Memories come stompin’ from “Straight Outta Compton”
Growing up in the John Hughes, prep dominated Ronald Reagan 1980s in the mildly affluent western part of Winston-Salem rightly should have sheltered me from the emergence of hip hop from the gritty streets of NYC and the expansive neighborhoods of south central Los Angeles.
Despite my mother’s best intentions, I’m happy to say, things didn’t work out that way. Ultimately it was my older neighbor, David, who turned me on to Afrika Bambaataa and Fab Five Freddie just a few years before he handed me my first joint in the woods behind my house.
I got a tape with Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” somewhere along about 1983. I’d been corrupted by then, and my mother sent me packing off to a Baptist private school to try and cure me, but I responded with defiance, thoroughly embracing hip hop, which we just called rap music back then, and doing my best to get regularly expelled.
As things progressed, that worked out well because by the end of the decade rock music was certainly dead, drowned in a gooey mix of hairspray and glam. I was never one much for the college radio scene, so it was classic rock and, yes, hip hop that populated the playlists I absorbed in those days.
For a brief couple of years I lived off of Public Enemy and EPMD tapes, until one fateful day when I heard a jam coming from my neighbor Roy’s apartment. Straight funkadelic and James Brown grooves with a cacophony of sinful lyrics describing gangster LA life like I’d never heard before.
“Fuck the police coming straight from the underground.”
Those words alone were so direct and poetic, a smashing blow against the glass house of my own fragile worldview. I’d had a copy of Ice-T’s Rhyme Pays during my last year of high school, and the violent worldview described in songs like “Squeeze The Trigger” and “6 N the Mornin'” was thrilling to me. But even in describing a violent gangster life and escaping from the police, Ice-T never crossed the thin blue line like Ice Cube did straight out of the gate.
“You’d rather see me in the pen, than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o.”
Before I crested the hill into middle age, I used to have a mind like a sponge. I think it was those days I spent working as a produce clerk, reciting the entire Eric B. and Rakim “Paid in Full” album in my mind just to pass the time. The first time one of my college buddies later asked me to recite the lyrics to “Fuck the Police” up on campus I know it caused a scene in the history department.
The controversial and vulgar antipolice anthem got all the attention back then, as it does now, and unfortunately obscures many of the gems on the “Straight Outta Compton” album, released in August 1988. Ice Cube is stellar on this debut, owning intros to the title track and the al bum’s first three songs, including his day in the life opus, “Gangsta, Gangsta”. MC Ren’s “If it Ain’t Ruff”, The D.O.C.’s intro on “Parental Discretion iz Advised” and Dr. Dre’s delivery of “Express Yourself” each contain lines delivered in effortless flow.
You couldn’t help but dig the scene with a gangsta lean.
What became known as grunge and alternative rock began to emerge soon thereafter, and though my love of hiphop persisted through The Chronic, Snoop Dogg and A Tribe Called Quest, it never dominated my musical life the way Public Enemy and NWA did.
During the last year or so the number of instances in which police have shot and killed unarmed African Americans has dominated the headlines and given birth to countless Facebook memes and an endless stream of police abuse videos.
I wondered earlier this year if the impending release of the NWA biopic would exacerbate the atmosphere, but I think the actions of the police themselves have done enough to create fertile ground for the reemergence of “Fuck the Police” as an anthem.
In the run up to the movie’s release, I’ve read a number of well-written articles that take NWA members to task, and rightly so, for their often misogynistic lyrics that seem to glorify violence against women. I remember specifically being torn by some of those lyrics, obviously awful and worthy of condemnation in itself, because often they flowed right after a beautifully delivered line. One in particular stands out, delivered by Eazy-E, who passed away from AIDS in 1995.
“Feel a little gust of wind and I’m jettin’, but leave a memory no one’ll be forgettin’.”
Internal rhyme. Oblique rhyme.
Rhymes to make Rakim smile and Emily Dickenson bounce her head up and down. But followed by a line in which Eazy-E expresses no remorse for a young girl who was shot in a drive by in his neighborhood.
The strength of street knowledge delivered in Straight Outta Compton is rife with grotesque violence of all forms, and crosses the obvious lines of human decency several times over.
As a foot in the face of the illusion that was the Reagan/Bush era, however, the album, and the men who made it, stomped straight outta the hood and into lyrical immortality. !