According to rapper Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, the reflection of his reality creates reality rap, not necessarily gangster rap. This emphasis on sincere rhymes during the 80s and early 90s led to modern artists like Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. For a transitional period and taste of geography, add in Outkast. The trajectory from N.W.A. is clear. Regardless of what city and suburb a rapper is from, their perspective has an ingrained necessity to it, but if it weren’t for their early struggle, the government would have shut those perspectives down.
Straight Outta Compton presents a three-year insight into the world of N.W.A., one of the more prominent 20th century examples of a group fighting for dreams and vision, but certainly not the only one. As they form bonds and begin to release their music, some of which is critical of social injustice and inequality, there are faint echoes of the “Howl” Obscenity Trial of 1957*—though the charges against the accused publishers are dropped and many previously censored texts are subsequently released. N.W.A. refuses to stop making songs such as “Fuck The Police,” but what if they had? What musicians would America have oppressed if Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella listened to the naysayers and followed those who said rap music, sampling, reality rap, all of it, was a waste of time and definitely illegal? Straight Outta Compton reminds us that the music industry—that each artist—doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s the risks that groups like N.W.A. take that open the door to later innovation.
Artists often defend their music by stating they create work based on their environment, even if drugs and alcohol heavily influence the artists themselves. These elements appear in Straight Outta Compton, as do a few scenes of off-camera violence and tension-ridden moments that only release when participants walk away from a fight. But one of most telling moments of the film takes place during a press conference when the group is bombarded with accusations of how they “glamorize gangs and drugs.” The group mates smile and turn as Ice Cube retorts “our art is a reflection of our reality,” before he and Eazy-E proceed to mock the institution behind automatic weapons and cocaine.
Straight Outta Compton is as much a biography as it is an exposé of the struggling artist and their current fight. Since the film only covers three to four years, it highlights many battles that the group runs into, including jealously, deceit, self-doubt, and bereavement. Those encounters aside, the viewer cannot ignore the sense that these artists, along with many others in California and the music industry in general, pioneered the artistic expression we have today that’s bled out of the bar lines. We have further yet to go. From Kanye West to The Dixie Chicks to Marilyn Manson to Beyoncé, artists consistently say “the unsayable” in their songs—the comments and critiques their fans could quickly write themselves, post, and share on Facebook—but if an artist states an opinion outside of the confines of 150 BPM and a chorus, they’ve gone too far.
Artists know that their music grows from within, and as the technology behind production increases, so does the poignancy of the paired lyrics. Artists have something to say. Gratefully, they possess the unique ability to craft that “something” into an experience for their fans. If N.W.A. doesn’t craft their explicit message about police brutality—relevant as much today as it was during their rise—then they may as well have ceased to exist. Straight Outta Compton won’t let us forget. And when Ice Cube is cuffed and frisked after a novice practice session, all because he’s walking across the street during an unassociated arrest at a close by house, it’s clear that his experience, his livelihood and the interpretation of it, will be a catalyst.
* In which publishers Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyosi Murao were arrested for publication of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem on charges of obscenity and lewdness