“Straight Outta Compton” came out in theaters last Friday, and already the controversial taglines followed suit — mostly from women calling the straight-up misogyny (“Bye Felicia”) into question, not to mention the rest of the N.W.A story of alleged abuse by Dr. Dre missing in action.
But this is a movie review of the band and the gangsta rap it revolutionized back in the late ‘80s through ‘90s. As an entertaining, revealing bio-pic, “Straight Outta Compton” gives the audience a firsthand look at the band of misunderstood rappers mainstream America loved to hate and fear.
There’s a scene early on in the movie where a young Dr. Dre is chilling in his bedroom with his cousin, listening to music on his turntable (back when vinyl was the thing and the only cell phone in existence was in the imagination of movie directors). He picks up on a piano line in a cool R&B track, repeatedly playing the notes with his fingers — an early indication of the famous moniker to come.
In another early scene, another member of N.W.A — Ice Cube — starts rapping in front of an audience without much fanfare. But it’s clear he knows what he’s doing, riding the beats ferociously and driving a groove based on an inner emotional hunger and an innate ability to transform those emotions into hard-hitting words.
Dr. Dre and Ice Cube led the gangsta rap revolution for generations of down-and-out youth in Compton and other disadvantaged, dangerous U.S. cities, for many generations to come. Their musical and social influences are still felt today, through contemporary rappers successfully carrying the torch forward with the same brutally honest truth — Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Kanye West — and those not so successfully trying in vain to replicate that same social issues swagger without the convincing grit of Cube (Macklemore).
N.W.A’s protest of police brutality was not only emotionally powerful, still, but prophetic. The difference today is, nobody’s getting away with murder in the ever-watchful eye of social media. Much.
Back then, though, N.W.A was that watchful eye. Without the truth of social media, N.W.A’s Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren were all America had. The mainstream media sided with the social and political establishment of the day, racially antiquated and cowardly at worst, self-righteously ill-informed at best. At the time, the media and the majority of the public preferred their news sanitized in a world they clung to as safe at all costs. Nobody wanted to hear the other side, especially if it was dressed like the N.W.A, from the opposite side of the tracks.
This movie provided the hindsight that validates the N.W.A as social architects and activists of freedom of speech and freedom from the tyranny of diluted cloned music.
But more than the social statement, the outstanding acting, and the surprising entertainment value of “Straight Outta Compton” is the rap that came out of that period.
It’s scary good.
Like a surgeon, Dr. Dre isolated the beats and the grooves he felt down to his core and saw the potential in the artists he worked with. He had to know the music that came before, all kinds of music (because there wasn’t much rap to speak of in the ‘80s), to appreciate the extent he could go to manipulate bass lines or sample those beats and grooves for a new statement.
The music Dr. Dre made with Ice Cube, an unflinching reporter pointing out the sign of the times beyond the beats, continues to provide inspiration for artists coming up from pop, R&B, blues, funk, and jazz.
Maybe this movie will go a long way toward convincing critics that there’s more to rap than its thuggish myths. Real rap can be mindful and respectful, moving, and immensely musical. Surprise! N.W.A’s was. It had to be, in order to work. Many good rap bands since have taken to isolating and sampling beats and grooves from established pop, R&B, rock, and jazz bands, from Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock, to Ron Carter, to make their own kind of music.
They had to possess vast musical knowledge and appreciation in order to accomplish any of this. That doesn’t sound mindless or disrespectful. That actually sounds like another generation of musicians who made their own kind of rap in the 1940s, a new kind of music that the world would come to appreciate as be bop jazz.