Today, Universal Pictures releases N.W.A.’s biopic Straight Outta Compton, and the hype is unreal. Amidst all the lionizing and hyperbolic statements of “They changed the world,” I am happy to see at least a bit of ambivalence from some of my peers who were listening to hip hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s — who knew the contemporary landscape and what else was coming out at that time. A few examples, first, from among my Facebook friends.
The first is from an African American man who organizes an African-American and African film festival:
I’m torn about seeing Straight out of Compton. For me the gangster rap genre represented the rise of the popularity of dehumanizing the black image under the guise of entertainment. You can say that the news and Hollywood were doing it way before then. But I can say this was the point it was done, accepted, and promoted by the very people who were victims of it. Yeah I said it.
This comes from an African American DJ whose radio shows have always promoted politically-conscious, “positive” music:
Like most I am very excited to see the “NWA” movie, however I will not turn the blind eye on the true affects this era had on hip-hop culture, the black man, respect for women, and senseless violence to name a few.
You all can front if you want but I was in Cali when NWA dropped, it made things worse in a certain respect. I was a tye dye, big flat top, hip-hop til I die youth… And I vividly remember the destruction that took place in our communities. Yes it was a fun time in many ways but it also led us aways from honoring our heritage and vibrant artist landscape of artistry at the present time. Many will say groups like NWA were just depicting their reality, and that was Tru, however help from Jewish business men like Jerry Heller and the corporate henchmen they were able to do like most businesses in America and profit off these talented black boys from the hood. That has been the model of dictating our culture and who/what advances. I will forever be an NWA but while the older generations of us reminisce and make memes be realistic of the effects and current situation of our communities. Gang violence is still very real…
A well-known, award-winning Mexican American poet and novelist (female) writes:
I’ve been having cognitive dissonance ever since the trailer for this movie came out, because the acronym NWA is forever associated in my mind with insane levels of sexism and misogyny. But everyone around me is like “They were revolutionary!” and then I wonder if I’m getting them confused with another band. But I’m not.
An African American indie rock musician says:
NWA, especially post-Ice Cube, sent mainstream hip-hop in a terrible direction from which it has yet to fully recover.
A reviewer on Amazon writes of the album Straight Outta Compton:
This piece of ignorant trash single-handedly ruined rap music, misled a generation, and destroyed the hip hop culture. These five fakers exploited the pathology of ghetto culture that NONE of them really lived in, and brainwashed many impressionalbe young people (many whom I’ve mentored at my job) who had no one else in their homes or hoods to teach them any better,into thinking that gang life, violence, and disrespecting women were cool! Thanks, NWA, for making a bad situation worse while laughing all the way to the bank!
And another Amazon reviewer writes of the same album:
As a classic hip-hop album, “Straight Outta Compton” leaves more than a little to be desired. The musical attack and lyrical stance of the first three tracks is pretty stunning, and, fantasy or not, “F*ck tha Police” is for the ages. At the same time, however, when Ice Cube invokes Charles Manson as a measure of how bad he is twice in the course of that initial opening burst you start to think something’s up. Since these guys weren’t really killing anybody, it’s fair to assume they started bragging about doing so (as well as throwing the last ‘ho out of bed after she gets Ice Cube off on the chilling “I Ain’t tha 1”) because they saw that it got them attention. The violence and sexism in and of itself isn’t really the problem - the issue is that, except for on “F-k tha Police,” they don’t have jack to say about it.
I never liked N.W.A. I was 12 years old in 1988 when Straight Outta Compton came out. I was already pretty well immersed in hip hop and people — people in my social circles but not my closest friends — were blasting that shit everywhere. I couldn’t tell you why — I didn’t have words like “misogyny” and “nihilism” in my vocabulary back then — but something about it just didn’t sit right with me. Something about a grown man telling [what sounds like] a young girl, “Bitch shut the fuck up, get the fuck out of here,” among other things, prevented me from nodding my head and pumping my fist and shaking my butt and singing along to those songs. Looking back, 27 years later, I can appreciate some of what they did — the sound, their audacious assertion of self (attitude) despite society telling them they were worthless, but I think a lot of people are really overstating their case at the moment.
My intention is not to bash N.W.A. for their cynical, anti-social, narcissistic behaviors (in the studio, on stage, and in real life) or their offensive lyrics (“I might be a woman beater but I’m not a pussy eater?”) The reasons to dislike their behaviors and their lyrics are myriad and well-documented, and the fact that their friendships devolved into some of the most flaming public disses shows much better than I could where such nihilism inevitably leads. I’m more interested in challenging the notion that N.W.A.’s response to poverty and the crack epidemic that was ravaging their neighborhood and the whole country was THE ONLY or THE ONLY VALID or THE MOST AUTHENTIC response.
Bullshit! There was plenty of uncompromising, militant (people like N.W.A. for their “militance”), fun (some people consider N.W.A. “fun”), sexy (some people consider N.W.A. “sexy,” despite the preponderance of shame associated with sex in their world), playful and/or positive rap music coming out of similar conditions. I do not intend this to be an exhaustive primer to pre-1992 hip hop but just to highlight some of the alternatives to N.W.A. from among their contemporaries.
Let’s start with Black Sheep. This over-the-top satire of gangsta rap was always one of my favorites because it reveals those clowns (gangsta rappers) for the jokes they are.
Here is what Dres from Black Sheep recently had to say about N.W.A.:
“I was never a fan of N.W.A or Ice Cube, because I couldn’t take them seriously. They just had the wrong energy. I’ve been in jail and halfway houses, but I don’t think artists need to push their vices on the children listening to their music, not realizing that their heroes are losers.” Pausing, he shakes his head in disgust. “It’s hard to believe that, at one time, hip-hop had so much hope.”
It’s true, people. Hip hop was a hopeful genre and many people put the blame squarely on N.W.A. for ruining it (see quotes above), for turning it into garbage like this.
Just compare the word count on this song featuring not one but four vocalists to any rap song from the late 80s or early 90s. Forget the verse/bridge/chorus song structure, so much contemporary rap is being stripped down to little more than a (dumb) repetitive hook. (You might say this is a return to Jamaican-style “toasting,” which could be called a return to the roots of rap in the first place, but I still think it’s dumb.)
Compare this recent song:
To this classic:
Or this more underground jam:
“But N.W.A. were the first/only ones to talk about real life in the ghetto!” people who don’t know what they’re talking about like to say. Reality? Compare N.W.A.’s posing and posturing to KRS-1’s dose of reality.
Or wait. Did you read the casting call for extras in Straight Outta Compton? Let’s back this up for a minute. This casting notice was posted by Sande Allesi Casting for the film.
SAG OR NON UNION FEMALES - PLEASE SEE BELOW FOR SPECIFIC BREAKDOWN. DO NOT EMAIL IN FOR MORE THAN ONE CATEGORY:
A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair - no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: A GIRLS
B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: B GIRLS
C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: C GIRLS
D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: D GIRLS
Note that “A girls” are “classy” (read “rich”), and “classy” people can be any ethnicity, as long as they have “real hair.” The description for “D girls,” on the other hand, is the only one of the four to use an explicit class descriptor (“poor”) and they cannot be light-skinned. “Poor” people can only be dark-skinned and out of shape in this Hollywood production.
Here’s a couple songs to listen to while you read over that casting notice — first, Ice Cube’s own cousin, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, who found nice things to say about women (even dark skinned women) in the dark ages of 1991 (that’s sarcasm, y’all) and second, Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn” from 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet…featuring, ironically enough, Ice Cube. (Cube was a co-producer of Del’s first record, too.)
This might be a good place to drop “Shakilya” by the Poor Righteous Teachers, too.
How about a some jams about sex that don’t use sex as a weapon to shame, degrade, debase and dominate people? (Example: “Eazy’s dick is smellin’ like MC Ren’s shit,” raps Ice Cube in “No Vaseline,” implying that Eazy E had anal sex with MC Ren, and that that’s shameful.)
There’s a lot more songs I want to include in this category but they’re all from after 1992. Here’s one more:
A lot of people like N.W.A.’s attitude — their tough guy stance, their puffed chest bragging, their “barbaric yawp” from the depths of the forgotten gutters and alleys of Compton that asserts, “I exist. I have nothing but I have this voice and this is my truth.” I admit that’s something valuable, but braggadocious self-assertion has always been a key component of hip hop. I think there were plenty of emcees with dope, tough voices before N.W.A. and many of them were (and are) better, and they asserted themselves without bragging about beating women. A few cases in point:
I’m going to leave this here (below), despite the fact that The D.O.C. is from Dallas and he’s pretty much a member of N.W.A. to boot (ghost-writing many of their songs) because his voice was sick and he manages to sound tough without being a dick in this song:
How about the claim that N.W.A. were “revolutionary” or “hard core?” Are people who say this referring to the lyrics or the sound? If they’re talking about the sound, I daresay Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production crew pushed sound much harder than Dr. Dre and DJ Yella ever would, and if they’re talking about lyrics, again, PE (and the other obvious choice, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions) push confrontational lyrics much harder, in more meaningful directions, than Ice Cube and the D.O.C. ever did. But Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions weren’t the only late 80s/early 90s rap groups promoting a militant, confrontational sound or lyrics.
X Clan promoted Black Nationalism and self-reliance:
Brand Nubian promoted ethnic pride and knowledge of self:
Paris was like the West Coast’s answer to Public Enemy — his beats and rhymes both are pretty uncompromising:
YZ went so far as to challenge simplistic ideas of black royalty, promoting a more grassroots type of power:
Arrested Development took a historical and spiritual (Christian) perspective:
Intelligent Hoodlum presented an “intellectual” perspective:
Me Phi Me offered a weird, corny, new-agey point of view:
Even Houston’s Geto Boys, not exactly known for their “positivity,” offered an explicitly political perspective that didn’t require mental gymnastics to defend, as claims of N.W.A.’s “political relevance” require:
How about the idea that N.W.A. were “fun?” Someone I know who’s politically active and politically conscious wrote recently on Facebook that he likes “conscious” rappers like Immortal Technique just fine (I don’t) but sometimes he likes to throw on some N.W.A. just for “fun.”
If you’re looking for fun “party” rappers from that era, there’s no shortage — from De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and the whole Native Tongues crew, to Kid n Play to to more radio-friendly rappers such as Young MC, Heavy D, and Sir Mix-A-Lot — this category could go on and on but I’m going to assume you know most of these. I’m just going to leave this ill summer jam here and wonder what kind of person has to blast some seriously violent, misogynistic “jams” for “fun.”
Wrapping up — I honestly don’t care to attack N.W.A. In hindsight, I can see reasons why people might appreciate what they did — even I appreciate some of what they did. I do think that by choosing to lionize them now, especially with this film (which I definitely plan to see), people are both overstating their case and ignoring too many other artists contemporary with them who might actually deserve to be remembered and championed much more than N.W.A.
And finally, some of the groups/rappers I’ve presented as being “more worthy” of the history books come with their own set of problems. Poor Righteous Teachers bring a problematic 5%er Nation of Islam ideology. Brand Nubian, in embracing the madonna/whore dichotomy, present the flipside to misogyny which is misogyny nonetheless, not to mention some members’ homophobia. Etc. Nobody is perfect and these artists, like all of us, are products of their time and circumstances.
See you at the movies!