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'Straight Outta Compton,' 20 Years Later

From the cover of Straight Outta Compton.

The cover photo for Straight Outta Compton says it all.

It's taken from the viewpoint of a man who's likely caught an official N.W.A beat-down. Staring up, he sees a circle of six dead-serious-looking young men.

True, Ice Cube does sport a Jheri curl — that's kind of funny. More sobering, though, is Eazy-E pointing a handgun down right at your face, ready to finish you off. The message? You stepped into Compton, fool.

It's been more than two decades since the south Los Angeles rap crew N.W.A dropped the album Straight Outta Compton. A special 20th-anniversary CD comes out today. Back in the late '80s, that gun-wielding, gang-banging, cop-shooting disc quickly turned N.W.A into a hip-hop household name.

N.W.A wasn't the world's first gangsta rap act. And it wasn't necessarily the baddest. But it convinced many people otherwise.

They wanted to talk about what they were going through, seeing. And this is the part of L.A., ghetto America, that mainstream America and media ignored.
Soren Baker

N.W.A pulled some impressive artistic and marketing stunts with the release of Straight Outta Compton. The disc got almost no radio play and still went double-platinum. It launched the legendary careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E.

But N.W.A's biggest coup was the way its members got fans to believe they were all cold-hearted gangsters.

Greg Mack co-founded the station KDAY, one of hip-hop's few L.A. radio outlets during the late 1980s. Mack knew N.W.A and agreed to air the group's early music when nobody else would.

"They were always good kids," Mack says. "Eazy ... was so in tune to how to market himself and N.W.A. He had a vision and he followed through with it."

Eric "Eazy-E" Wright was a well-known Compton drug dealer who wanted to break into the rap game. He had the cash to start a hip-hop label, but he needed talent.

So in early 1987, he teamed up with Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, then a teenage father with a solid reputation as a disc jockey and producer. Dre enlisted O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson, a master at writing so-called "gangsta rap." Their songs were narratives about the street hustler's life of drug dealing and murder — a lifestyle Ice Cube and Dr. Dre never lived.

They added their friends MC Ren and DJ Yella, and Eazy named the band "Niggaz With Attitude." Two years later, at the end of 1988, N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton on Eazy's Ruthless Records.

With Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A put up its own brand of hardcore rap — devoid of both politics and apologetics. Unlike their L.A. gangsta rap forefather Ice-T, N.W.A had little interest in cautionary tales. It took all the taboos — sex, drugs, violence, lots of swearing — threw them in the back of a tricked-out '64 Cadillac and floored it down the fast lane.

Young suburban white America ate up every bit of it.

But it wasn't all about sensational marketing, according to Soren Baker, executive editor of hip-hop magazine The Source. He wrote the liner notes for the Straight Outta Compton 20th-anniversary release.

"They wanted to talk about what they were going through, seeing," Baker says. "And this is the part of L.A., ghetto America, that mainstream America and media ignored."

The original Straight Outta Compton release has 13 songs, including N.W.A's most infamous track, "F— Tha Police." The single was recorded as a protest against police brutality.

At the time, the FBI sent a letter to N.W.A's label, Priority Records, saying that the song encouraged cop-killing. Off-duty police officers refused to provide security during N.W.A's national shows, effectively shutting down the group's concerts. But the album just kept selling.

What probably helped Straight Outta Compton do so well was that it wasn't all gangsta gunplay. There's a dance track ("Something 2 Dance 2") tacked on to the end. And Dr. Dre gets loose on the mic for the album's only profanity-free cut: "Express Yourself."

Ice Cube quit the group in 1989. Dr. Dre split with Eazy two years later over money issues. The two lobbed disses at each other until just before Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS in 1995.

Today, Straight Outta Compton is a reminder of brighter days in hip-hop's most notorious left-coast 'hood. Five young brothers showed how to take hyper-violent hardcore rap and give it the sweetest twist of gangster finesse.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of song, "Straight Outta Compton")

N.W.A. (Singer): You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.

BRAND: It's been almost two decades since the Los Angeles rap group N.W.A released its landmark album "Straight Outta Compton." A special 20th anniversary CD comes out today.

In the late 1980s, their gun-wielding, gang-banging, cop-shooting rhymes quickly turned N.W.A into a household name, at least in hip-hop households.

(Soundbite of song, "Straight Outta Compton")

ICE CUBE (Rapper): (Rapping) Straight outta Compton. It's your crazy brother named Ice Cube from the super-doped gang with an attitude.

BRAND: N.W.A wasn't the world's first gangster rap act, and it wasn't necessarily the baddest.

But as NPR's Christopher Johnson reports, there is no doubt about N.W.A's impact. And a quick warning: the story includes language that could offend some listeners.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: "Straight Outta Compton's" cover photo says it all. It's taken from the eye view of someone who was probably caught an official beat-down from Niggaz With Attitude, or N.W.A.

Staring up, the victim sees a circle of six dead-serious young brothers. True, Ice Cube does have a Jheri curl, and that's kind of funny. More sobering, though, is Eazy-E pointing a handgun at your face.

The message? You done stepped into Compton, fool.

(Soundbite of song, "Gangsta Gangsta")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Here's a little something about a brother like me, never should have been let out the penitentiary, Ice Cube would like to say that I'm a crazy mutha from around the way. Since I was a youth...

JOHNSON: The rap group N.W.A had pulled some impressive artistic and marketing stunts with the release of "Straight Outta Compton." The disc got almost no radio play, and it still went double-platinum and helped Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E launched legendary rap careers.

But probably N.W.A's biggest coup was the way its members got fans to believe they were all cold-hearted gangsters.

Mr. GREG MACK (Co-Founder, KDAY): These guys, they were marketing geniuses.

JOHNSON: Greg Mack co-founded the station K-D-A-Y, or KDAY, one of hip-hop's few L.A. radio stations during the late 1980s. Mack knew N.W.A and agreed to air the group's early music when nobody else would.

Mr. MACK: They were good kids. Eazy just knew - he was just so in tuned on how to market himself and market N.W.A. He just had a vision, and he just followed through with it.

JOHNSON: Eric Eazy-E Wright was a well-known Compton drug pusher who wanted to break into the rap game. Eazy had the cash to start up a hip-hop label, but he needed some talent. So in early 1987 he teamed up with Andre Dr. Dre Young, a teenage father with a solid reputation as a disc jockey and a producer.

Dre enlisted O'Shea Ice Cube Jackson, who was a master of writing so-called gangster rap. The songs were narratives about the street hustler's life of drug dealing and murder - a lifestyle Cube and Dre never lived. They added their friends MC Ren and DJ Yella, and Eazy named the rap crew Niggaz With Attitude. Two years later, at the end of 1988, N.W.A released "Straight Outta Compton" on Eazy's record label, Ruthless.

(Soundbite of song, "If It Ain't Ruff")

MC Ren (Rapper): (Rapping) Ren is the villain and you're just a hostage so whenever I'm stepping over your head like an ostrich. Groupies been waitin' for this, suckers been hatin' for this. You know why? 'Cause so many are relatin' to this.

JOHNSON: With "Straight Outta Compton," N.W.A put up a brand of hardcore rap that was devoid of politics and apologies. As Ice Cube explains things in a 1989 interview, hip-hop playtime was over.

ICE CUBE: I think we get over so much because we talk about the real (bleep) uncut. You know, we don't (bleep) around with it. We just tell it how it is, and either you swallow it or you spit it out.

(Soundbite of song, "Dopeman")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Living in Compton, California, CA. (Unintelligible) to be a dopeman is a life of grief (unintelligible)

JOHNSON: Unlike their L.A. gangster rap forefather Ice-T, who rhymed about consequences, N.W.A had little interest in cautionary tales. They took all the no-no's - sex, drugs, violence, and lots of swearing - threw them in the back of a tricked-out '64 Cadillac and floored it down the fast lane.

Young suburban white America ate up every bit of N.W.A's gangster gags. Rap journalist Soren Baker says "Straight Outta Compton" wasn't just about sensational marketing though. He wrote the liner notes for the 20th anniversary CD.

Mr. SOREN BAKER (Journalist): They wanted to talk about what they were going through and what they were seeing. And this was the part of Los Angeles, this is the part of the ghetto that mainstream America ignored.

(Soundbite of song, "F-Tha Police")

Dr. DRE (Rapper): (Rapping) Right about now, N.W.A court is in full effect. Judge Dre presiding in the case of N.W.A versus the police department.

JOHNSON: The original "Straight Outta Compton" release has 13 songs, including N.W.A's infamous track, "F-Tha Police."

(Soundbite of song, "F-Tha Police")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) F- the police comin' straight from the underground. A young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown. And not the other color so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority.

JOHNSON: The single was recorded as a protest against police brutality. But the FBI sent a letter to N.W.A's label complaining that the song promotes cop-killing. Off-duty police refused to provide security during N.W.A's national shows, effectively shutting down many of the group's concerts.

But the album just kept selling. And what helped "Straight Outta Compton" do so well was that it wasn't all gangster gunplay. Dr. Dre gets loose on the mic for the album's only profanity-free single: "Express Yourself."

(Soundbite of song, "Express Yourself")

Dr. DRE: (Rapping) Express yourself. I'm expressin' with my full capabilities and now I'm livin' in correctional facilities, 'cause some don't agree with how I do this. I get straight and meditate like a Buddhist. I'm droppin' flava, my behavior is hereditary, but my technique is very necessary. Blame it on Ice Cube because he says it gets funky when you got a subject and a predicate. Add it on a dope beat...

JOHNSON: Ice Cube was the first to quit the group when he left in '89. Dre split with Eazy two years later over money issues, and the two lobbed disses at each other until Eazy died from AIDS in 1995.

Today, "Straight Outta Compton" is a reminder of brighter days in hip hop's most notorious left coast hood. Five young brothers showed how to take hyper-violent hardcore rap and give it the sweetest twist of gangster finesse.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Express Yourself")

Dr. DRE: (Rapping) Don't be another sequel. Express yourself.

BRAND: N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" 20th anniversary release features the original album plus five bonus tracks. And you can hear songs from the CD at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Express Yourself")

Dr. DRE: (Rapping) Now, gettin' back to the PG. That's program, and it's easy. Dre is back. Newjacks, I mean, hollow. Expressin' ain't their subject because they like to follow the words, the style, the trend, the records I spin again and again and again, yo, you on the other end. Watch a brother playin' dope rhymes with no help. There's no fessin' and guessin' while I'm expressin' myself. It's crazy to see people be what society wants them to be. But not me. Ruthless is the way to go they know. Others say rhymes that fail to be original. Or 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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