[13 May 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Just keep sticking it to ‘em.
“We did have that appeal, that bad boy image.” Remembering the Los Angeles Raiders, Marcus Allen seems understated. This especially as his observation is lined up with others at the start of Straight Outta L.A., Ice Cube’s thoughtful paean to the team’s short hot burst during the 1980s, when they roared in from Oakland—before they roared out.
The documentary, airing as part of ESPN’s remarkable 30 for 30 series, shows how this burst occurred on and off the field. And for those who saw it, the thrill was unforgettable. Just ask Snoop, who recalls that the eye-patched pirate was the perfect emblem for his own youthful attitude, asserting something like, “We’re here to take what we came here to get, by any means necessary.” Or columnist Bill Plaschke, who asserts, “I don’t think there’s ever a team that has revealed the true heart and spirit of the real Los Angeles more than the Raiders.” You know, that “real” Los Angeles, the one that loomed so large and so intimidating, the one that has former Raiders media relations rep Steve Hartman saying, “It’s amazing, looking back, that more people weren’t seriously hurt or even killed during those days.”
Okaaay. Even if the Raiders weren’t quite so bruising and brutal as all that, they did bring an image—premised on Al Davis’ pugnacious self-performance (he sued the league, and won, to be able to move the team to LA) and enhanced by a range of factors: the team’s use of the Coliseum (the Rams had moved over to Anaheim), the “diversity” of the fans and head coach Tom Flores, as well as the players’ own smackdown style. By their second year in town (the first being abbreviated by a players’ strike), the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII, pummeling the Redskins, 38-9. From Marcus Allen to Greg Pruitt to Howie Long (who remembers the culture shock of moving out to the Raiders from Villanova, “where there’s a priest on every floor: it’s obviously a different kind of feeling”), the players were booming and fans were ecstatic.
Amid the hubbub, the team and the city developed a sort of symbiotic relationship, fueled in part by their shared interest in image. It was Hollywood, after all, and as gritty and tough as the team might have started, it was soon swept up in its own hype. Ironically, as Ice Cube recounts, NWA had something to do with this evolution, as gangsta rap was changing the political and cultural terms initiated back in NYC. NWA and Ice T were telling stories of their neighborhoods—how real people, caught up in Reaganomics, lived and imagined their lives: “It’s not for the pop chart,” insists Are We There Yet? producer Ice Cube. At first, he says, NWA wore Raiders gear because it looked great. “The black hats,” remembers MC Ren, “Just matched with everything, you know what I’m saying? Purple and gold: I don’t think that would have looked good on us.”
The Silver and Black style—gangsta gone commercial—was self-expressive, self-assertive, and self-referential. And over time, the Raiders became an occasion more than an inspiration. As David Beckerman recalls, “The Raiders were clearly a brand. They were the Darth Vader of the league. They were mysterious, they were strong, they had a personality. They were black and they were connected to the music business. We reveled in it.” Here “we” is a very broad category—including consumers, of course, but also owners, managers, and entrepreneurs like Beckerman, who ran Starter Corporation, a sporting goods business.
Straight Outta L.A. doesn’t hammer the point, but it makes clear that the Raiders and rap, however meaningful they were and are, also have to do with money. And, in hindsight, it’s clear that the Raiders-NWA connection was only the beginning. For all the initial hard edge of LA rap, it was always as much about making money as critiquing the system in which only rich people had money. As it changed to accommodate mass audiences, the original artists were rethinking their place. Ice T, bless him, maintains: “Hiphop is rock and roll, so it’s got to have an edge to it or it turns into pop and Britney can do that, so fuck it.”
As definitions of authenticity shifted to accommodate other realities or promote marketable fictions, the Raiders also started falling off. Davis hired and fired Mike Shanahan, he fought some more with the league, and at last he decided to take his marbles back to Oakland. In his interview, he insinuates the reasons for these decisions can’t be shared, and Ice Cube, respectful of the man who so (unknowingly) affected his own early career, nods. Both know something about meeting challenges and beating expectations. And both share an abiding appreciation for the Los Angeles Raiders, still representing.