This week, I’ve been listening to N.W.A.’s debut album “Straight Outta Compton” from 1988. In middle-school, I was aware of N.W.A. I vaguely remember Kurt Loder on Mtv News discussing drama within the group. They brought gangsta rap into wider public awareness. Their album “Straight Outta Compton” found itself in collections that kids hid from their parents for being too dangerous and controversial. These “Niggaz Wit Attitude” spoke out against the racist establishment, especially the police, while glorifying violence, misogyny and drugs. That’s quite the cocktail for scaring parents, especially now that the Satanic Panic wearing out. At the time, my interest in hip hop was purely mainstream: M.C. Hammer, Young MC, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. I didn’t even give N.W.A a chance until this week, over 3 decades later.
Straight Outta Compton
The spoken intro “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” appropriately introduces the album. Drums kick in, Ice Cube forcefully raps “Straight outta Compton.” Then the horn and funk guitar loops begin. In short, the album jumps immediately into bad ass. For the drums, they have expertly mixed samples from the Winston Brother’s “Amen Brother,” James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” layered with original programming on Roland TR-808 drum machine. Hearing these things together makes it abundantly clear why these three are so often used in hip hop and other genres of beat-driven music. This strong rhythm combined with the horn drone creates a sense of determination and confidence, perfect for the braggadocio of the lyrics.
Compton: Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off
The lyrics consists of a series of couplets that emphasize the downbeat of the rhythm. Here and there, there will be a line consisting of an internal rhyme like the above: “called off”/”sawed off” then rhyme with “hauled off” of the next line. With these lines, there’s usually a sense of bullet-points. They are listing of a series of items and ending with their consequence. This happens later in the same verse: “Niggaz start to mumble, they wanna rumble: Mix em and cook em in a pot like gumbo.” Probably the thing that most impresses me about quality hip hop is the cleverness of the lyrics and rhymes that frequently remind me of Bob Dylan’s skills.
The incredibly album mixing of samples to create beats amazes throughout this album. “Gangsta Gangsta” stands as a great example. TR-808 drum machine strengthens the rhythm, with accompaniment built up mostly from 1970s funk and soul. The greatest emphasis is placed on the first beat of each measure through the two-bar beats. Turn-table scratching provides fills to introduces each new section.
The lyrics are a series of couplets and some problematic lyrics. An example of the controversial misogyny shows up in this song. Of course, they lyrics also explain “Do I look like a mutha fuckin role model?” Still, one can easily see how this would upset:
When me and my posse stepped in the house
All the punk-ass niggas start breakin’ out
‘Cause you know, they know whassup
So we started lookin’ for the bitches with the big butts
Like her, but she keep cryin’
“I got a boyfriend” Bitch stop lyin’
Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin’ but a dyke
Suddenly I see, some niggas that I don’t like…
Fuck The Police
I was introduced to this song through Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. That’s how lame I am. Anyway, there’s no attempt to conceal the message of the song: the police are racist and the court system is corrupt. In this tale, the speaker is mistreated by police because of the color of his skin and the neighborhood. They are presumed guilty and beaten because they are minorities. Halfway through the song, it’s pointed out that on the street the minorities are the majority race. The police are brought to court and found guilty of being racist. This song raised more than a few eyebrows, and even prompted a letter from the FBI worried about the way it painted the police department.
Most of the lyrics are couplets. Though, as we see in the third line does not rhyme with the fourth line. An internal rhyme within the fourth solves this by rhyming “authority” with “minority.” The purpose of the couplet is served, even if it happens somewhere else.
Fuck 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
Fuck that shit, ’cause I ain’t the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail
We can 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