Everyone has come across the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Group’ N.W.A at some point. One of the most highly anticipated films of this summer is Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” which maps out the formation of the infamous rap crew and their journey in becoming modern international icons.
With Ice Cube and Doctor Dre on board as co-producers, the film is set to thrill and challenge cinema-goers afresh - just as the band had done in their Genesis. The story goes way back and Dre, now 50 years old, is hoping the project will subvert wrong perceptions of the group’s origins and character.
Boys in the Hood
All revolutions begin with small choices and steps, this musical one was no different. A young man by the name of Eric ‘Eazy E’ Wright, a former crack cocaine dealer in South Central LA, decided to change his career path following the death of his cousin. Teaming up with childhood friend Doctor Dre, they began to recruit members to a new rap clique. The aim was to push rap from the mainstream funk and dance dominated sound to a harsher, gritty sound that could draw on the lyrical edginess of underground artists like Ice T and Public Enemy.
The group quickly expanded with the addition of Ice Cube. He had written several tracks which were rejected by East coast labels, one of which became the hit ‘Boys in the Hood’. In what was one of his first attempts at rap, the historic track would go on to be performed by Eazy E. Final members MC Ren and DJ Yella completed the crew.
Eazy E then arranged to meet with top music producer Jerry Heller in March 1987. Officially the crew signed to Ruthless Records, and after just 6 weeks they had finished their debut album ‘Straight Outta Compton’.
Having all grown up in the chaos of South Central Los Angeles, N.W.A vowed to express the true story of the violent and dangerous life in the streets, where the media cast a blind eye.
South Central was and still is a primarily black community. Gang culture has been rife since the late 70s in what is the most impoverished neighbourhood network in LA. Known as “the ghetto”, it’s split up into various gang turfs. The notorious Crips and Bloods, two of the continually warring factions, still fight today. The gang war has claimed the lives of at least 15,000 people in just over two decades. Bear in mind that all this is in the centre of a major American city.
For N.W.A in the 80s and early 90s growing up in South Central LA meant experiencing ghetto life, guns, drugs, as well as racial segregation from white suburbia and consistent harassment from the police. All these factors produced an angst that N.W.A expressed in their music. From the stories of police brutality to gangland warfare, they communicated with such vigour and nihilism that they made room for an entirely new genre of rap: gangsta rap.
The band’s producer Heller tells that on hearing ‘Boys in the Hood’ for the first time it “stone cold blew me away,” dubbing it the “most important song in over 25 years.” The tracks which followed were also instant classics ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘F*** the Police’. The music hit America like a punch in the gut, embodying all the rebellion and rage but lending voice to the disempowered and disillusioned young black people in the ghetto.
Their lyrical format, dress sense, music video output and attitudes caused such controversy and fear in middle America that the mainstream media banned them from radio and MTV. Of course this censorship drew the attention of the country and in a reverse affect popularised the band further.
This new genre was drawing attention to the victimisation and brutality felt everyday on the streets, confronting the local Goliath that was the corrupt LAPD. In the ever powerful medium of the music video, the band drew visceral parallels between themselves and their enslaved ancestors as well as between the white slave owners and the LAPD. The messages were hitting the cultural bullseye. The art reflecting the real pain, struggle and emotions of thousands on the streets.
The music was a catalyst for action. It challenged it’s listener to confront reality, not escape from it, such was the potency of their creation. The self-righteous establishment of course tried everything and anything to undermine the message. The FBI even accused the group of the deaths of their officers through invoking hatred. Yet N.W.A stood firm in their mission to be the voice of the streets and to directly educate the general public on the struggles of black youth.
Although the group eventually split up, they are still recognised for their undeniable contribution to rap music in the mainstream and for the messages they delivered and portrayed. They have spawned countless visionary rappers and the lineage of their influence runs long. Compton born rap artists such as The Game and Kendrick Lamar both pay homage to N.W.A, contributing their creativity to life growing up under their music.
Two decades later, with the film release set for this coming summer, it can be said now with even more certainty that N.W.A changed rap and popular music like never before. In a time when police brutality is again a major talking point in the US, the expectation that surrounds the film is intense as fans remember the passionate, unrelenting creative voice that is the prevailing legend and legacy of the World’s Most Dangerous Group.
Prepare yourself for something powerful.
Straight Outta Compton is released in the US on August 14th and the UK on August 28th.