The lasting legacy of N.W.A. album ‘Straight Outta Compton’
(Credit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

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The lasting legacy of N.W.A. album 'Straight Outta Compton'

It starts with a maxim. A warning. A straight shot to prepare yourself, as much as you can, for what’s about to come: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” That’s Dr. Dre, giving you the entire ethos of Straight Outta Compton in eleven words.

The next hour would be dedicated to aggression, power, control, and the reality of life in the impoverished black ghettos of southern California. The members of N.W.A. use hyperbole to get their point across, but never once does it seem like the contents of Straight Outta Compton were anything but stark truth. It was education, incendiary, extremely controversial, and highly successful. It turned rap music away from the party and into the streets, where violence, gangs, and blood ruled. 

Sitting in cosy suburban homes far away from Compton, California, kids all across the United States, and indeed all over the world, began to gravitate towards the hyper-threatening and highly specific atmosphere conjured by MC Ren, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, and Dr. Dre. White kids who had no basis with which to contextualise Straight Outta Compton took it at face value, as did their terrified parents, whose vehement disapproval only made the album more desirable and enthralling to the hordes of kids whose imaginations were now filled with the exploits of these “gangstas”. The point wasn’t whether every little detail or lyric of Straight Outta Compton actually happened because, to a kid, everything feels real.

Straight Outta Compton was released on August 8, 1988, and made an immediate impact on popular culture. Within a year, the album went gold in America, and by July of 1989, it was certified platinum. The album spawned videos that took care in bringing the visuals that the band’s lyricists – mainly Ice Cube, MC Ren, and future Death Row Records founder The D.O.C. – laid out in stark on the album. The video for the title track, for example, takes place on the actual streets of Compton. Due to the profanity-laden tendencies of the songs, these singles and videos wouldn’t get played on mainstream stations, and clean versions of songs were either impossible or indecipherable. That didn’t matter: Straight Outta Compton was huge, at least in part due to its vicious swipe against traditional morals and conservative beliefs.

Some of the targets that N.W.A. put in their sights haven’t aged well. Lines like: “There’s a slight chance if I fuck she might burn me, and then I might have to shoot the ho,” on ‘Just Don’t Bite It’ and “So what about the bitch who got shot, fuck her/You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker,” on the title track serve as microcosms of just how fast and loose hip-hop as a whole plays with misogyny. Homophobia was there as well: “But she keep cryin’ ‘I got a boyfriend’/Bitch, stop lyin’, Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nothin’ but a dyke,” on ‘Gangsta Gangsta’. The problem with taking a flamethrower-like approach to aggression is that the wrong people often get burned.

But the one target that the group directly set their sights on, the one that got them the most notoriety and the most condemnation, was the police. While at the time, the track ‘Fuck Tha Police’ was potent enough to get them an actual letter from the F.B.I., today it looks prescient as one of the first kickbacks at the racial profiling and unsanctioned killings of young black men. Describing corrupt officers as “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker[s]” feels sadly appropriate all of thirty years later.

The production style on Straight Outta Compton, masterminded by Dre, Yella, and Prince, is relatively spare for the time. The drums are mostly 808 beats, and they would prove to be the secret weapon to the majority of hip=hop’s ascent in the late ’80s. Occasional horn blasts and siren samples fill out the arrangements, but the producers ensured that the focus remained squarely on the rapper’s and their voices.

MC Ren is the unsung hero of Straight Outta Compton. Whether it’s his verses on ‘Something Like That’ or his solo spots ‘If It Ain’t Ruff’ and ‘Quiet on tha Set’, plus his lyrical contributions to most of Dre’s verses, Ren has all the potency and directness of his fellow members, but without the acclaim or fame. Instead, the stars of the show include Ice Cube, who gets most of the iconic lines throughout the record; Eazy-E, whose unique voice and leadership role within the group puts him in the prime slot of most tracks; and Dr. Dre, who gets the album’s single most accessible song that is without direct violence or profanity, ‘Express Yourself’. 

The success of Straight Outta Compton would fundamentally change the makeup of the group, the lives of its biggest stars, and the genre of rap as a whole. Cube would depart N.W.A. over royalty disputes a year and a half after the album’s release, and the group would soldier on for one more album, which indulged the group’s worst tendencies when it came to misogyny and the tiresome disses against their former member. Dre would eventually depart in 1991, and the world’s most dangerous rap group was effectively done upon his departure.

The slow creep of pop culture followed, which worked to thoroughly declaw the menace that came with N.W.A. The rest of hip-hop took cues from Straight Outta Compton and the popularity of Gangsta Rap as a genre, and adapted to suit that image. Today, nothing on Straight Outta Compton looks particularly out of place for a rapper to say, for better or worse. But N.W.A. also became a staple and point of reference for culture at large to become OK with. The biopic that takes its name from the album and the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were fatal blows in N.W.A. ever being a dangerous entity ever again.

But none of the group’s immediacy or power has dulled in the three decades since Straight Outta Compton. While it might not shock in the same way it did back in 1988, it retains its status as one of the most indisputably influential albums in all of popular music. The rest of the world came to N.W.A.’s unvarnished portrait of Compton, and the effect it had can only appropriately be described as seismic. That’s the true power of street knowledge.