In 1988, most residents of the US were only marginally aware of problems that young men of color had with some police departments. The movie “Colors” (1988) had been released several months before. The idea of expressing discontent with the police was starting to grow. A new urban sentiment was developing. By August of 1988, urban discontent and realism had a new sound, and it came in the form of N.W.A. The group’s debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” presented gritty narratives in the form of rap music.
Made up of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, The D.O.C. and DJ Yella, N.W.A. said things that some people had been thinking, but no one had articulated those thoughts in quite the same way that they did.
N.W.A. and the idea of West Coast rap
Prior to 1988, most people thought of rap as an East Coast music form, with few exceptions. The associated fashions and stylized way of speaking, all seemed to have an East Coast flair. Then, all of a sudden, N.W.A. arrives in record stores everywhere, and rap fans had their minds blown – – figuratively. N.W.A. might have even enjoyed radio airplay in certain parts of the country, but for residents of northeastern Indiana and places like it, fans of the group had to buy the recording or watch the video, as there was no radio station who would play the group.
In some ways, with their focus on Compton, and the swagger and toughness needed to survive the environment there, N.W.A. served as cultural informants who told audiences what it was like to live where they were from. And it wasn’t just the words that won listeners over – – the beats were great, too.
Heavy and nuanced, the bass that accompanied the rhymes of N.W.A. effectively worked to underscore the harsh words. “Straight Outta Compton’s” title track is comprised of everything and more that a rap song was expected to have.
“Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A.
The several emcees that made up N.W.A. had distinct voices. Each rapper had in the song’s arrangement had an opportunity to state some form of the song’s title. Their claim to the city that they called home provided a personal touch to the song. The change of the backing track during the verses added dynamics to the track. Each rapper detailed his version of life in Compton. Some of the lyrics were likely exaggerations, but that is not unexpected under the “guidelines” of rap.
The group established themselves as something different for rap fans. With swagger, menace and beats and lyrics that resonated with listeners, it is no surprise that the song still resonates with people 30 years later.
The legend of N.W.A. and West Coast rap in general was dramatized in the 2015 film “Straight Outta Compton.” The film and its soundtrack served as either nostalgia for those who knew of the group during the 1980s, and as a means of informing audiences who didn’t know about the group during their heyday, or who didn’t realize the role N.W.A. played in the evolution of rap music.
In addition, in 2017, the album “Straight Outta Compton” was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”