When I first heard pioneering Los Angeles rap crew Niggaz Wit Attitudes (N.W.A) in the late 1980s, they were the last brothers I ever thought I’d be watching a film about damn near thirty years later. With the release of their marauding masterpiece Straight Outta Compton (1988), which inspired the title of the film biopic that hits theaters this Friday, the four-man crew crashed on the scene rapping about crack, guns and bitches, and went from unknown to infamous virtually overnight. On the thuggish track “Gangsta Gangsta,” Ice Cube bellows over the hypnotic Dr. Dre blessed beat, “Takin’ a life or two that’s what the hell I do, you don’t like how I’m livin’, well fuck you.” All up in your face, one could damn near feel Cube’s spittle. “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model? To a kid lookin’ up to me, life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”
The song’s title was later adopted to coin the “gangsta rap” genre. While some gangsta rappers scripted cautionary songs about the literal dead-end (jail, death) of the bang bang lifestyle, most wrote rhymes that celebrated their world of bullets, blow, bitches and body bags. Gangsta rap was seductive in its abusiveness, as addictive as the drugs it was spawned from. As societal conditions worsened during the crack years, some gangsta rappers perceived themselves as grassroots voices of the people living in deteriorating communities. Late rapper-businessman Eazy-E, who signed Black Eyed Peas before he died in 1995, co-owned N.W.A’s label Ruthless Records with his manager Jerry Heller. They recruited producer Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren and Ice Cube, the best rapper in their crew. Dre’s gritty production on Eazy’s solo debut album Eazy-Duz-It and the group effort Straight Outta Compton didn’t qualify as full-blown g-funk yet, but one could see where he was headed. With more than a chip on their collective shoulders, N.W.A put California rap on the map and blasted (verbally, of course) anyone who got in their way. Through all the gun smoke and nightmare-inducing imagery, they constructed Straight Outta Compton as a criminal-minded album that was as harsh as tear gas sprayed in a morning police raid.
Like punk rockers, these dudes from Compton sounded crazy as they spat their lyrical venom at the police, various “hoes” and anybody else who wasn’t down with their dope-dealing ways. For N.W.A and the artists who followed in their footsteps, crime became a metaphor for the American Dream. In 2014, former crack dealer turned successful rapper and “business, man” Jay-Z, who has rhymed extensively about his sordid past, might compare himself to gangsta balladeer Frank Sinatra. Inspired and influenced by various 1970s sources including vintage Holloway House paperbacks (Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim), funk music (George Clinton, Zapp) blaxploitation films (The Mack, Super Fly), raunchy comedy albums (Rudy Ray Moore, Blowfly) and gangster movies (Scarface, The King of New York), gangsta rap became the latest commodity for those looking to cash-in on the miseries of the hood by the end of the eighties.
Although rap music began as momentary escape from the strife of ghetto wild life, N.W.A was determined to bring the listeners back to reality. Verbally, on the songs “Fuck the Police,” “If It Ruff” and “I Ain’t Tha 1,” the Cali bad boys sounded as if they were on a mission from hell and wouldn’t be content until it was complete. In the pages of The Village Voice, Hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan described the Straight Outta Compton LP as “…nothing short of demonic…the most fucked-up violent sex rap album I’ve ever heard.” Hardcore and edgy, gangsta rap became the new punk rock and N.W.A was the Dead Kennedys of the scene. Although many of the early labels, including N.W.A’s own Ruthless Records, were independently owned, it wasn’t long before corporate labels Interscope, Sony, Time-Warner and Polygram swooped in to secure a piece of the bloody pie for themselves.
The music spread throughout the hoods of America, while also seeping across race and class borders. Soon enough, suburban white kids were throwing up gang signs, screaming misogynistic lyrics, and incredulously calling each other “nigga.” What Uncut Funk publisher and late television writer David Mills dubbed as “gangbanger chic” soon became the million-selling soundtrack across the nation.
Indeed, the language of gangsta rap sparked a revolution that can still be observed in fashion, television and films. Menacing boys in the hood, with their cold-blooded delivery, were exposing the world to their new jack cities, scars and all. “When I walk outside my door, I don’t see no flowers and no ocean, not a pretty sight” rapper Spice 1 told MTV in 1994. “I do my poetry about what I see.”
Gangsta rap purported to be reality on vinyl, a depiction of Black America that most feared to face. “I didn’t have a father, but I had pimps and drug dealers and robbers and killers telling me what I should do,” the late Tupac Shakur said in the 1994 gangsta rap documentary Enough is Enough. “Whatever I wrote was honest. Might not be positive or politically correct, but it is brutally honest.”
The not-so-secret history of rap music and hip-hop culture, as author Jeff Chang points out in his brilliant book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, is rooted in gang culture. Bred on the broken glass boulevards of the Bronx, many of the forefathers of the four elements (breakdancing, MCing, graffiti and DJing) were former street gang members who had grown weary of the mayhem and chaos pervasive in their own neighborhoods.
However, as time elapsed, some gang members drifted out of the hood, others nodded off in a world of drugs, while some began spray painting subways, spinning on their heads and throwing down with the latest underground sounds. By the time Kool Herc manipulated the turntables at the first hip-hop party on August 11, 1973, many began hanging up their well-worn jackets that advertised their affiliations with the Ghetto Brothers, the Savage Skulls, the Black Spades, the Reapers and others.
Replacing weapons with records, they projected their street tough attitudes through a new, fresh form of music. By the time it finally caught fire on record with the release of The Sugarhill Gang’s boom-box debut “Rapper’s Delight” in the summer of ’79, the fledgling musical movement was already in motion. Most of the singles released during rap’s early years were party records about having good times, flashy gold jewelry and getting the honeys.
However, by the mid-‘80s, in the real world of Black America, folks were dealing with the budget-cutting policies of President Ronald Reagan and the white tornado of the crack cocaine epidemic that swept through neighborhoods from coast to coast, devastating entire communities. In 1988, the same year N.W.A bumrushed the pop charts, the political group Public Enemy released the stunning anti-crack single “Night of the Living Baseheads,” which documented the destruction the drug caused.
Considered one of the greatest rap records ever made, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s landmark single “The Message,” released in 1982, became one of the first hip-hop records to depart from the “throw your hands in the air” type rap toward a more neo-realistic lyrical style that would’ve made Italian filmmakers Vittrio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini mighty proud. “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close to the edge,” rapper Melle Mel begins as he segues into a poetic litany of ghetto woes that include reposed cars, bad schools and homelessness. Although not considered a gangsta rap song, this was the song that gave others the courage to talk honestly about their bleak surroundings.
Two years later, Philadelphia born rapper/producer Schoolly D. dropped the independently released hit “P.S.K., What Does It Mean?” A song many consider to be the very first gangsta rap, “P.S.K.” meant Parkside Killers. After that the gat (gun) was out of the bag and rappers began shooting off more than their mouths. In 1988, N.W.A’s funky “Fuck the Police” became an anti-authoritarian protest anthem as well as a gangsta stance.
After N.W.A, the days of east coast rap supremacy were soon numbered. “We call ourselves underground street reporters,” Ice Cube said in 1990. “We just tell it how we see it, nothing more, nothing less.” Nevertheless, while Ice Cube might’ve had the best intentions in playing his role in N.W.A, and later as a solo artist with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, not everyone was impressed.
Civil-rights fighter C. Dolores Tucker, who had political ties with Jesse Jackson and others, spearheaded an opposition movement against gangsta rap that eventually received a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (1997) into, “the effects of violent and demeaning imagery in popular music on American youth.” Rappers, fans, journalists and critics tried to convince her that she was wrong and endorsing censorship, but Tucker refused to bow-down to pressure.
Still, besides Tupac calling her a “motherfucker” on “How Do U Want It?” and Eminem rapping, “Tell that C. Delores Tucker slut to suck a dick,” nothing happened after the hearing.
Bill Adler, who attended the hearing alongside writer and CNBC commentator Michael Eric Dyson, says, “Tucker’s message wasn’t completely wrong, but she aligned herself with the wrong people. People like William Bennett and Senator Sam Brownback were white Republicans who just loved the culture war stuff. Her buddies in the anti-rap campaign didn’t give a fuck about Black folks; the only reason they loved her so much was because, she hated rap. For her to stand there with them was regrettable.”
Early-1990s rap duo Black Sheep, a group that stood alongside founding members A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers as part of the Native Tongues posse, lampooned the gangsta genre on their 1991 debut LP A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Opening the album with the playful “U Mean I’m Not,” Dres describes a dream where he was a gangsta shooting his sister for using his toothbrush and killing his mother for breaking the egg yolk.
“I was never a fan of N.W.A or Ice Cube, because I couldn’t take them seriously,” Dres says today. “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.”
While I must admit to be anxiously awaiting the opening of the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, it’s the inevitable inspiration of those who can’t separate fact from fiction, walking around believing that being gangsta means something more than blood, death or a jail cell.