“Fuck tha police!” they scream into the microphones. The crowd of teenagers, both black and white, bop their heads, hands in the air, and scream back the phrase at the defiant African-American rappers, who are flipping zap signs at the officers standing in the crowd. With their baggy pants, vests, caps and gold chains, the men on stage are bold, angry, and unapologetic. But then shots are fired from within the audience and chaos ensues. The musicians run from the stage, but outside they are cornered by police officers, arrested, and jailed. It’s 1989. Detroit. One of the biggest rap groups the world has seen, N.W.A. (short for “Niggaz Wit Attitudes”) is touring the U.S.
That’s a scene from the film, Straight Outta Compton, a bio pic of the group which pioneered Gangsta rap and West Coast hip hop between 1986 and1991. The movie focuses mostly on three of the original group members, Andre “Dr Dre” Young, O’Shea Jackson better known as “Ice Cube”, and Eric Lynn Wright a.k.a. “Eazy-E”. The name of the film is the same as the group’s debut studio album, which refers to the poverty-stricken African-American neighbourhood, Compton, in Los Angeles.
The story traces N.W.A.’s origins when a very young DJ, Dr Dre (arguably the world’s best music producer today), encourages his friend, Eazy-E, to rap some lyrics written by Ice Cube. Dre had been trying to convince club managers to let him produce rap music, but even African-Americans told him it wouldn’t sell. The group then self-releases the song, “Boyz-n-the-Hood”, which becomes a surprise hit. Shortly after this, they’re approached by sleazy music manager, Jerry Heller, who promises to make them famous, and does so, when their debut album goes double platinum. This despite it being banned from the airwaves because of its explicit lyrics and violent themes.
And so, legends are born.
N.W.A. was as dissident and defiant as a music group could get, and it’s this that gave the group its mass appeal, transcending colour lines. It’s probably what frightened the white establishment so much. “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds,” Cube explains. But for all the cockiness and swearing, this “gangsta rap” was (and still is) musical street poetry, the kind of which you don’t really get too much anymore. Ice Cube’s lyrics are brilliant and moving, capturing the feelings of a generation of young African-Americans who felt lost, harassed, and racially discriminated against.
The group’s notoriously famous track, “Fuck tha Police”, was written after an incident of severe police harassment, witnessed by Heller. Officers pinned the musicians to the ground, even though they’d simply been standing outside their recording studio taking a break. Why? Because they were “dressed like gangsters”. Heller, a white, Jewish man, was incredulous: “You can’t arrest them because of how they LOOK like!” he shouts at the police (tell that to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray). The track was released just a couple of years before the deadly LA race riots, representing the zeitgeist of the time.
Fuck tha police
Comin’ straight from the underground
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.
Fuck that shit, ’cause I ain’t tha one
For a punk muthafucka with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and throwin’ in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell.
Fuckin’ with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics.
These words still ring eerily true today, following the mass racially-fuelled protests across the U.S. over the past year.
But, shit goes sour, with Heller fueling mistrust between Eazy-E and Ice Cube. Cube leaves the group in 1989 to start a successful solo career, and eventually Dre also has enough, and begins the first of several record labels. As gangsta rappers do, the feud spills over into their music, and friends become foes.
Straight Outta Compton is quite long (two and a half hours), but never boring. It’s a brilliant story about dreams, hopes, fame, fortune, and betrayal, featuring some seriously excellent rap. It’s about how sub-culture becomes counter-culture becomes pop culture, and how this can very nearly change the world.
The actors are their characters: Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, plays his father in the film, while Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell shine as Dre and E respectively. The greedy, slimeball, Heller, is portrayed brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.
The movie was produced by Dre and Cube, among others. The fact that former N.W.A. members were involved doesn’t mean the story isn’t slightly fictionalised, however. The Detroit concert riot, for example, didn’t play out exactly in real life like it does in the film (the group members were only arrested later at their hotel once the show had finished). And, of course, Dre and Cube’s involvement mean they come off looking better than anyone else. My only real criticism of the film is that the end is one big advert for Dre (genius that he is) and his products. He’s portrayed as the most ‘peace-loving’ or ‘reasonable’ one of the group.
This film is for anyone who loves old-school rap, or those who simply want to know more about it. Because eh, that shit’s dope.
Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Paul Giamatti
Rating: 4½ out of 5
Straight Outta Compton is out in South African cinemas on 2 October 2015.