Every style of music has a definitive artist and/or album that sets the standards for all other artists within that particular genre. The hip-hop world is no exception.
An amazing 15 years after being one of the first albums to give rise to gangsta rap, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton remains one of the most powerful, controversial, and influential rap records of all time. In September 2002, Priority Records re-released the album that earned N.W.A. the title of “The World’s Most Dangerous Group,” and that would influence an entire generation of hip-hop and R&B artists.
Written and performed by hip-hop icons Ice Cube, M.C. Ren, Dr. Dre, D.J. Yella and the late Eazy-E, Straight Outta Compton’s legacy has in part been one of controversy resulting from its dark and often violent depictions of urban street life. N.W.A.’s songs embraced the issue of a militant minority struggling against an oppressive power establishment. Despite the use of violent imagery, including references to firearms, gang violence and unflattering descriptions of women, the record’s lyricism still stands as a chilling historical documentary of urban neighborhood life during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The brutal, raw depictions of gang life still resonate clearly in tracks such as “Gangsta Gangsta,” and the album’s searing title track. But the song that put N.W.A. on the map was the infamous “F— Tha Police.” Through its attack of police brutality and African-American stereotyping, the song earned N.W.A. cult status among urban youths and notoriety throughout the United States: “– got it bad cuz I’m brown/And not the other color so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority.” “F— Tha Police” predictably drew the ire of law enforcement officials nationwide, including the FBI, who sent a letter to Priority Records claiming the song encouraged violence against police officers.
While most of the attention given to the album focused on its subject matter, Straight Outta Compton was also a triumph in musical arrangement and performance. While the music is distinctly hip-hop, N.W.A. stretched the boundaries of musicality, something later hardcore rappers have had less success accomplishing. Straight Outta Compton’s 13 songs feature a mix of dark urban beats, rhythmic dance grooves, funky pop passages and even melodic jazz. Dr. Dre’s production is also crisp: only a few years away from establishing himself as one of the most respected producers in the music industry, Dre masterfully combined the album’s pounding instrumentation with his bandmates’ taut vocalizations to create one of the most intense sonic works in hip-hop history.
But perhaps Straight Outta Compton’s most important legacy is the influence it had on countless other young rappers. One of the most important principles inherent in N.W.A.’s music was that of not allowing themselves to be silenced or censored. Straight Outta Compton allowed a larger audience to understand the realities of urban life. In addition, N.W.A.’s candor influenced other artists within the genre to speak honestly through this medium. The group asserts this principle on the brilliant pop-rap blend “Express Yourself”: “– they kill where the hip-hop starts/forget about the ghetto and rap for the pop charts/some musicians curse at home but scared to use profanity/when up on the microphone/yeah, they want reality/but you won’t hear none/they rather exaggerate, a little fiction.”
Despite a short lifespan of only five years and three full albums, N.W.A. changed hip-hop in the same way that Bob Dylan changed folk, the Beatles changed rock ‘n’ roll and the Sex Pistols changed punk. The group also influenced countless rappers, including Snoop Dogg and Eminem, in the process. Even 15 years later, the album is still as ferocious, as vivid, as controversial and as influential as it was in 1988.