“Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon.” – Janelle Monáe
Going into Straight Outta Compton, I brought with me the soundtrack of my youth. I never possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of hip hop as a genre. It was all background noise. It was in the veins of those around me, and pulsating through the streets. As we waited for the morning bell, a group of my classmates would be rapping alongside Missy Elliot, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Diddy (Puff Daddy/Puff/Puffy/P Diddy), Eve, Eminem and so on the school steps. That was the norm. It wasn’t until I attended a predominately white high school that I noticed how much of a culture hip hop was. It wasn’t until I was older and granted the gift of context that I understood what it meant. It was more than entertainment but a way of life for people. People who looked like me but whose experiences I didn’t completely inhabit.
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From start to finish, I was sucked into the story of a group of young black men who played a big part in shaping the history of rap music. What made N.W.A. interesting as a group was their hardcore rhymes, their reality living in Compton, and helped usher in the subgenre of gangster rap. Director F. Gary Gray did a phenomenal job in using the music to build a timeline and create a narrative from the forming of the group (“Boyz In Da Hood“), to police harassing the group outside of the studio (“Fuck Tha Police“). I couldn’t help but feel invested in the history the story represented and the talent behind it aided in that. Jason Mitchell’s performance as Eazy-E was a standout and the others held more their own on screen too. Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., was a complete surprise, especially given that it’s his first film (he looks eerily like his father down to Cube’s signature smirk).
The film is so timely because black people are being targeted by the police more than ever, and subjected to the brutality we’ve seen in instances like Ferguson. In the first scene with Eazy-E, the police use a battering ram as part of a raid that ends up destroying a house and literally knocking a woman out. According to some, like Selma director Ava DuVernay, that scene may seem bizarre but it was a reality to many in Compton and surrounding areas at the time.
I saw the militarized Batterrams again. Rolling up our streets like invaders in a war. My friend asked, “Is that real?” Yep. That happened.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) August 16, 2015
The film also featured the Rodney King beating and the subsequent trial and how it affected the group and the community, and the resulting famous L.A. Riots after the acquittal of two white police officers. It’s hard to watch that and not recognize history repeating itself.
Oppression of the black community is nothing new and there were many scenes that highlight this in the film: random stops by police, unwarranted pat downs, and even the threat of arrest (and the eventual arrest) for lyrics that were seen as inciting violence against the police (“Fuck Tha Police“). The talked-about Detroit show in which the arrest of the group occurred was probably the best scene in the film and the aftermath was even more interesting. The group denied the charge of “inciting violence” during a press conference and retorted that they were just talking about their reality.
Reality is an interesting thing about films like these. Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube got the bulk of the storytelling which makes a lot of sense since Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, produced the film. The other founding members of N.W.A.— MC Ren, DJ Yella, and D.O.C.—were given less screen time as a result, and Arabian Prince just a passing glance.
A lot of the group’s history was ignored, including the beating of Dee Barnes, and people who played a part in the group’s success:
With the exception of short scenes with mother figures and wives, the rest of the women in the film were naked in a hotel room or dancing in the background at the wild pool parties. Yo Yo, a female rapper who worked with Ice Cube after he left N.W.A., was nowhere to be found. Nor are women who worked with Dre later in his career, like Jewell and the Lady of Rage. They both contributed tremendously to the ultimate sound of the classic album The Chronic. What about Ruthless R&B singer-song-writer Michel’le, who at the young age of 17 was singing vocals on World Class Wreckin Cru’s “Turn Off The Lights”? Michel’le and Dr. Dre developed a personal and professional association and he went on to produce her two best-known hits, “No More Lies” and “Something In My Heart.” Both songs reflected their volatile relationship. Then there is Ruthless Records/Comptown Records solo female artist/Eazy E’s protege Tairrie B, the first white female hardcore rapper. A bold blonde at the time who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, Tairrie B released an album named The Power Of A Woman (how fitting!) and dropped singles like “Murder She Wrote” and “Ruthless Bitch.”
JJ Fad was also not mentioned in the film despite opening doors and legitimizing N.W.A.’s hardcore sound. If you haven’t read Dee Barnes’ piece, linked above, I highly recommend it. As she states, rap— especially gangster rap— prides itself on authenticity and it’s a shame that the director and the members of the group didn’t feel like they could offer us the real story of N.W.A. I found the director’s reasons for not including it— “we couldn’t fit everything into the movie”— wasn’t enough of an excuse, since there were side stories that felt less important (Ice Cube’s angry interview with a journalist, the inclusion of Snoop Dogg and Tupac that could have been one liners at best and so on), compared to the stories that helped define the group (warts and all). Not to mention the assault of Dee Barnes, Michel’le, and Tairrie B— the film misrepresented the young Dr. Dre, painting him in a better light than Suge Knight. It erasesd the very real issue that women—more specifically black women— are treated as being disposable in the hip hop world (then and now), along with their contribution to it.
I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) August 16, 2015
We often forget that truth is in the hands of the storyteller and make no mistake, N.W.A. made an important impact on hip hop but they also had skeletons. I really wish they had subscribed to their own motto and kept it real.
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It’s been roughly a year since Ferguson and the visible number of people being killed by the police has been increasing since. As I watched Straight Outta Compton, I realized how much things hadn’t changed since incidents like Rodney King and the L.A. Riots. Justice wasn’t for all but a few and we saw that with Mike Brown, Eric Garner and others. Days before the film’s release, Janelle Monáe and her music label, Wondaland Records, released “Hell You Talmbout.” It is an anthem remembering the names of those who have lost their lives to police brutality. Weeks ago, Kendrick Lamar released the video, “Alright,” which also tackled the relationship between the black community and the police. These two songs got me wondering why there hasn’t been more coverage on songs like these – and trust me, they exist – given the topic they tackle. It left me wondering if the group of young black men in 1988 had something when they discarded decorum and dropped a dangerous track that laid out what we’re sometimes too afraid to see: the truth.