On 14 August N.W.A’s long awaited biopic Straight Outta Compton was released in US theatres. Telling the story of the legendary hip-hop group, the title immediately introduces the groups origins in Compton, California. Compton is a gang infested inner-city area of Los Angeles know for poverty, violence and hardship. Few escape the gang lifestyle and drug addiction which is rife in the area. The story of five inner-city youths escaping the trappings of the “hood” serves as an introduction to the background of some of the most well-known hip-hop stars of today.
Founded in 1986 and for a short time known as “the world’s most dangerous group”, N.W.A (N****z Wit’ Attitudes) shot to fame with the release of their debut album Straight Outta Compton in 1988. The album revolutionised hip-hop and created the “gangsta rap” subgenre. The group became known not only for their violent, sometimes misogynistic lyrics that glamorised gang violence and drug dealing, but also for their critical street commentary of the hardships of growing up around violence and drugs in the inner-city. Founding members Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E created music that could be easily related to by the urban youth of America. Their controversial song “F**k tha police” brought to the forefront the police brutality imposed on black urban youth and led to an investigation of the group by the FBI and the banning of the group on mainstream radio stations, events which only served to boost their popularity.
Even though the name N.W.A might not be familiar to most, after the groups disbanding in 1991 founding members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube shot to success in their solo careers and their names might be more familiar to some. Dr. Dre is now the second richest figure in hip-hop with an estimated net worth of $550 million. Beats electronics, a company he founded that is well known for their line of premium headphones, Beats by Dre, was acquired by Apple for $3lbillion. Rapper Ice Cube branched out and found a successful a career in Hollywood. Following his breakout success in the 1991 film Boys N’ the Hood, he soon shifted to blockbusters such as Barbershop, the hit film 21 Jump Street and its sequel, ironically playing a police captain.
The influence of the N.W.A has reached far and wide in the hip-hop industry. West coast rapper The Game sports a tattoo on his chest reading N.W.A, paying homage to the godfathers of gangsta rap. Kendrick Lamar refers to the influence N.W.A has had on the development of hip-hop on the track “Compton”, the closing track of his platinum selling debut album Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, rhyming, “Now we can all celebrate, we can all harvest the rap artists of N.W.A.” On Eminem’s platinum selling single “Rap God”, he gives thanks to N.W.A, delivering the line, “N.W.A, Cube, hey, Doc, Ren, Yella, Eazy, thank you, they got Slim”.
Straight Outta Compton has been a hit in theatres. Made on a budget of an estimated $29 million, the film generated approximately $56 million on the weekend of release in the US alone. Directed by Felix Gary Grey and starring mostly unknown actors, the film’s success has been both critical and commercial. Straight Outta Compton earned a rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 84% on IMDB. The film received almost universal acclaim from critics, but notable omissions were discussed. One of the criticisms levelled against the film and its producers was the smoothing over of some of the violent confrontations between Dr. Dre and women. The Daily Mail commented that, “There is no mention of any violence toward women, which was widely documented at the time, or an incident when Dr. Dre assaulted a female reporter.”
When the album was released in the late ‘80s, racial tension in the US was high. Following the beating of Rodney King and the increase in police brutality, the album announced to the public the tense relationship between the urban population and the police. The film is set against this backdrop and has been released at a time when racial tension in the US has once again reared its ugly head. Media critic Zaki Hassan of the Huffington Post commented that, “Just like Straight Outta Compton the album, the film arrives at a nexus moment of social unrest and racial violence, and when viewed through that prism, it becomes more than just your standard music biopic.”
Regardless of your take on hip-hop and the wider surroundings that come with it, Straight Outta Compton could serve not only as the story of five inner-city youths escaping the ghetto and becoming rap superstars, but also a portrayal of the harsh realities faced by the urban population of the US. A release date for Straight Outta Compton in South African cinemas has not yet been confirmed.
Image: Shen Scott