About two weeks ago I explained the rules of this series in the inaugural post on Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Big Poppa.” If you haven’t read it, I suggest you go back and catch up because this week we’re tackling a beast of a song: NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” Unlike our last feature, “Straight Outta Compton” is a group effort featuring the lyrical talents of Mssrs. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, MC Ren (né Lorenzo Jerald Patterson), and Eric Lynn Wright (a.k.a. Eazy-E) dropping verses first, second, and third respectively. Definitely not respectfully, though. Producer Andre Young, M.D. sets the group up with samples from Wilson Pickett and Funkadelic.
If gangsta rap could appropriately describe only one song, it’s this one. A battle cry for gang bangers, the raw emotion of the song is unparalleled by any of today’s mealy-mouthed rappers who care more about getting money than giving the police hell. In fact, no one really pays attention to NWA anymore since Dre fell off, Eazy died of AIDS, and Ice Cube starred in Are We There Yet?
The title track from their 1988 album, “Straight Outta Compton” was written in an era when white people other than Bill O’Reilly were scared by rap. Indeed, this song was the used by censorship advocates at the time as the prime example of a take-no-prisoners, unapologetic, in-your-face celebration of gang violence. Adding to the fear is the fact that the group’s name, N.W.A., stood for “niggaz with attitude(s).” The lyrics conjure up wilding fantasies that must have had at least a few people afraid of a coming race war, or at least street violence spilling over into suburban neighborhoods. (Today it is France worrying about such things.) That the Los Angeles riots occured several years later in response to police brutality demonstrates that “Straight Outta Compton” captures the Zeitgeist of poor urban areas in the late eighties.
The song starts with Dr. Dre saying, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” The first bars of the song introduce hard-hitting breaking beats, symbol crashes, and a funk guitar reminiscent of 1970s blaxplotation soundtracks. Somewhere in the background there is a horn that repeats and a whining noise resembling a siren. The beat sounds like the street. It is not polished or complex, and it lacks the flourishes of Autotuners, synthesizers, or string arrangements that contemporary hip-hop producers rely on. Dre’s invitation to “witness the strength of street knowledge” brings us into N.W.A.’s world, Compton.
Ice Cube has the premier spot for what is arguably one of the best verses in rap. He chooses not to mince words:
Straight outta Compton, crazy mother [expletive deleted] named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz with Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off
You too boy if ya [expletive deleted] with me
The police are gonna hafta come and get me
Ice Cube diagnoses himself as a psychopath, threatens the listener with violence from an illegally modified shotgun all in the first six lines. In fact, Ice Cube mentions three separate kinds of firearms–the aforementioned scatter gun, a GAT, and an AK-47. After he discusses the Kalashnikov there is an edit of gunfire, and Ice^3 raps, “Don’t make me act the mother [expletive deleted] fool.” He’s not afraid of reiterating his insanity, comparing his crime record to Charles Manson. Think about that for a second. Ice Cube discusses not money, women, clubs, but violence. Unapologeticly sociopathic, his verse is unmatched in the song. It set the gold standard for all forthcoming gangsta rap.
MC Ren takes over the track next, but his verse is the musical equivalent of Barbaro at the Preakness Stakes. Ren essentially recapitulates Ice Cube’s more powerful verse but lacks the intense delivery. He even mentions the AK again. Has Ren never heard of the Tech-9? Or is N.W.A. a front for Marixist Nicarauguin guerillas obtaining arms from the Soviet Union? Given the small possibility of that, the only interesting thing about MC Ren’s verse is that he mentions his fondness for carnal pleasures in addition to killing.
Eazy-E, given his fame at the time, bats clean-up. There has been much discussion of the fact that Ice Cube wrote about 50% of the album and helped Eazy-E substantially. This makes sense considering Ice Cube’s subsequent success after he left the group over royalty disputes, and the fact that N.W.A. never produced anything as good as “Straight Outta Compton.” The problem is that Eazy-E is just not very imposing. He has a nasal voice and a Lilliputian stature. It actually sounds like Dre just turned up the pitch on Eazy’s mike. So when Eazy tells you he’s “dangerous,” you likely respond, “that’s cute, but isn’t it past your bedtime, young man?
The stand out part of his rap comes when he discusses racial profiling on the part of the police, a topic the song’s video explores further. Eazy describes the police’s incursion into Compton:
I see a mother [expletive deleted] cop I don’t dodge him
But I’m smart, lay low, creep a while
And when I see a punk pass, I smile
To me it’s kinda funny, the attitude showin a nigga drivin
but don’t know where the [expletive deleted] he’s going, just rollin
lookin for the one they call Eazy
The other cherry line from the verse is this one, “[Eazy-E is] is a brotha that’ll smother yo’ mother and make ya sister think I love her.” Fantastic. Only the brilliance of this line is betrayed by the fact that Eazy finishes his rap by rhyming “smother” and “mother” a second time.
Gangsta rap increased in popularity throughout the early nineties.After some high profile deaths (Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur), the incarceration of Suge Knight, the CEO of gangsta rap titan Death Row Records, and endless protests from the likes of Charlton Heston (see the “Cop Killer” controversy) the reign of the glorification of street violence seemed to come to an end. Rappers are still fascinated with weapons an illegal activity, but the raw anger and energy that was there is now gone. So T.I. may threaten a snitch, but you know he won’t really kill you. Rappers have bodyguards to do their dirty work now.
-Michael E. van Landingham