West Coast Rap On The Map
The most dangerous and notorious hip hop/rap group started their quest to change hip hop forever in the late eighties. This essay discusses how they moved from being local artists wanting to make some records for the neighbourhood into being the most dangerous group. We must make a start with the history of Compton in the sixties. Many White and Afro-Americans left Compton after the Watts Riots in 1965 which led to a rise of unemployment and crime. Compton became the centre of gang violence with the rise of the Crips and the Bloods, two street gangs trying to take control in the late sixties. By the eighties Compton became the symbol of urban decay and gang violence (Miller, 2012). A survey by RAND Corporation declared Compton a disaster area in 1982 (Sides, 2004). Compton’s negative reputation was changed in 1988 when the hip hop/rap group Niggaz With Attitude (NWA) brought out their debut album “Straight Outta Compton”. They ushered in the era of gangster rap with this album. Despite the minimal airplay on the TV and radio they had, because of their obscene and violent lyrics on songs like “Gangsta Gangsta”, they still managed to reach a gold status in six weeks to then get a double platinum status later (Miller, 2012). Not only were NWA well known as the ‘Most Dangerous Group’ but they were seen as one of the most important groups in America of the second half of twentieth century. They have brought hip hop and especially the sub-genre of rap from the underground into the American mainstream with their 1988 debut album ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Hip hop dominated the United States charts and its youth culture for the next few decades after (Laurence, 2015). Their music was embraced by many fans but also caused a backlash from the public, especially from those who were more conservative. It even caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Not Everyone Was A Fan
The music industry was greatly startled with the birth of the new music genre Gangster rap because it influenced society in a negative way. Although NWA showcased a unique style of performing that has not been seen before, the message within the songs were associated with images of violence, discrimination, guns, gangs and sexism. A good example would be the track F*ck The Police from their album Straight Outta Compton, where NWA publicly attacked the Compton Police Force. A song that had this type of subject matter within the lyrics seem acceptable when it actually was not even considered moral (Giovacchini, 1999). The Compton Police Force could not do a thing to legally stop this.
This raised concern among the United States establishment, the religious right, the parent groups and then eventually the law enforcement agencies. Gangster rap forced America to confront the issues in its ghettos, commented music critic and writer Greg Kott (Laurence, 2015). The album Straight Outta Compton received a Parental Advisory Label (PAL) when it came out in 1988 and was one of the first records ever to receive a sticker that warn parents of explicit content. NWA caught the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department, the United States Senators and the Federal Bureau of Investigation because of their profane, sexual and violent lyrics (Batey, 2015; Suebsaeng, 2015). This resulted in Ruthless Records receiving a letter from Milt Ahlerich, the assistant director of the Bureau’s office of public affairs informing them off their displeasure, causing the song to be banned at several venues, not allowing NWA to perform their protest anthem ‘F*ck The Police’ on their tour in 1988 and was banned from public libraries, retail chains and radio (Devito, 2015; Suebsaeng, 2015). But despite all the backlash, it was the federal government’s response to the song that made the song more popular, as it only fanned the flames.
The sound of NWA was a shock to many but
the plain truth to others. NWA’s political statement became a free-speech issue
in the United States but for others it became an anthem. Their stance on the
topic of racist policing is as relevant for us today as it was back then in
1988 (Batey, 2015). This was part of their importance and impact, as recognised
by many in the music industry.
Compton always had struggles with poverty, unemployment and especially crime. Even today is Compton ranked number 71 of the top 100 most dangerous cities in the United States of America of 2017 with one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation according to an analysis of FBI reported crime data (Neighbourhood Scout, 2017). So the chance of you becoming a victim to either property or violent crime in Compton is 1 in 29. With Compton having a crime rate that is higher than 82% of the state’s cities, someone had to take action and that was the job of the Compton Police Department.
The Compton police force have tried many
tactics and projects to deal with the crime rate to make Compton a safer city.
One of those projects was Operation Hammer. Daryl Gates, Chief of the Los
Angeles Police launched Operation Hammer in 1988, which was an attempt to bring
down gang violence by arresting over 50,000 people by 1990 with the majority
being young black people (Reinhold, 1991). They called it “a war on gangs”,
which is to declare war on anybody you think is a gang member. So based on the
way we dressed, we looked and where we came from, you could mistake any kid for
a gang member because that was the fashion in the “neighborhood” said O’Shea
Jackson, who is a member of NWA and known as Ice Cube. Police brutality was a
serious issue in Compton. From 1984 until 1989, there was a 33% increase in
citizen complaints of police brutality, which was largely ignored by the Los
Angeles Police Department (Moore, 2015). Reports say that police officers that
were accused of iterated acts of excessive force were rarely punished and that
their reports were routinely falsified. The report concluded that the Los
Angeles Police Department are encouraged to confront and command, not to
communicate because they prioritized crime control over crime prevention
(Reinhold, 1991). This led to a divide between the police and the communities
“It was too much to be under that
occupying force who was abusive, so music was our only weapon to fight back”
said O’Shea Jackson. NWA never referred themselves as gangster rap but more as
reality rap because it reflected what they were going through. Instead of
making a mark through guns and drugs they instead used music as their only
weapon. The term gangster rap was actually given by the media because that is
how they saw NWA. Although the song F*ck The Police had a negative impact it
also had a positive impact. It has become a protest anthem to a new wave of
activists fighting against racism and police brutality around the country and
is still as relevant as ever (Moore, 2015).
Moving onto the present time now, hip hop
is one of the most prominent music genres, but facing brutality and
discrimination at the hands of police is still an everyday reality for
minorities in America (Nodjimbadem, 2017; Cliffnotes, 2018). Although police
brutality has not changed, there is something else that has changed. Mainstream
hip hop today is not longer reflecting what is happening on in the streets,
instead, technology has taken that role.
NWA started in 1986 but disbanded in 1991. In those 5 years they have released 2 albums and toured in the United States. When their album “Straight Outta Compton” got released in 1988, it sold 750,000 copies even before their 1989 tour (Stern, 2015; Stewart, 2015). They went beyond Compton and have reached people from the United States to even overseas in the United Kingdom where they were signed to the label Island Records (Batey, 2015). But they have done more than that. NWA have changed hip hop, especially when it came to what was being said in their lyrics. It was fearless and in your face; their songs spoke the truth, especially in rap. NWA were purposefully pushing the boundaries with their songs which can be seen most when it came to curse words.
“It is hard to picture how pop-culture and hip hop would have developed without
NWA kicking that door down” says Billboard senior editor Alex Gale. This was
relevant to the next generation of odd hip hop artists such as Eminem, Kendrick
Lamar, Snoop Dog, 2Pac, Coolio, The Black Eyed Peas and many more (Bodner,
2016). NWA has left a legacy for generations to come.