I picked up “Straight Outta Compton” when I was a senior in high school, shortly after the album was re-released for its 15th anniversary. This was the seminal moment in my musical adolescence. Toward the beginning of the recent VH1 Documentary, NWA: The World’s Most Dangerous Group, the owner of Priority Records (the label which, at the time, was only famous for the California Raisins) confesses that when he first heard NWA, he thought it was all theatre, that the shit they talked about couldn’t possibly happen in real life. When Ice Cube confirmed that yes, in fact, this kind of thing happens every day, he had an epiphany – and he realized that legions and legions of teenage white males would have the same epiphany. Well, call me Teenage White Male #4,502,339.
To say that NWA launched gangsta rap does not do them justice. Their start came when Eazy-E decided he didn’t want to die a drug dealer, and when Dr. Dre decided he wanted to start doing something closer to Public Enemy and Ice-T than the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. What came out of their combined efforts was as much an indictment of gangsta lifestyle as it was a glorification. For every callous line there was a careful justification – when asked in an interview about the line “What about the bitch who got shot? / Fuck her! / You think I give a damn about a bitch? / I ain’t a sucka!” Eazy-E defends himself – people get shot in the hood every day, and it starts to numb you after a while. This is how it is.
The purpose of this Chris Rock-narrated documentary is not just to tell the story of NWA – if that were the case, they’d certainly take some Behind the Music format starting from the childhoods of each of the members and ending with what they’re doing these days. But the documentary starts with Eazy dealing drugs and Dre in the World Class Wrecking Cru, and ends with Eazy’s death from AIDS. This documentary tells the story of Compton as NWA described it. When Straight Outta Compton dropped, Rodney King was just another construction worker. To curb gang and drug-related violence, cops in Compton were arresting blacks randomly selected off the streets for no reason other than that they were black and were using a tank to break down the barricades in the homes of drug dealers – and, unsurprisingly, the walls of the homes of innocents, as well.
NWA succeeded in giving voice to the marginalized. If you lived in Compton in the early 90s and you were black, there wasn’t a thing you could do about it – except, of course, knock back a few and turn up “Fuck the Police.” NWA knew how to get attention – from Eazy-E’s attending a Republican fundraiser (“I ain’t no fucking Republican”) to their infamous warning letter from the FBI concerning “Fuck the Police,” but as violent and vulgar as they were, they were among the most eloquent rappers ever handed a mic. It was never so much a glorification of senseless violence as it was a chronicle of black frustrations, and they were never caught stupid by a culture-warring interviewer.
Where Public Enemy’s body of work seemed more in sync with the rebellions of the 1960s, the Nation of Islam and black nationalism, NWA rebelled at a local level: drugs, gangs and cops. So perhaps NWA was fated to have a short shelf life, as the further they got from the hood, the less vivid the message was. The documentary is very fair about the demise of the group – Ice Cube talks about how little money he was getting, Dre talks about the same thing, but Jerry Heller is along too, defending the way the money was getting managed. The collapse of the group is detailed in full, from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted to the Fuck Wit Dre Day video to Eazy-E’s ill-fated attempts to get the band back together.
The documentary ends with Eazy’s death, which is a little awkwardly handled. For starters, an enormous amount of time is given early on to detailing Eazy’s sexual exploits and his fondness for sex without a condom (or as he called it, “Thrillseeking”). Then, there’s the nature of the documentary, where Chris Rock leaves a cliffhanger directly before a commercial break – “But that reunion never materialized, because one month later, Eazy-E would be dead.” It’s a little silly, but is redeemed by the reflections on his death, Dre wishing he’d made up with Eazy and had one more time to kick back with him before his death, Yella getting a little choked up. Dre was the producer, Yella was the DJ and Cube and Ren were the talented MCs, but Eazy was the character of the group, the crazy one. The NWA legacy cannot be overstated, and despite the diss videos, the lawsuits, the Suge Knight shakedowns and the broken friendships, the NWA era was not truly over until Eazy E passed on March 26, 1995.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan vanquished Jimmy Carter by asking the nation “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” NWA: The World’s Most Dangerous Group asks the same question of hip hop. In the five years that NWA existed, hip hop was completely transformed. While some predicted the style would go the way of Lou Bega in the early 80s, NWA turned the medium into the loudest voice of black discontent in America. They left a mess behind them (well, how else are we going to describe Suge Knight?) but they were transformative like no other hip hop group ever has been. Hell, if not for them, I very likely wouldn’t be here, and that’s saying something.
If anything, watch this documentary to see what happened to the D.O.C.‘s voice post-car wreck. Yeesh.
Posted by Joe Kaiser at Oct 21, 2008 02:58 AM