Let's assume, just for fun, that the Beatles are the most influential group in the history of pop music. That would make N.W.A. a solid No. 2. This is the part where you shake your head in disbelief and mutter "bullshit" to your computer screen. And this is the part where I tell you why I'd write such a thing.
I was bowling the other day and, halfway through the first game, the front-desk attendant got on the loudspeaker and said, "OK, ladies and gentlemen, we're going to turn the lights out, turn the music on and play some extreme bowling!" On came the Run DMC-Aerosmith collaboration "Walk This Way". It was followed by "Parents Just Don't Understand" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, "Bust a Move" by Young MC, "Funky Cold Medina" by Tone Loc, "Now That We've Found Love" by Heavy D and the Boys and a few more.
Not only was it an odd choice of "extreme bowling" soundtracks, but it was a depressing look back at the state of popular rap around the time that Straight Outta Compton dropped. From the vocal style and use of a DJ rather than a traditional band, you could tell that there was something more to this still young hip-hop thing than standard standup comedy antics. But the slapstickery and cartoonland costumes favored by the mostly male rappers chasing tail and pouring drinks in fast-motion wasn't doing wonders for rap's respectability. Popular rap in the late '80s was "Benny Hill" for the urban set.
Of course, there were others who were turning hip-hop on its head and treating it as what it really was: the next logical step in the evolution of pop music. Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were setting their revolutionary messages to funky and, in Public Enemy's case, blistering backbeats. Slick Rick and Grandmaster Flash were telling tales of street life. Run DMC ("Walk This Way" notwithstanding), Spoonie Gee and others were tricking on the turn-of-phrase possibilities of the poetic genre.
Hip-hop already had as many personal interpretations as rock 'n' roll when it finally made its way into the cultural gestalt. But, like rock 'n' roll in its infancy, the rap that made it onto radios and still-young MTV out in the Heartland weren't always the best and brightest representations of the art. Hence, "extreme bowling" to ditties that, with the poison kiss of hindsight, appear so ridiculous that they can really mess with a guy's adolescent memories.
That's where N.W.A. comes in. The erstwhile Niggas With Attitude hit with a sound so expletive-ridden, obscene and inciting that there was little chance that all but a few of their songs would fly on commercial radio. Yet, on the underground success of executive producer and founding member Eric "Eazy E" Wright's debut Eazy Duz It, as well as a little-heard N.W.A. debut, Straight Outta Compton was a sensation before it was even released.
It was somewhat of an accident: Eazy E was trying to get other acts to rap some tunes for his newly-created record label, but when he wasn't having luck, he put together his own group. The group featured Ice Cube, a teenager with a knack for wordplay and a vicious vocal style that made his street-life insight sound like it was coming from someone much older. MC Ren, who was added after the group's little-heard debut, was hard and fast. Eazy E himself tended toward making himself out to be the greatest gangsta that ever lived as well as a wanted man. Once Dr. Dre and DJ Yella joined from the World Famous Wrecking Cru, the three main MCs (The D.O.C. and Arabian Prince also provided vocals) had a furious soundtrack to accompany their relentless vocal attack.
The funked-up and rocked-out attack, which borrowed heavily from the same pounding production by Public Enemy's Terminator X, drew in those who were otherwise leery of the canned beatbox drums of earlier hip-hop. That sound, combined with vicious raps, was delivered with an aural punch whose closest contemporary equivalent was the tales of sex and drugs coming from Gun 'N' Roses on other side of Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles.
With their 'hood gear, devotion to the gangsta lifestyle and a seeming hatred for anyone -- cops, perpetrators, addicts, bitches -- who got in their way, N.W.A. was fueling the fire of disenchantment not among African Americans, but among affluent white teenagers far from any 'hood that resembled Compton. They took a lot of flack on both sides of the racial divide for it -- on the black side they were seen as perpetuating a black-male-as-misogynist-street-thug stereotype, and on the white side, they were seen as black males misogynist street thugs.
Whether the accusations were fact or fiction, N.W.A. knew what their audience wanted: then as now, the majority of hip-hop consumers nationwide were white (a recent New York Times article notes that 70 percent of rap consumers last year were white), and the more dangerous to the white world N.W.A made themselves out to be, the more records they could sell. It's not good for busting stereotypes, but it'll sure fill your pockets.
Yet there was something more: these raps were personal and hyperbolic, but they were also unintentionally political. Whereas Public Enemy seemed to pull its intellectual influence from activists like W.E.B Du Bois and Malcolm X, N.W.A.'s main points of reference seemed to be street icons like Iceberg Slim and Superfly. Chuck D wanted to kill you with his mind; Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy E made sure you knew that if they didn't kill you with their minds, they'd finish you off with their Mack 10s. They made themselves out to be hard motherfuckers, and they made young white men wish they were hard motherfuckers, too.
In the process, they described what for most white, suburban teenagers was an alien world. N.W.A. are arguably the reason that most everyone who's been paying attention over the past 15 years can give a definition of "gangsta rap". They're the reason why some kid in central Iowa can namedrop "South Central" and his friend who may not even be able to spell his own name will know exactly what he's talking about. They're the reason we have the context to go with "gats" and "gangbangers".
N.W.A.'s lyrics or the lyrics of their members from solo albums, gave the names to at least two movies: John Singleton's Boyz 'N the 'Hood and the Hughes Brothers' Menace 2 Society. They might even be the reason people are comfortable abbreviating all references to their neighborhoods as, simply, "the 'hood". And, through all the controversy N.W.A. stirred up, they're largely the reason why a lot of people who otherwise would have had no reason to pay attention to what was going on in black urban enclaves started paying attention. Whether their methods moved forward or set back the efforts of racial and gender harmony is a debate that's far from complete, but their chilling imagery got people to at least pay attention.
It was these images that were all over Straight Outta Compton. The opening salvo, "You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge", probably seemed awfully boastful at the time, but in retrospect it seems more like truth in advertising. On the title track that follows the boast, Ice Cube yells "Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, from the gang called Niggas With Attitudes!" And even though there are only two words in that phrase that are worthy of bleeping, they all sound like they should be bleeped jumping off Cube's tongue the way they do.
MC Ren doesn't let up, either, spouting offensive nonsequiturs like "Shoot a motherfucker in a minute/ or find a good piece of pussy, and go up in it!" By the time Eazy E finishes with "This is the autobiography of the E, and if you ever fuck with me/ you get taken, by a stoopid dope brother who will smother/ word to the motherfucker", you can't help but be immersed in N.W.A.'s world, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. They're not the most poetic or metaphorical lyrics, but at the time they were harder than anything that even approached mainstream acceptance.
"Straight Outta Compton" and the two songs that follow, "Fuck Tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta", manage to get incredibly political without intending to do so. The first paints a picture of a city controlled by crime. The second explains why the city is controlled by crime and who's to blame for it. The third illuminates the lifestyle that takes over the town. The lines from "Gangsta Gangsta" alone are some of the most memorable and direct in music: "It's not about a salary / It's all about reality"; "To a kid lookin' up to me, life ain't nothin' but bitches and money"; "You don't like how I'm livin'? Well, fuck you!" They were young and didn't give a fuck about anything but themselves, but, as often happens with youthful rants, they said more about the society in which they lived by simply talking about themselves than all those stupid motherfuckers trying hard to be social commentators. With its mix of politics, education and entertainment delivered with a defiantly DIY stance, Straight Outta Compton is one of the most punk albums to ever emerge from the United States.
Yet it's still a hip-hop album from start to finish. After the Compton/Police/Gangsta trilogy, N.W.A. continues with the hard beats and rhymes on "If It Ain't Ruff". They get old school with a simple beatbox and scratches on "8 Ball (Remix)", "Dopeman (Remix)" and "Compton's in the House". They even hit the dancefloor with the bonafide party-starter "Express Yourself", which lays out the blueprint for its own funkiness then strips away the politics by saying rap can be whatever you want it to be as long as you do what the title says. "Quiet On Tha Set" keeps the party going with Steve Miller Band samples, while "Something Like That" replaces the street boasts with some studio brags. Ice Cube even turns the typical boy-girl story all the way around on "I Ain't Tha 1". There's nary a disposable track in the lot.
M. Doughty of Soul Coughing has said that there's no such thing as "dangerous" music. That's a claim that makes complete sense. But, at age 14, Straight Outta Compton became the first record that I could get into trouble for listening to around my mom, and that was all the danger I needed to love it. I kept the tape with me at all times, playing it every chance I got. When we went the store, I would offer to wait in the car and, as soon as my mom got out, I'd throw the tape in and rap along, taking the tape out before she got back. That's what passed for dangerous in the 'burbs: listening incognito to what passed for dangerous in the 'hood.
But, back to the criticisms. Many detractors blame N.W.A. for promoting misogyny, drug use and crime, as well as perpetuating a stereotype of young black males as street thugs. The simplest answer to the first half of the question is that such things didn't start with N.W.A. and they wouldn't have ended without N.W.A. As for the second half of the accusation, there are undoubtedly plenty who take N.W.A. out of context and assume that black culture is the culture of Straight Outta Compton. Obviously it's not, just as Simon and Garfunkel's, or Bob Dylan's, or Woody Guthrie's or any other folk singer's interpretation of America is the gospel truth. And, thanks largely to N.W.A., Public Enemy and other rap groups traveling different roads to the same ultimate destination of what's been dubbed "edutainment", hip-hop, which is pop, which is punk rock, which is hardcore, can also be considered the latest chapter in the history of folk music.
Rap was once described as the first music to fully embrace rather than disown capitalism, and many are freaked out when music talks up the pleasure in owning gold chains, fast cars and yachts. But such a state is more reflective of a shift in cultural values than a shift in musical ones. Like any other musical turning point, N.W.A. didn't invent the situations they rapped about and they weren't the first to exaggerate the lifestyles they led -- they simply communicated these things better than anyone before them. Besides, there are far too many folk singers that help themselves to the trappings of fame and fortune but simply think it imprudent to sing about such things. At least the members of N.W.A. were honest about what they wanted, even if they weren't honest about what they had.
As for that business about N.W.A. being the second most influential group in pop music history, consider the following things for which they're either fully are partly responsible: putting West Coast hip-hop on the map; making gangsta rap not only a viable commercial genre, but pointing popular rap in the direction of gangsta rap and its progeny (thug life, jigga, bling bling, etc.); making rap the top-selling genre in the United States and one of the top-selling genres in the world; turning our attention to the treatment of black males by L.A. police officers -- a problem that would become chillingly lucid a few years later with the Rodney King beating tape and subsequent trial, acquittal and riots; at least five genre-defining albums and/or performers, among them Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and, by extension, Snoop Dogg and Eminem; promulgating a generation of white suburban gangsta wannabes sometimes referred to as "wiggers" (white niggers); bringing issues of urban life to suburban listeners; leaving a mark on countless other musical genres ranging from the indie-country-rap-rock of Cake to the suburban rap metal of Limp Bizkit; permanently putting South Central Los Angeles and the surrounding communities on equal cultural footing as other predominantly African American communities nationwide; and, setting off a slew of controversies and accusations of misogyny, blaxploitation, criminal behavior and the like while putting many of those issues and controversies on the national agenda. Sure, the Beatles were great, but can they lay claim to all of that? Let alone Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Madonna or Prince?
Even the group's history in the 14 years since Straight Outta Compton was released is Shakespearean in its drama and tragedy. Ice Cube left shortly after the release of that album to embark on a solo career and, rather than go away, he put out a slew of platinum-selling albums, then parlayed that experience into an acting career in which he's become one of the top African American stars in Hollywood.
Dr. Dre redefined hip-hop with his solo album The Chronic at the start of the '90s, and at the start of the new millenium he did it again with Dr. Dre 2001. He also discovered and/or produced albums for some of the other biggest names ever in rap, including Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Eminem. Through Dre we were introduced to Suge Knight, whose gangsta business practices landed him in jail and, some say, led to the murders of Shakur and Biggie Smalls (not to mention reported death threats to both N.W.A.'s manager and Dre himself), which highlighted an ongoing feud between East Coast and West Coast rappers.
Eazy E, who claimed to be a drug dealer and pimp before turning to the record industry, was invited to a luncheon at the White House during the George Bush Administration after he donated thousands of dollars to the Republican Party. He was also alienated from both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre for what the two claimed were unfair business practices by their former Executive Producer. The internal feud led to a major falling out, personified in song by all three, and finally a reconciliation on E's AIDS-inflicted deathbed in 1995. In-between all these occurrences were more controversies, arrests, trials, acquittals and blacklists than imaginable. Yet, despite themselves, the legacy of N.W.A. has survived not only fully intact, but fully on display in nearly every corner of pop culture.
One of the many simple lines in "Gangsta Gangsta" is "Everywhere we go they say 'Damn! / N.W.A.'s fuckin' up the program". Which was true. Back when Straight Outta Compton came out, you could hardly turn on a radio station, news program, or anything else in which there wasn't some mention of the group and its acerbic approach to making music. And all of the publicity came with hardly any airtime for the actual songs. N.W.A itself may be ancient pop history, but the core of that group, along with their extended family, are anything but long gone. You can see them in movies and music videos, you can read about them in the news, you can hear them on the radio -- they're everywhere. And, damn, they're still fuckin' up the program.