Gangsta Rap for Beginners NWA Straight Outta Compton by David Henderson

Straight Outta Compton, the top-grossing film in the country for the third straight week, is a biopic of the rap group NWA, who achieved worldwide notoriety in the late 1980s for their hit single “Fuck the Police.” The release of the film is remarkably timely, as it complements years of Black Lives Matter nationwide protest over the many slayings of unarmed Black males as well as the mysterious deaths of incarcerated Black women in their respective jail cells who were there because of shockingly minor (alleged) infringements of the law. Perhaps most significant is Straight Outta Compton’s release on the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts Riots, which began on August 11, 1965. Its release, at the height of the August doldrums, also points up the length of time the Texas grand jury is taking to announce its findings regarding the recent death of Sandra Bland, twenty-eight, an African American woman who was active in the Black Lives Matter movement. She was arrested by an irate traffic cop for a minor incident near the campus of Prairie View A&M University, a traditional Black college, and three days later was found hung in a cell in a small-town jail outside of Houston, Texas. Although it is just about guaranteed that this jury will go the way of most grand juries and find no problems with police conduct or procedures in the death of a Black woman or man, the fact that Straight Outta Compton bears witness to those circumstances in screens all over the USA indeed provides some solace.

There are no police slayings of Black youths depicted in the film, but there is plenty of confrontational violence directed toward these rap artists by the LAPD. They are forced on several occasions to lie flat on the ground with their heads/faces on the pavement and their hands behind their backs—a posture required simply as a matter of course, upon LAPD command and control, not for any probable cause.

There is a deep history of police violence toward Blacks in Compton and Watts in South Central L.A., and that history ranges from the infamous Watts Riots of 1965, which were precipitated by the traffic stop and arrest of Marquette Frye, a young Black woman, to, less than a year later, the slaying of Leon Deadwyler, twenty-five, during a stop on a highway outside of Watts, where he was speeding to the hospital with his pregnant wife, who was about to give birth. This almost led to another Watts uprising. Watts is contiguous with Compton, a bigger city, which was included in the forty-five-mile curfew zone during the Watts Riot. And of course there were the riots, rebellions, and revolts of 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King police beating acquittal and also the slap-on-the-wrist judgment of Soon Ja Du, a Korean woman grocery store owner who killed Latasha Harlins, fifteen, a Black girl she suspected of shoplifting. The slaying, along with Rodney King’s beating, was repeatedly shown on TV. The store’s surveillance camera on the ceiling over the cash register shows the girl shot point-blank in the head as she tried to exit. Both judgments came down at the same time. After the verdict of innocence for the police who attacked King, the Korean grocer was given no prison time, probation and a fine—a virtual exoneration. The mob in South Central that avenged Latasha Harlin’s death made sure that the often arrogant Korean shopkeepers knew how Black folks and others felt about that verdict.

Straight Outta Compton has plenty of police-NWA confrontations, the most intense being during NWA’s triumphant tour of the States in support of their new album, of which “Fuck the Police” was the big hit. They performed for throngs of intensely excited fans at the Summit Arena in Houston. The initial reviews lambasted them for their lyrics about “violence,” as if they were the first group to deal with the subject, ignoring the advent of punk music or the tradition in the blues such as “Stagger Lee” (about the murder of Billy Lyons by "Stag" Lee Shelton in St. Louis—black-on-black violence). NWA’s rap lyrics actually address the police with language of retribution for the police violence perpetrated on them -- as depicted in the film -- for such innocent acts as driving while Black, coming out of a family home in the ‘hood, or standing on the street of Torrance, a white suburb, outside the studio while taking a break from a recording session.

The group performs at the Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, where they are treated like rock stars and begin to behave and party like rock stars, and these scenes involve sexually explicit actions that are well known to occur in the rock world yet seem to cause problems among some of the press in its reaction, as if that were the first time scenes of this nature have been depicted in films about popular music stars.

At the Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia they are greeted by a letter from the FBI that presents them with an official denunciation of their lyrics against police oppression. The coordination of the press with official government “downpression” is a prelude to the picture that comes into full view when they reach the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Before the performance they are addressed by a no-nonsense police officer of rank who is standing in front of a phalanx of police. He tells them with no possibility of misinterpretation that they are NOT to perform the lyrics to the rap “Fuck the Police.” Here we see clearly how police have often taken it upon themselves to interpret the Constitution, in this case the First Amendment. One would assume that the FBI would be too connected with the Reagan administration to be so explicit as to deny NWA their rights, although in their letter they do complain about lack of respect for police in general.

For the Detroit police, and police departments across the country, their erroneous interpretation of the Constitutionhas allowed them to search any Black person with or without reason or probable cause at any place at any time. The Detroit police seem to have also extended their legal acumen to include the first amendment. To that extent it seems they believed they could instruct NWA, and perhaps any performer, poet, writer, on what is and what is not allowable speech.                                   

The NWA, responding to the police’s attempt at censorship, rapped their “Police” lyrics in full flavor, to the great delight of the crowd, which knew that some invisible line had been crossed. As NWA rapped over Dr. Dre’s explosive beats and the crowd went crazy with glee, plainclothes police squeezed through to the front of the stage, holding their badges high as some sort of sacred enabler, and just as they reached the stage, a mysterious shot rang out. At that, they rushed the stage, pursuing the rappers and many of the crew and audience out of the arena to an area where the tour buses were parked. A police gauntlet greeted them. The NWA were assaulted, handcuffed, and thrown into paddy wagons while fans objected with airborne bottles, burning debris, and other pieces of arena decor raining down on the police. The tone was of jubilation even among those suffering the brunt of the violence.

The next scene shows NWA, led by Eazy E, addressing a press conference manned by openly hostile reporters, where Eazy E, totally at ease in his Compton parlance, let it be known that they, like any other performers, were well within their constitutional rights to express whatever they so desired in their act of entertainment.

NWA would accept the police beatings and the FBI letter of warning in order to reap the notoriety, the publicity, the energy that establishment-led hostility would translate into – fame.

Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, two of the main figures in NWA (by the way, an acronym for Niggers With Attitude), have continued to be in the upper echelons of hip-hop activity since their tenure as principals in NWA, which would become one of the most notorious acts in popular music. Dr. Dre, discoverer and producer of Eminem and Snoop Dogg, has also become the first hip-hop billionaire as a result of selling his state-of-the-art headphone invention to Apple. Ice Cube has built a solid cinema reputation, making film after film as both a star and as a producer and sometimes also as a screenwriter. His best-known films are Boyz n the Hood(directed by John Singleton) and Friday, which he produced, wrote and stars in with Chris Tucker. Its director, F. Gary Gray, returns to the screen with his deft helming of Straight Outta Compton, an instant classic.

This Southern California crew has been involved in a straight line of Black films out of their near-Hollywood experience throughout the years since Boyz n the Hood became the first film to deal with the lives of people living in that sunlit Southern California ghetto. Life in South Central L.A. is totally unlike the bucolic surf-and-turf existence so many associate with Southern California. The Beach Boys would help to establish the surfer mentality many white youths sought to embrace, but Compton and its Siamese twin sister city, Watts, are long, endless blocks of dense single-family homes—distant from the ocean, set within the sixty-square-mile sprawl of the city of Los Angeles.

Straight Outta Compton is pretty much a pure Black film in the tradition of Boyz n the Hood and Friday. These brothersare the Black Hollywood. I cannot think of any group that has a more consistent track record in terms of Black cinema. They are not perfect, but when we look at the landscape, there is no other industry-like cohesion run by African Americans with their levels of success.

Some say the group’s CDs of that period inspired the tag “Gangsta Rap,” the political term that gave the group much notoriety, but it was always clear to me that Gangsta Rap, like the FBI letter, was part of a campaign to lessen the power and impact of hip-hop. Most law-abiding citizens avoid the word “gangster” and discourage their children from any identification with illegality. The NWA’s only connection with the non-lawful was in confronting police misconduct and smoking weed. These Kids from the hood were just that—kids. The only one who could be said to be dealing in illegalities was Eazy E, as he is depicted in the opening scene trying to get paid for weed he sold to real underworld types. The police raid, their battering ram mounted on a pick-up truck smashing through the modest wooden bungalow, and Eazy E’s escape across low rooftops establish his identity as a mid-level very tough marijuana dealer.

Eazy E would be the one to finance the first NWA recording. At first reluctant to be a rapper, he grew to enjoy the activity, and the group was initially fronted by him

After NWA’s resounding success the business flim-flam of the music world would cause conflict within the group, and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would go out on their own, eventually reuniting for some sessions just prior to Eazy E’s hospitalization, delivering the cassette of these sessions to him on his deathbed.

By the time Eazy E dies, they have reestablished the brotherhood formed when they were ordinary boys in the neighborhood trying to become somebody.

When Eazy E and Ice Cube make up after their bitter separation, they sit across from each other, their grim faces looking each other in the eye with typical hood deadpan, until their faces blossom into beautiful smiles. They are life-long friends, who have lived through youthful hope, sometimes folly, but always loyalty to each other and to the passion of devotion to their self-expression.