Monday, August 17, 2009

August 17: N.W.A., "Straight Outta Compton"

Artist: N.W.A.
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Year: 1988
Label: Ruthless

In the late 1980's, it took only three letters to strike fear in the hearts of parents across the world: N.W.A. By far one of the most controversial, yet massively influential hip hop groups in history, it was N.W.A. that brought the sub-genre known as "gangsta rap" to the forefront of hip hop music. During this time, aside from Ice-T, virtually no West coast based rappers had found even the smallest national success, perhaps due to the fact that the West coast sound was such a far cry from the more popular sound being made by artists like LL Cool J, RUN-D.M.C., and the aforementioned Public Enemy. N.W.A. smashed down this barrier, and opened the door for the flood of West Coast based rappers that would rise to the top of the charts throughout the early 1990's. With five emcees, all equally capable of delivering top notch lyrics with an overwhelming amount of intensity, N.W.A. remain one of the most devastating hip hop groups to ever enter a studio. Though the group had released their debut album a year earlier, it was their landmark sophomore album, 1988's Straight Outta Compton that forever changed the landscape of music.

There are countless aspects that make Straight Outta Compton stand out from the rest of hip hop, and one of the most significant is the fact that the album sold well over three million copies with zero radio airplay and zero live performances. Furthermore, the album was produced almost completely by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and the fact that such a great sounding record was created without "experienced" studio technicians is a testament to the talent of each member of the group. Furthermore, the fact that the album was released on group member Easy-E's own Rutheless Records, and not a major label, the albums' success is even more surprising. Though he is now considered one of the greatest producers in the history of hip hop music, at the time of Straight Outta Compton's release, Dr. Dre was, in many ways, just another producer mixing samples. However, it is clear that on this album, he had a knack for blending sounds that seemed complete opposites, and his sense of musical mood is second to none in the genre. Mixing together everything from James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone to newer riffs from the Beastie Boys as well as even using N.W.A.'s own songs in loops, Dr. Dre's beats and music are nothing short of phenomenal. Furthermore, the quality of the recording is far and away one of the best of the era, and again, the fact that it was done by the group themselves makes it all the more significant and impressive.

The fact that each of the five members of the group found varying levels of solo success after the demise of the group is a testament to how talented they were as individual emcees. Without question, Ice Cube stands out from the rest throughout Straight Outta Compton. His punishing delivery style and almost freewheelingly violent rhymes make his verses rise above the others, and it is no surprise that he soon left the group to pursue what would become an extremely successful solo career. MC Ren rhymes in a bit more of a playful, but just as dangerous style, and after leaving N.W.A., he would be one of the most important figures in the rise of "G Funk" style hip hop music in the early 1990's. The group's founder, Eazy-E, remains one of the most notorious and controversial rappers in the history of the genre. His verses throughout the album are laced with extremely violent ideas and more profanity per line than had previously been heard. With his immediately recognizable voice, Eazy-E's style and rhythm have been copied for years, but no rapper has ever been able to deliver with the same power and shock value. After the breakup of the group, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre would take their personal differences to their solo records, and the "beef" between the two yielded some of the most powerful, and often amusing rap rhymes ever. Though Dr. Dre is more in the role of producer and DJ on Straight Outta Compton, when he contributes verses, such as most of "Express Yourself," it is clear that he is equally talented as an emcee as he is a producer. This would become far more obvious when he became one of the biggest emcees in the world as hip hop exploded in the early 1990's, largely due to his monumental solo debut, The Chronic. Looking at the names of the emcees within N.W.A., it is truly like reading an all-star list of the finest and most influential emcees of the transitional period of hip hop music.

By far, one of the most common misconceptions about N.W.A. is that they "glorified" the "gangsta" lifestyle. While "Fuck Tha Police" is certainly an angry yell against authority, it is a far cry from the "gangsta" lifestyle songs that have dominated the hip hop scene for years. In fact, throughout Straight Outta Compton, one finds numerous examples of quite the opposite approach. With songs like "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta," the group criticizes such a lifestyle, and raises questions of censorship. When one further deconstructs "Express Yourself," one finds both anti-drug, as well as thoughts on musical integrity, as Dr. Dre raps, "...others say rhymes that fail to be original...or they kill where the hip hop starts, forget about the ghetto, and rap for the pop charts..." While the group shared the aggressive social criticism of Public Enemy, N.W.A. was far more violent and gave vivid insight into the world of the Southern Los Angeles ghettos. Truth be told, a majority of the songs on the album are either about partying or altercations with police, but it is still a far cry from the tales of excess and mass murder that have come to define the "gangsta" hip hop style. However, even taking all of this into account, it is impossible to discuss Straight Outta Compton without talking about both the album and the group's most notorious song, "Fuck Tha Police." In many ways, it is this song that both gave the group their "dangerous" reputation, as well as catapulted them to international success. The song is one of the most unrelenting commentaries on police brutality, and along with Public Enemy's "Fight The Power," it stands as one of hip hop's greatest protest songs. The lyrics are also some of the most extreme of the groups' career, and lines like, "...without a gun and a badge, what do you got...a sucker in a uniform waiting to get shot..." Yet simultaneously, the group makes cutting social observations on what they saw as the inherent racism of police when Ice Cube rhymes, "...fuckin' with me 'cause I'm a teenager, with a little bit of gold and a pager...searchin' my car, lookin' for the product, thinkin' every nigga is sellin' narcotics..." It is this combination of extremely hardcore lyrics, as well as undeniable social scrutiny that makes N.W.A. a group that, if nothing less, you cannot ignore.

More than twenty years after its release, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton continues to be controversial, and the songs from the album remain some of the most hardcore ever recorded. The fact that both the album and the songs have such longevity is a testament to the talent of every member of the group, as there is not a dull moment anywhere on the record. The sampling and production of Dr. Dre is absolutely perfect, and the contrast between the clean sound of the music and the almost lo-fi sound of the vocals is truly phenomenal. Regardless of which emcee is rapping, every verse is crushing and pointed, with the group showing what it means to be unrelenting and brutally honest. Painting vivid pictures of life in the ghettos, the group quickly made Compton, California, and all of South Central Los Angeles for that matter, some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of the United States. Still to this day, the "mystique" of the hazardous nature of the area remains, and the community is a reference point for "hardcore" living. N.W.A. were then, and remain today one of the most controversial rap groups ever, as their explicit lyrics and menacing lyrics were like nothing else the world had ever heard. Presenting some of their most brutal and in-your-face lyrics, and absolutely stunning beats and music, the groups' second album, 1988's Straight Outta Compton, remains the benchmark for truly amazing hip hop, and it is by far one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Straight Outta Compton," "Fuck Tha Police," and "Express Yourself."

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