Film Views: “Straight Outta Compton”

Straight Outta Compton Movie Poster


There have been a few people I know who have said they are not interested in seeing “Straight Outta Compton” because they either don’t like rap music, or no nothing about it.  That reaction begs the question: do you have to like classical music or know anything about it to enjoy “Amadeus?”  The answer is clearly no.  A good story is a good story, and “Straight Outta Compton” tells a classic tale:  an American rags to riches story.  For those who know nothing about rap, you’ll get a crash course in the history of part of the rap scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s by watching this film and understand where the OG (original ganstas) genre of this music comes from.   If you were alive and conscious during the 1980s, you know that the Reagan and Bush Administrations, along with two Governors of California (George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson) took an extremely hard-line on drugs. However, the crackdown on drug use and dealing centered on areas like Compton where, it seems, the police suspected everyone was buying, selling and using — and cracked down hard on the residents. Out of that political and social environment came N.W.A. (Niggaz wit’ Attitude) who took their lived experience and turned it into some of the most genre-defining music of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Though the group only produced two records, the members of N.W.A. have become cultural icons in their own right. Andre Young (Dr. Dre), O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), Eric Wright (Eazy-E), Antoine Carraby (DJ Yella), and Lorenzo Patterson (DJ Ren) formed a tight-knit, but emotionally volatile group who came on the scene at the right time. Their music spoke to both and anger and frustration some blacks felt about police harassment. That anger and frustration came out in rhymes that rocketed out of a microphone in such an aggressive, raw, and unrestrained manner that it was both shocking and liberating to those who connected with the music.

Bands and groups are like start-up companies in that everyone brings an individual talent to the project with the hope that together they’ll strike it rich with their product. In N.W.A., Ice Cube was one of the primary lyricists, Dr. Dre was the musician/producer who knew what combination of sounds would work for a song to be successful. Eazy-E brought his business acumen and his rapping abilities. DJ Ren was also a writer who helped pen songs for Eazy and N.W.A., and Yella also brought his producer sensibilities to the table as well. Together the were able to create their debut album “Straight Outta Compton” whose title track, along with “Fuck Tha Police,” “Express Yourself” and other songs translated in selling millions of records, CDs and tapes without any radio airplay.

Nowadays, People talk about “disruptive” ride-sharing and room-sharing companies like Uber and Airbnb because, through their apps, they have taken on established industries like taxi services and hotels and circumvented the rules to make tons of money by providing similar services. N.W.A. can be seen as disrupters. They found ways to reach people, grow their fan base, and make a ton of money selling music without the help of radio. That was quite a feat in the ’80s and ’90s when the Internet was still the ARPANET, and only open to academic researchers and military types. Granted, N.W.A. probably wouldn’t make a dime nowadays due to the fact that the new gatekeepers in music (i.e. Internet service providers, streaming services, smart phone manufacturers, and cell phone companies) have made the product (i.e., albums) essentially free while charging people money to access it. But back then, people still bought music on physical formats like records, CDS, and tapes. And if you could “move units,” you could make a lot of money. That point was made clear during the mid-point of the film when the FBI sent N.W.A. a letter asking them not to perform “Fuck Tha Police” because it was disrespectful to the law enforcement community. As the group was rolling into a concert venue, they saw people smashing copies of “Straight Outta Compton” with their feet and even a steamroller at one point to protest the existence of that song. Eazy-E didn’t care, though. He basically said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Who cares. We’re still getting paid because those suckas had to buy our record before they destroyed it.” Controversy gets attention, and attention get people to buy a product to see what all the fuss is about. Eazy-E and Ice Cube knew this and that’s why they didn’t shy away from being as controversial as possible. The formula worked — until bad business deals and egos started to drive a wedge into the group.

In short, what happened to N.W.A. is similar to what happened to any number of groups featured on VH1’s “Behind The Music.” And it’s the downfall of the group is where the film starts to bog down. The fracturing of the group, the different trajectories the members went (with Eazy-E seeing his life downsized, while Ice and Dre went on to greater and greater success), and the early demise of Eazy due to AIDS gave the film a bit of a forced finish. Overall, though, “Straight Outta Compton” is a solid film with a compelling story, but it’s a story that’s been told many times that, if it weren’t for the fact that N.W.A. were such pioneers in gansta rap, the film wouldn’t be unique at all.

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