How Straight Outta Compton Created A Revolution

The 1988 album Straight Outta Compton was avoided at all costs by airplay and hunted down by censors. However it would sell triple-platinum and start a tidal wave in music and pop culture as well.

For so long I’ve been procrastinating with my review of the movie Straight Outta Compton. The biggest reason why it took so long is because I wanted to write up how the album created a tidal wave for music and pop culture and changed how things are done. The thing is my retrospect took way too long to write. Song it deserved its own blog. So here’s what I have to say about both the sociocultural changes and music changes made by N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton.

Basically I’m writing this based on my observations starting off in the late-80’s  growing up as a teen in Winnipeg and in the 90’s as a college student there and even my experiences living in Vancouver in the 21st century. For those who don’t know, there are a lot of areas in Winnipeg especially close to the inner city and and in Greater Vancouver, especially Surrey, that can qualify as some of Canada’s top ‘hoods.’

I still remember the music scene long before N.W.A. Gangsta rap didn’t exist before. There were reality raps  but they weren’t such a huge phenomenon. In fact it was party raps or celebration raps that were winning crowds slowly but surely. Reality rap was there but mostly through the group Public Enemy who used rap to speak out about racism and social injustice. Also there’s the 1982 rap song The Message which singlehandedly put to rest any claims about rap being a simple fad. Rap was not yet all the rage but it was already a growing phenomenon. In fact back then the R&B scene was dominated by soul singers. That was especially show in the movie as the group had to compete for stage time against a soul singer who looked and sang like every woman’s dream. That was the R&B phenomenon back then. The music scene back then was dominated by soul singers with strong and dramatic voices and big-haired heavy metal bands. In fact the biggest controversy back then came from heavy metal musicians for allegedly Satanic-themed music. And they were already provoking enough heat to have parental groups speak out against them and their lyrics.

Also back then, there wasn’t just the difficulty for N.W.A. to get their raps on stage and on record. There was the popular belief that rap and hip-hop completely belonged to the districts of New York City. We forget that rap grew out of the inner city of NYC. For years they owned it alone. Back then it was believed that any rap act outside of NYC would be seen as a diluted version of hip hop or just a bunch of wannabes.

N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton won big because it was the music my generation of teens was looking for. For one thing, it was raw music. I came from a generation that felt contempt to the major record labels for the music they were trying to get us to buy. It was processed and packaged for the sake of chart-topping and we didn’t want that. We wanted music that was real and uncensored. Most of believed: “Hit music is shit music!” We especially had a liking for any music or art form that took whatever most people, especially the status quo, would be disgusted with or look away from and shoved it in their face. Music that provoked our parents were bonus points, especially since it was coming around the time these parental groups were trying to be watchdogs and eventually created the ‘explicit lyrics’ sticker. It appeared like Straight Outta Compton was what we were looking for: untouched music promoted by an independent record label that went no holds barred on its lyrics. The outrage sparked by **** The Police made radio stations avoid it at all costs but made the young want to buy it more. Three times platinum without any radio airplay. And to think we thought we’d find what we were looking for in alternative rock from indie labels the whole time.

The tidal wave in music and in pop culture as a whole would come thanks to its success. Over time there were other rap acts who would record explicit albums. The biggest challenge came from the 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be which faced an obscenity conviction in a Florida court. Eventually the 2 Live Crew took their case to the Supreme Court and won. After that it would pave the way for other acts with more explicit and provocative albums. Dr. Dre as a solo act would face his own heat as he would shell out music that would garner complaints as ‘irresponsible.’ The response from Dre and other who recorded such music would send the record straight: “They’re not responsible. Where are the parents?” Even us young people supported the rappers side and saw these groups of parents trying to protect their children as both a censorship threat and selfish stupids. Why? Because we felt they though that just because they have kids, they could tell the entertainment industry what to do while they could go off and do whatever they want. Entertainment’s not a babysitter!

The thing is gangsta rap rewrote the book on how to do business. I will get to how much gangsta rap and hip-hop was like a drug for late-Generation X’ers and Millennials a bit later. However it became clear that if anyone wanted to make it in gangsta rap, they had to have street cred. Often it seemed like a biography was needed. I remember back in 1993, Snoop Dogg was facing a criminal charge of participation in a gang-style murder. His album Doggy Style was released months after he turned himself in and it sold big time. In the past, an act facing a murder charge would have his career killed. Not with Snoop Dogg as he became famous not in spite of his alleged murder charge but because of it.

This would lead to other rappers have their careers launched thanks to having a gang-style criminal charge. Even the gang-style tactics of Suge Knight and his way of ‘doing business’ on Death Row Records propelled gangsta rap even further and led to more chart-topping acts. Thanks to Straight Outta Compton, the West Coast rap scene came of age and rivaled that of NYC. Within years the rivalry became so intense there were turf wars which led to the deaths of both Tupac and Biggie. The gang style deaths of both of them accelerated their sales and cemented their post mortem immortality. Never before has there been a style of music the capitalized so much on its infamy and scandalous news. Mind you the gangsta intrigue of the public wasn’t anything new. Violence and the underworld has always charmed past generations. A century ago, people were intrigued and charmed by the ‘Hatfield vs. McCoy’ rivalry that’s still celebrated in country music scenes. Our parents and grandparents were charmed and intrigued by Al Capone and Chicago in the 20’s. Now our generation had gangsta rap and the tales of the streets.

As I mentioned earlier, gangsta rap and aggressive hip-hop was like a drug to the late-Generation X’ers and Millennials. It’s punk-ass anti-authority attitude sure won them over. One of the annoyances was that it cause many young people, especially middle and upper class white kids, to dress like gangstas and do ‘hood style’ finger gestures. Not to mention talk in a phony accent and walk in a phony swagger. Yes, my generation and the generation after me ate up whatever MTV gave us. Without a doubt, they ate up the hip-hop and rap scene big time. Instead of it fading away, it became the new norm. Instead of it being a look that belong to just a clique of people, it became the look to be. Big in terms of clothes to wear was sportswear, especially Chicago Bulls and Air Jordan stuff. I often consider hip-hop music to add to why the Air Jordan became ‘the shoe that changed the world.’ Stuff you wore on the street you could wear anywhere, even formal occasions. Oh yes, the baggy pants. That was the most noticeable thing that reigned supreme in hip-hop clothes. Starting in the early 90’s baggy pants went from the hip-hop look to the norm period. Back in schools, it was thought any boy who didn’t wear baggy jeans deserved all the bullying in the world. Sure, teenage and young adult society was always a case where ‘be yourself’ faced stiff competition from ‘be what wins’ but I think it got its toughest competition from ‘be gangsta’ during the gangsta heyday.

As for the girls and women, this was interesting. Back when gangsta rap burst on the scene, I went to a university that was very much into liberalism and very anti-sexism and anti-misogyny. The misogyny with the rappers calling women ‘hoes’ offended me. I was appreciative of the alternative rock at the time. They were looking at women way less objectively than the heavy metal acts of the past and I was hoping their efforts would change things. Not to be. The gangsta rappers stuck to their female-objectifying guns and won the young over. As far as they were concerned, rock wimped out. The crazy thing is the teen girls and young women also ate it up. The girls were charmed by the bad boy sex appeal of the rappers and reminded you all how bad boys have what it takes to turn girls on. And at the same time reminded you how nice guys have the sex appeal of Mr. Rogers. And you saw how they ate the music up as they were in night clubs dressed scantily clad and dancing sexually provocative and enjoying every minute of it as one of those songs are blaring. It was as if they were intoxicated by hip-hop’s beat completely oblivious to the misogyny of the song being spun. Yes, gangsta rap and hip-hop was that much of a drug back then!

Talking about it being like a drug, I remember seeing for such a long time and especially in Winnipeg how the younger generation after me would dress like them, blast their music at high volume from their cars trying to look tough and even chant their lyrics back as they were listening to it through their discmans or iPods religiously. It did seem like rap and hip-hop was a religion and the rappers were their gods. And to think it was Straight Outta Compton that started it all.

The craziest thing is not just how big it would become but also how long of a phenomenon it was. Even after ten or fifteen years, the gangsta phenomenon and hip-hop phenomenon reigned supreme. As long as they were churning out new gangsta phenoms, it acquired its endurance. No matter what they did, whether it be Puff Daddy and his crew ‘makin the money,’ Dre churning out Enimem or 50 Cent promoted on Shady Aftermath, hip-hop and rap kept going. The bad-boy phenomenon of gangsta had plenty to do with it. There were a lot of other rap acts that weren’t gangsta coming out like Coolio who said he wanted to lead the ‘post-gangsta era of rap back in his day or the Fugees consisting of Haitian descendants. However they along with other non-gangsta acts couldn’t have the wining power or endurance of gangsta rap. It’s almost like the young public would only throw gangsta rap and its bad-boy away once there was something else that could ‘outbad’ it. And there was nothing.

The phenomenon had been going on for so long, you thought it wouldn’t ever stop. However it did. For years, hip-hop and rap appeared to have unstoppable energy but there would be signs that it would eventually run out of gas. First example is 50 Cent. Remember how back in 2003 his ‘shot nine times’ story made him a new gangsta phenomenon with Get Rich Or Die Tryin’? He wasn’t just simply the next gangsta phenomenon but over time he’d eventually become the last gangsta phenomenon. Over time the repetitiveness of the music would eventually leave people bored. Hey the last rap song I liked was J-Kwon’s Tipsy. The last big rap song to top the charts was 2007’s Crank Dat from Soulja Boy. Even Eminem’s Slim Shady guise would lose its fire as the last song loaded with energy would be 2004’s Just Lose It.

You look at the charts now and rap and hip-hop aren’t as dominant as they were back then. Still popular but its dominance has faded. The rappers in the last 10 years like Lupe Fiasco and Macklemore haven’t been able to hold a stick to the ones of the Golden Era. Even current rap phenomenon Wiz Khalifa can’t compare. Many young people who like hip-hop are often listening to the music from the Golden Era. In fact I came across a Rolling Stone edition of the 100 Best Hip-Hop songs ever and only nine of the 100 songs were released in the past ten years. The seemingly unstoppable fire of hip-hop did eventually get tamed.  I myself refer to the fade by saying: “Hip-hop has lost so much fire in the last ten years, it’s no longer sissyish for a guy to wear skinny jeans.”

Nevertheless the popularity of the Golden Age of rap and hip-hop still has a following even with today’s young if not the rage it used to be. New trends have come, especially in the form of more electronic music but rap and hip hop still has a liking with them. It still wears big with the late-Generation X’ers and Millennials as many have not dropped their gangsta duds quite yet. Air Jordan is still a popular clothing line even if basketball shoes and basketball wear isn’t all the rage anymore. And people still like to rap to state their case. I remember one time I saw a man about to be arrested outside a bus stop. He stated his case by rapping!

The ads from the film Straight Outta Compton talk about how one group changed pop culture forever. That is very true. I was young enough to experience the pop culture scene before Straight Outta Compton burst on the stage. And I was able to see how it changed it all living in both Winnipeg and Vancouver. I don’t know if you can attribute it solely on N.W.A. and Straight Outta Compton but it makes a valid point. Oh yeah, click here for my movie review.


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