Sometimes music is pure filler – something catchy to listen to while you drive from A to B or wait for your morning latte. But sometimes music is truly revolutionary. It has teeth, it defines its moment, and it forever cements the legacy of the singer and the song. What has to happen for an artist to get to that place…and what has to happen for the work to remain relevant?
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is the story of N.W.A. – a supergroup of rap artists that rose to prominence in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The group is founded by Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), a small time drug dealer looking to do something bigger with his life. Growing up in Compton, California, the options are limited. In the words of another rapper of the era, “you’re either slinging crack rock, or you’ve got a wicked jump shot”. Eazy has neither, so he needs to get more creative.
Eazy reaches out to his friends in the hopes of bankrolling a rap group. He gathers his friends Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr – aka, the real Ice Cube’s son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). Armed with Dre’s ear for production, and incredible ability to scratch, the MC’s start writing rhymes about what they experience on the streets of Compton. Their songs become stacked with references to gang violence, police brutality, hard knocks, and furious anger. They brand themselves N.W.A (“Niggaz Wit Attitude”), and lay down a record that holds great promise.
When Eazy – the money, and de-facto head of the business – goes to a vinyl pressing facility to get the songs waxed, he meets Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a has-been producer who despite being a middle-aged white dude hears amazing promise in the band’s song. He offers to serve as N.W.A’s manager and help them claw into an industry that seemingly has no use for their lifestyle or their music.
The plan works, and soon enough N.W.A aren’t just blasting out of speakers along the streets of Compton – they are taking America itself by storm.
When a music bio-pic is unleashed, there’s always the quiet question of “why”? Why this band? Why this part of their career? Why now? It’s a fair question since it seems curious to lionize certain artists in another medium while so many others go unrecognized.
WhereN.W.A is concerned, the “why” comes down to timing…and the timing of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON cannot be overstated.
This was music that was game-changing, that spoke for a community that was beginning to feel marginalized. Hell, it spoke for an entire generation that was beginning to feel marginalized. It was charged, it was new, it was tremendously controversial. In many ways, it’s music that is missing from the current landscape of Hip-Hop…even though the times seem to demand it. It’s worth remembering that America has been down the road it now finds itself on before (…and before…and before). In the early 90’s there were thoughts that the nation had turned a corner…entire communities that wanted to celebrate how far things had come.
N.W.A was formed to tell one and all “No – we haven’t come that far at all.”
If there’s a sad irony to the legacy of N.W.A, it’s that their music feels just as relevant right now as it did in 1988. It’s the same reason that movies of the era like DO THE RIGHT THING suddenly feel timely again, even though they long ago should have become a snapshot of days gone by. The music in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON speaks to those same inequalities as they exist today, the same injustice, that still exists today, and that music deserves to be pumped from a movie theatre sound system with all the thunder a cinema setting can deliver.
What’s more is that the entire hip-hop scene has finally reached a place where legacies are established and its impact is felt. The scene is entering its third full generation of artists and fans, and the influence of groups like N.W.A is more clearly defined. The time has come to begin telling the stories of the titans of the genre, with the clarity of hindsight.
It’s in that vein that STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is at its best; when it portrays the time that a group of artists painted a stark picture of their reality and then refused to back down when that reality became too offensive for sensitive ears. This was a scene that was dubbed “niche” by music media just a few years before N.W.A hit the scene. Seeing the niche explode on to the mainstream (whether they liked it or not) is a turn of events that was extremely cinematic.
The flaw in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is that it can’t quite figure out how to stop. In part, that’s not entirely the film’s fault because the story of the components that make upN.W.A. goes on well past the natural end of N.W.A. To end things before Cube records “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” would only be telling part of the story. To end things before Dre records “The Chronic” would likewise only be telling part of the story. The hitch is that what affects the solo careers of Cube and Dre involves their own side tangents and digressions. So in the end, you get a story that feels a bit overloaded – as integral as everything is to the story at-hand.
But that too reminds us of one of the film’s most lasting lessons; that it’s seldom creative differences that undoes great creative collaboration, it’s financial differences. Watching N.W.A come together – and by extension Dre at Death Row Records – and unleash some of the most iconic music of the era is inspiring, but it’s also disheartening to think about “how many records were left on the table”. They were left there not because N.W.A ran out of things to say…or Ice Cube ran out of things to say…or Dr. Dre ran out of things to say…but because they couldn’t agree on how to split the money they received for saying them.
Such is life in creative endeavours, and such is life in the world of hip-hop. It’s an industry of boys and girls being asked to conduct themselves like professional men and women, and too often they are being eaten alive by their industry, or devouring one-another.
To that end, one hopes the timing of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON announces a new era in hip-hop…one where one generation of important voices is there to shepherd the next, and hopefully help them navigate the troubled times we still find ourselves in.