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Fires burn in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore in the wake of more shootings and assaults on black citizens by police. It’s the same fire that burned during the Watts riots in 1965 and the L.A. riots in 1992.
Once again, protesters take to the streets to demonstrate against crooked cops backed by a broken system. Some of their slogans are more recent (“Black Lives Matter”) than others (“No Justice, No Peace”). One, in particular, rings loudly: “Fuck the police!”
The civil and not-so-civil disobedience of recent months inevitably brings to mind the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It may appear like ancient history, but 50 years is not a long time. And the police have brutalized people of color far longer than that. Some victims we know by name—Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray—but many more we’ve forgotten or never knew because they didn’t make the nightly news. According to statistics self-reported by law enforcement to the FBI, a white police officer killed a black person in the U.S. almost twice a week between 2005 and 2012.
Back in 1988, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, co-founder of the controversial rap group N.W.A., didn’t need stats to know what was goin’ on. He knew the time. Born in 1963, he and his family lived through the indignities of “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws.
The next 30-plus years until Eazy’s death in 1995 saw great social upheaval in the United States, with change coming at a rapid and radical rate—and some things staying the same.
War raged in the ’60s, abroad in Vietnam and at home between the status quo and counterculture. The establishment met Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party with fear and resistance, and the FBI, which also monitored black art and entertainment, targeted them. Many prominent leaders were assassinated or displaced by design.
Music was revolutionized more than once. James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” was both spiritual and necessary. Parliament-Funkadelic blasted off into another galaxy in the ’70s, returning to see hip-hop kids turn their parents’ old records into something fresh and magical. Outrageous blaxploitation flicks and vulgar, no-fucks-given comedy records by the likes of Redd Foxx, Blowfly, Dolemite, Richard Pryor, and Cheech & Chong signaled free expression previously unaccepted by the public at large.
In the ’80s, the expanded war on drugs under President Reagan utilized prejudicial laws to hand out prison sentences that were more severe for crack than powder cocaine, the rich man’s high. LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates’ military-style plan to shut down suspected rock houses was to literally rock them with motorized battering rams. When police destroyed the wrong homes (with women and children inside), he didn’t seem to give a shit. That same arrogance and abuse of power manifested itself in the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King, who had led L.A. cops on a high-speed chase. Segregation had been about drawing distinct lines and making sure that nonwhites “knew their place.” So, when people of color disobey the law the consequences are more severe. It’s about sending a message.
N.W.A.’s 1988 song “Fuck tha Police” sent a message back.
It voiced the strong feelings over racial profiling that had festered for ages in the ghetto. It was raw, with some revenge fantasy thrown in, but it was the truth.
To tell the story of N.W.A. on the silver screen, director F. Gary Gray is recreating the late ’80s in modern day L.A. Case in point: a series of concert scenes being filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in September 2014 for the movie Straight Outta Compton.
Nearby, in Venice Beach, Fab 5 Freddy interviewed the real N.W.A. on Yo! MTV Raps 25 years ago. Today, the make-believe N.W.A., draped in Los Angeles Raiders and Kings gear, take to the stage (roped off by yellow crime-scene tape) as the raucous sounds of Eazy’s solo track “8 Ball” explode out of the arena’s sound system. The audience roars as the movie versions of Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) stand behind two sets of turntables sitting on flipped-over trash cans, while Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s son), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and Eazy (Jason Mitchell) stalk back and forth to the beat.
The extras in the crowd for these particular shots are predominantly white. This serves as the moment when the members of N.W.A., who formed in 1986 to make songs for the neighborhoods of Compton and South Central, realize that their music has crossed over.
“All we wanted was to get our city on the map and get that respect,” says Ren, who is on the set overseeing things with Cube and Yella.
“We had small dreams that turned big,” says Cube. As the birthplace of hip-hop, New York City used to shit on rap that didn’t originate from there. But N.W.A.—along with Too $hort (Oakland), Geto Boys (Houston), and 2 Live Crew (Miami)—reshaped the culture with a raw, explicit, and ultimately influential style.
“Boyz-n-the-Hood,” off the 1987 compilation album N.W.A. and the Posse, was the jumping-off point, a drastic transformation from the club music that Dre and Yella had made with “Lonzo” Williams’ electro outfit, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. This was music for the streets, a booming sound custom-built to bump loud in your ride. The song (made all that more compelling by the echoey, charismatic voice of Eazy) revolved around grand theft auto, binge drinking, and domestic violence, before ending in a spectacular courtroom shoot-out. Their tracks were cinematic and thrilling to the ear: “Dope Man,” also from the compilation, is a crazy, up-close depiction of how the crack epidemic altered neighborhoods; “Gangsta Gangsta,” from the group’s 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton, opens with a drive-by shooting.
“[N.W.A.] provided the ground for us to stand,” says Scarface, of the Geto Boys. “They let us know that there was people like us—some kids in the ghetto trying to get some money, trying to make a way out of nowhere—all over the world.”
“I grasped early that N.W.A. were talkin’ about the lifestyle that the folks around me is livin’,” says Compton native Kendrick Lamar. “It made me understand my roots.”
The music opened the eyes of suburban listeners unaware of the turmoil going on in cities across the country.
“Growing up in the ’80s, we had to deal with the war on drugs, which some say equates to the war on young black men,” Gray says backstage during a break in the action. The director grew up in the same South Central neighborhood as Cube. “We had to deal with the Iran-Contra scandal and this influx of cocaine and military weapons directly into our neighborhoods.”
“They didn’t stand up and proclaim themselves leaders, but when you push back against the system, that is political.”
—F. Gary Gray
These volatile conditions combined with the calculated attack on rising black leadership enabled gangs to flourish. Although gangs in Los Angeles can be traced back to the 1920s, the level of violence from earlier decades was nowhere near the 387 gang-related deaths in Los Angeles County in 1987 or the more than 400 killings in 1988, a record high. The quick riches of selling crack came with a deadly price.
“We was mad, but we was young, so we didn’t understand the politics behind what was happening to us,” says Cube. “Thank God we had hip-hop as an outlet.”
N.W.A. reported on the ghetto, but did so from the nihilistic point of view of gang members who don’t give a fuck because they don’t expect to live long.
“It was shocking,” says Gray. “Back then, popular music was Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna—the MTV generation. It was poppy and mainstream. N.W.A.’s underground sound and lyrics stood out. There was this tectonic shift in popular culture, and they were responsible for it.”
“We showed the world that you could say what you wanna say and still be just as famous as the squeaky-clean artists,” says Cube. “Pop culture got a little bit harder because of N.W.A.”
Radio was scared to play their records—a few stations in Los Angeles, Fresno, Calif., Albuquerque, N.M., and Texas supported them. Greg Mack, 1580 AM KDAY’s music director, helped N.W.A. blow up in their hometown by encouraging the group to record profanity-free versions of their singles.
Because they were too hardcore for regular avenues, they marketed themselves via their own commercials, like when a demonic voice demands listeners to “Buy the fuckin’ album, bitch” at the end of the single version of “Eazy-Duz-It.” It worked. N.W.A. spread by word of mouth, bootlegs, and through sales at mom-and-pop stores.
“It happened so fast,” says Ren. “We was just talking truth. We wasn’t trying to be political. We was just trying to be hip-hop artists. A lot of hip-hop groups just talk stupid party shit, all day. It’s better to say something than to say nothing.”
The censorship battles waged by the watchdog organization Parents Music Resource Center that started in 1985 over objectionable lyrics and imagery led to parental advisory stickers on albums. Groups like N.W.A. were dead center in the crosshairs. In 1988, MTV temporarily banned the video for “Straight Outta Compton,” and in the early ’90s, black leaders like C. Delores Tucker and the Rev. Calvin Butts (who crushed hardcore rap CDs at well-publicized demonstrations) continued the crusade for clean music, supported by retail chains like Walmart.
“They were labeled as ‘gangsta rappers,’ but to me they were speaking for the people,” says Greg Mack. “They were getting dissed by politicians that felt that they were degrading women and degrading black people in general. Calling them out like that only made them bigger.”
No publicity was bigger than the FBI’s notorious 1989 letter criticizing “Fuck tha Police,” whose hard lyrics envisioned “a bloodbath of cops dying in L.A.” Law enforcement reacted to the song by shutting down a show in Detroit when the group tried to perform the song.
“Police already was targeting us [before the fame],” says Cube. “The FBI was like something we seen on TV. You never imagined the FBI comin’ to your house. For what? Our biggest worry was the LAPD, the sheriffs, ’cause those were the ones who was actually getting in our face all the time.”
The story goes that Dre and Eazy were motivated to record “Fuck tha Police” after cops held them at gunpoint on the street for shooting paintballs at innocent bystanders for cheap laughs. But the song wasn’t just a personal gripe. It represented a universal problem.
“‘Fuck tha Police’ became an anthem for protests all over the world,” says Cube. “And we were on the front lines of fighting a lot of freedom of speech arguments at the time. We were a street group, but we became political with some of the things we had to fight.”
“They didn’t stand up and proclaim themselves leaders in any way, shape, or form,” says Gray, “but when you push back against the system, that is political.”
Of course, N.W.A. were good at pushing buttons as well. There’s no denying that they relished the role of being the bad guys, promoting themselves as the World’s Most Dangerous Group.
As Dre said in a 2008 VH1 interview: “We were like, ‘OK, what can we do that’s going to piss people off?’ We were actually trying to see how far we could push the envelope.”
“We didn’t care what anybody had to say about us,” says Cube. “The audience fed into that. They respected that.” At a time when black consciousness was popular in hip-hop, N.W.A. remained a loose cannon.
“Fuck that black power shit; we don’t give a fuck,” Eazy told Spin in 1990. “We’re not into politics at all. We’re just saying what other people are afraid to say.”
Here was a group whose members took their personas from gang life, who called themselves Niggaz Wit Attitudes, and who exploited the taboos surrounding the “N” word (they went so far as saying it more than 200 times on their final LP, NIGGAZ4LIFE). And yet they were still able to have as lasting an impact as overtly political groups like Public Enemy.
Asked why they named their second album NIGGAZ4LIFE, Ren told The Source in 1991, “No matter what you do, everybody’s gonna call you that. You’re still a nigga in everyone’s eyes.” See the racist criticism of President Obama for proof that this sentiment remains the same today.
As controversial as he was, politically incorrect Eazy was not easily categorized. He upset some folks with his ballyhooed March 1991 trip to a Republican luncheon to hear President George H. W. Bush speak, but the reason he was invited in the first place was because he regularly donated to charities. He later angered people again when he infamously stood up for Theodore Briseno, one of the four officers charged in the Rodney King case. But Eazy was also known to go to random ’hoods and chill with strangers.
And giving back to the community was N.W.A.’s motivation for participating in the all-star peace treaty song “We’re All in the Same Gang.” N.W.A. even dabbled in making low-key political statements, like when they ran through a banner displaying MLK’s “I Have a Dream” phrase in the “Express Yourself” video. “When we busted through that sign,” says Cube, “we was saying, ‘We need to stop dreaming and start moving.’”
N.W.A. did get more hardcore down the line, however. The sexism in songs like “I Ain’t tha 1” was lighthearted compared to later cuts, like the pornographic “She Swallowed It” and the brutal, misogynistic skit “To Kill a Hooker.” Dre’s assault of TV show host Dee Barnes (which was settled out of court) remains a problematic low point in the group’s existence.
Perhaps N.W.A.’s only consistency was their stance against “commercialized” rap. According to the group, to stay authentic, hip-hop had to stay connected to the streets.
But, for the most part, N.W.A. remained unpredictable. Ever the confounding figure—and indicative of the group’s temperamental nature—Eazy told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, “We’re not making records for the fun of it. We’re in it to make money.” In 1994, he told The Source, “I don’t give a fuck about the money. I give a fuck about being real.”
N.W.A. lasted only five years. The trouble that started with Ice Cube’s departure in late 1989 over a money dispute with manager Jerry Heller continued when Suge Knight moved in to get Dre to leave Ruthless and start Death Row Records. Classic solo albums like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Chronic, and the emergence of Dre protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg, overshadowed the success of N.W.A.’s EFIL4ZAGGIN (the title was reversed so stores would carry the album), which reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts and sold a million copies in two weeks. There was talk of a big money tour with either Guns N’ Roses or Metallica, but N.W.A. walked away and went out on top.
The breakup wasn’t truly felt until Eazy’s death from AIDS in 1995. The rest of the group settled their differences long ago, but in the 20 years since his passing they’ve gone stretches without communicating. Earlier in the day at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the four surviving members took their first photo together since 1989. Word is that new N.W.A. material was recorded for the movie soundtrack, the first since “Chin Check” and “Hello” were released in 1999 and 2000.
Gray sees the group’s bond as the main focus in N.W.A.’s rags-to-riches story that’s full of “betrayal, tragedy, and triumph.”
Eazy’s absence could cast a shadow of sadness over Straight Outta Compton, since the Godfather of Gangsta Rap ain’t here to witness it. But Yella sees it differently.
“It’s a celebration,” he says. “This would have been the big notch on his belt, the big trophy in the house. N.W.A. was his heart.”
The soul of N.W.A. was that of an outlaw, appropriate for an independent rap group coming out of the Wild Wild West. Their music was the embodiment of decades of struggle and strife powered by the creative influence of black artists before them. They were defiant in the manner only young people can be.
N.W.A. did whatever the fuck they wanted. They pushed the boundaries of what you could say on a rap record. They said some ugly things, but the message of “Fuck tha Police”—that cops are a gang with the law on their side who kill minorities with impunity—had to be heard.
“When E started Ruthless, we didn’t have to listen to anybody tellin’ us what we had to do,” says Ren. “That’s why the music was so powerful, ’cause we didn’t have no barriers.”
The irony is that after years of efforts to silence artists there are few rappers today with large fan bases who are saying anything that actually means something.
More than 20 years after the savage videotaped beating of Rodney King, what has changed? Citizens can capture evidence of wrongdoing more easily now with camera phones, but that’s still no guarantee that justice will be served. When it’s all said and done, more energy has been spent trying to censor rap music than to reform police misconduct.
“You say nothing then nothing is gonna change,” says Cube, who believes the people protesting in the streets today can help make a difference.
MC Ren is less optimistic: “America was built on segregation. It’s gonna stay segregated until everyone’s equal, and that ain’t gonna happen when it’s a capitalistic society.”
Regardless of your personal opinion, Gray sees no better time than the present for the Straight Outta Compton movie: “If you look at how people actually want to come together and right some of the wrongs that we are experiencing around the country, it’s more relevant now than ever.” Or, as Dr. Dre put it in 1991, “The motherfuckin’ saga continues.”