By Olubunmi Familoni
I was but a kid when ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was released in ’88 and changed the general perception of rap music; wasn’t old enough to choose my own music yet or form opinions on what kind of music my tastes might lean towards; was still in that cognition stage of development in which it was the music of my parents that was the dominant sound around me and my initial contact with recorded music, thereby becoming the primary influence on my early choice of music — my parents’ music at this time comprised mainly of juju, fuji, highlife, afrobeat, funk, jazz, and a sprinkling of that shiny Britpop of the late eighties. So, I didn’t come in contact with rap until I left for secondary school, which coincided with the release of Dr. Dre’s ‘Chronic’ and Snoop Dogg’s (Snoop Doggy Dogg at the time) ‘Doggystyle’ albums. Quite naturally, this fresh West Coast sound and philosophy encouraged the adolescent interest in finding out more, and somehow we stumbled on the big doctor’s antecedents, N.W.A, the rap group from Compton, California which had shaken the world with its heavy sounds and defiant lyrics just a few years before then. We soaked up the aggressive juice dripping off that classic seminal record known as ‘Straight Outta Compton’, what years later I came to realise and accept had been N.W.A’s chef-d’oeuvre. In terms of almost corporeal fury, the only other rap album I can think of that has matched SOC in rawness of wrath is Eminem’s ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, (with that touch of Slim Shady’s special brand of insanity; see ‘Kim’ and ‘The Way I Am’). Eminem coincidentally was put on by Dr. Dre, an N.W.A point man and the group’s DJ and producer at the time; a group, it is also of importance to note, that Em had idolised while growing up in Detroit.
Just like Nas’ debut album ‘Illmatic’ also was, SOC soon became for us a guiding light through the years on the path of discovering more rap music and exploring the sound and culture, trying to follow the connection in the music to the soul of the community and the human soul. For their virtuosity in storytelling and premium production, both albums shared similar qualities, but that was where the similarities ended; one was from the far West and was the music of a movement of resistance against the authority, against racism, injustice and other such social anomalies within the black community, and America at large; the other was like a young poet’s first collection of poems and short stories about the ghetto and its inhabitants — more personal, like a diary — a peep into what that seedy little patch of earth known as Queensbridge in New York looked like; it was as if as Nas was introducing us to himself on that debut, he was also introducing us to his grimy neighbourhood, taking us by the hand on a journey through the ‘hood, of shoot-outs in front of the building, drug fiends passed out in front of broken-down elevators, up piss-stained stairs, into apartments where Johnny Carson was on TV and James Brown was on the stereo, niggas jumping off roofs and selling drugs on corners and going to jail, wearing Timberlands and army fatigues. . . This is why the album cover for Illmatic is still one of the most apt I’ve ever seen, portraying the message contained in the album appropriately without compromising the aesthetic — a close-up of a seven-year-old Nas staring back at you, almost as though staring through you (representing inception, a beginning), with a Queensbridge Houses block superimposed on the face (representing the ghetto stories narrated on the album). Speaking of style of narration in the juxtaposition of both albums, Illmatic’s stories were narrated with that poetic finesse that Nas has, and delivered with the smoothness of enunciation typical of New York rap; unlike the aggressive, almost rabid shouts that characterised Straight Outta Compton. Still in comparison with SOC, in the context of their political thrusts, Nas didn’t become fully political with his rap until seven years later on his 2001 ‘Stillmatic’ when his music had matured to a certain point where he felt he could comfortably address US and world political and social situations from a position of great knowledge and tact as he did on Stillmatic, which in rap circles is usually considered the only album of his that matches the classic Illmatic in lyrical and production quality. Nas’ approach to politics wasn’t one of violent fury, as the juvenile N.W.A’s had been, it was the kind of resistance a poet would put up: angry, yet controlled, cerebral; it didn’t have that over-enthusiastic drive of N.W.A on Straight Outta Compton; the angriest Nas might have projected on Stillmatic was on ‘One Mic’. Stillmatic was as Martin Luther King as Straight Outta Compton was Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
Back to Compton and the angry young men of N.W.A; like I said, we grew up with that album as accompaniment to our musical explorations and discoveries of the essence of rap music, giving it fresh listens regularly, even as we took in newer sounds emerging on the scene. It was not until recently that I began to form the idea that influenced this piece, which would be seen as an unpopular opinion, considering the iconic status of N.W.A, and even how large the image of some of its members — Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E — soon became.
But I imagine that N.W.A’s seemingly well-meaning intentions had been calculated to promote themselves and build a larger-than-life image for their individual brands (especially someone like Eazy) rather than the idea of fighting for a cause which they put forward. It is excusable; they were a new group, of very young men hungry for fame, hungry to be at the vanguard of a social and musical revolution. Yes the message of resistance against such things as police brutality was honest, the fury was justified, true; but couldn’t it also be said that they courted some of all this trouble just to garner a wider following and thus promote their music beyond social and cultural boundaries, beyond the borders of America even. Their rifts with the FBI and LAPD became instant items of interest around the world and made people notice them and pay closer attention to them, even if they didn’t appreciate or even listen to the music behind it. So they got notice taken of their fight for justice and equality, but unlike other movements such as the civil rights movement, what solid results did all this lyrical violence achieve?
What changes did it bring about in the social condition of the average African-American human, the black youth in the streets? Hence, could it have been considered successful, when blacks are still getting shot and harassed by the police just for standing somewhere or looking some type of way, or just because they’re black. In fact, the Rodney King situation blew up just a few years after ‘Fuck The Police’, and the LAPD cops involved were acquitted. . . Were the authorities listening to N.W.A’s music at all? Could they hear the message? Rap music hadn’t even attained the level of acceptance it has now back then in ’88, so it had a more limited audience. So how far could ‘Fuck The Police’ have gone in making any dent in the system, to make any positive change, especially when the realities out in the streets are grimmer than a few lines on a record can paint, and look bleaker than ever; but didn’t that singular record make N.W.A more popular. Didn’t the hoopla that came with the famous FBI letter make the boys more attractive to their audience, not necessarily in direct proportion making their music more acceptable (just attractive as controversial revolutionary figures, combined with the allure of the streets that gangsta-rap evokes). Didn’t scrapes with LAPD help push ‘Straight Outta Compton’ units?
But our deification of these stars won’t let us interrogate some of these motives; won’t let us have intelligent conversations on the grey areas surrounding the intentions of rap stars who champion such movements, if there is any suspicion of contrivance, if there’s nothing altruistic about it. From N.W.A’s ‘Fuck The Police’ to Diddy’s ‘Vote Or Die’ campaign, how sincere can we say the music is to push for change or even foster any kind of constructive dialogue around it.
I think this is why I’m able to relate on a deeper level with Illmatic as a definitive narrative of its era than Straight Outta Compton, because of the honesty of Nas’ message — neither demagogic nor didactic; it was just a chance taken to display the poetry of his raconteuring to the world, a task which he succeeded at; which is why hip-hop heads would agree that Illmatic was a more successful rap debut than Straight Outta Compton, just because of that veneer of a lack of verity that cast a shadow on SOC, which many people don’t notice until they take a deeper look into the lives of the midwives behind the music.
N.W.A is dead now, but the racial profiling and consequent police brutality which were at the core of the ‘Fuck The Police’ message are still very much alive and even got a new lease of life last year, with hundreds of African-Americans shot dead by white cops, pushing another movement, Black Lives Matter, to prominence, with a less vicious agenda than the Niggaz Wit Attitudes.