Monday, September 14, 2009

A Different Look at NWA

I think that when a song writer pens a song he has a certain audience in mind. For example, I doubt that when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote “Black Dog” they probably didn't think that there would be blasted at an old age home. Just like I doubt that Ice Cube didn't have in mind that a middle-aged man would be listening to “Fuck tha Police” mowing his lawn in a Massachusetts suburb.

But that's what happened a few weeks ago and that got me seriously thinking about NWA's (which stands for Niggas With Attitudes) seminal 1988 release “Straight Outta Compton”. When released, the album shocked the establishment with its frank descriptions of ghetto life—specifically that of Compton, CA—through misogynistic and violent rhymes. Made up of Ice Cube (Oshea Jackson), Eazy-E (Eric Wright), Dr. Dre (Andre Young), MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson) and Yella Boy (Antoine Carraby), the group rapped about drug deals, police brutality and the utter hopelessness of life for a young, urban African-American.

While the album didn't spark controversy on it's initial release, it wasn't until suburban (read white) kids got their hand on the album that parents and the government started to take notice of the self-described “World's Most Dangerous Group”. Walking by their children's rooms or overhearing them talk about what was contained on the album, the establishment had a collective fit over songs like the aforementioned “Fuck tha Police”, “Straight Outta Compton” and “Gangsta Gangsta”. The FBI went as far as writing a letter to the group's record label, Ruthless/Priority/EMI demanding that the song be deleted from further album pressings and that the group not play the song during concerts.

Of course, this only increased the appeal of the group which prompted more record sales. One of those tapes was purchased by a young, white kid living in the most northern part of Massachusetts thousands of miles from Compton, California. I lived in a thoroughly middle-class neighborhood and while not lavishly wealthy, there wasn't much that I wanted for. My friends were the same way, yet there was something that we latched onto about NWA.

Aside from a few party bust-ups, we were never hassled by the police, no one was getting shot, the drug dealers at our school sold shake and stems and none of our girlfriends were performing fellatio on the dealers to get that. Looking back, it was a pretty bucolic life of playing sports, doing school work, drinking a few beers now and then and chasing girls. But we were 15 and 16-years-old and we needed something to rage against, and if it was raging against “normalcy” and boredom, then so be it. In any case, I wore that tape out listening to the tales of gang life over and over again.

But something happened from age 15 to 35; I grew up a bit (not too much) and gained a bit of perspective. Maybe it's because I've heard the songs so many time that I can recite the lyrics backwards, but now “Straight Outta Compton” doesn't sound like the tinder box or revolution as it does the unhappy bragging of the downtrodden.

The album opens with Ice Cube (who wrote nine of the 13 tracks) letting the audience know where he and his band are from. And make no mistake about it, these guys aren't having fun in the warm California sun. He paints the picture of an urban jungle where one has to use his wits in order to survive. This coupled with the two songs on the album (“Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta, Gangsta”) show that the citizens of Compton are stuck in a vice. On one side there are their own people in gangs shooting up neighborhoods and on the other side are the people who have been sworn to protect and serve them, the Los Angeles Police Department. Both sides put an exorbitant amount of pressure on young people, which eventually causes them to pop.
Ice Cube couldn't run to the police when a gang banger shot up his neighborhood for two reasons:

1. He would be labeled as a snitch and would probably be killed
2. The cops don't care. They treat everyone in the ghetto the same.

This life has to be immensely frustrating. And that is what the theme of the album is about: life's constant frustrations and being powerless to stop them. That undercurrent of frustration is what makes this album excellent. It's not all bang-bang, shoot 'em, kill 'em all, mindless rapping. In order to survive and make a name Ice Cube and the other members (aside from Eazy-E, which I will discuss soon) have to separate themselves from their background, while also reminding everyone where they're from at the same time.

The members of NWA need to establish a larger-than-life persona in order to deal with every day life. This is done through new names that sound more like super heroes (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre) and through exaggerated song lyrics with language that mirrors their lives. Talk of beating and killing adversaries is an example of the “kill or be killed” way of life that rules the streets.

These crimes were being committed by “Ice Cube” or “MC Ren” not Oshea Jackson or Lorenzo Patterson. They were using their raps and their alter egos (pretty much all of their raps were said in the third-person) to speak out about the frustration in their lives and the violent acts that should be done to solve their problems.

“Fuck tha Police, Ren said with authority” (from “Fuck tha Police”)
“Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, from a gang called Niggas With Attitudes.” (from “Straight Outta Compton”)

These lyrics (and there are many more) suggest a form of separation between a person and his surrounding. I'm no psychologist, so I'm going to keep my five cent diagnosis.

While the dealing between person and environment were mostly third-person (often times words like “I” or “me” were used, however I feel that they were used to establish a rhythmic pattern) the dealings between the rapper and women were strictly single-person. On songs such as “I Ain't Tha One” and “Dopeman”, Ice Cube bears his soul—of course, it's under layers and layers of bravado, but if one looks they can see it.

Again, frustration is the name of the game as he muses that women don't want to him and his crew because they are too poor and have no status in the community. Every once in awhile a girl may look their way, but to Ice Cube and the others, the only reason why she is doing this is because she wants something.

“You want lobster? Huh. I'm thinking Burger King.” (from “I Ain't Tha One”)

While a funny line about opportunistic women, it belies a point from Ice Cube which is you shouldn't be dating me for what I can offer (expensive meals, cars, jewelry) you should be with me for who I am.

“Run out of money and yo, watch your heart break. She'll drop you like a bad habit.” (from “I Ain't Tha One”)

Realize that Ice Cube is not 80's, ghetto version of Dion (“Why Must I be a Teenager in Love?”). He is also out for one thing (and in the same song as the ones quoted above, he says, “I think with my ding-a-ling” and “After the date, I'm gonna want to do the wild thing”), but it can be argued that a. he is honest about what he expects b. class or money do not factor into his pursuits—though one could probably blame teenaged libido on that.

While I haven't spoken of tone in the album's raps, the ending of “I Ain't Tha One” does have a bit of sadness in it when Ice Cube realizes that this woman is only showing interest because she thought that he was wealthy. “You only wanted me for my money. Beat it.” is said with equal parts disdain and disappointment. It is one of the few times on the album where the speaker allows the listener to feel pity for him. This works well with the album's overarching theme of frustration.

Another song that deals with women is “Dopeman” however, this is only in a verse or two. Ice Cube and the group lament over the fact that they can not get any girls to look at them, but the dope man (the lowest of the low in the world of the ghetto—a man who literally poisons his community in order to get rich) has women fawning all over him. It's not because of the dope man's charms or wiles. It's because he has half the neighborhood addicted to his product and because of the poverty, women are willing to trade sexual favors for his wares.

As a young man whose teenage years were also a dry spell, one can do crazy things to get a girl. However, it seems that Ice Cube and the rest of NWA (aside from Eazy-E) would not lower themselves to the level of a drug dealer to get women. Having a conscious or some sort of moral compass in the ghetto makes the day-to-day life frustrating.

One can assume that the motivation of NWA was to leave the ghetto and become wealthy. To do this they essentially had to play both sides of the fence: claim the ghetto as their “home” (in order to maintain street credibility) and find a way to leave the ghetto where life would undoubtedly get easier. The dark secret of NWA is that when the album was released, the only member of NWA that had a police record was Eazy-E. He sold drugs in order to finance the group in the early years and was arrested by the polcie a few times.

It seems to me that despite their rap protestations, the members of NWA never wanted to be in a gang. They used the lot that was given to them (poverty, police brutality, gang violence) as a way to get themselves out of their lifestyle.

This is what I missed while listening to this album the first 800 or so times. And while I never could put my finger on why this album (which was essentially the blue print for the gangster rap explosion of the 1990s and beyond) was so much better than the other ones that came after it. It wasn't that it was the first album of the genre, it was the stuff that ran under the surface of the curses and bravado. There is a certain heart to this album, a certain raw-nerve feel that is way too tender to touch. And while I won't go so far as to say that there is a warmth to the record, there is an element there that imitators can't seem to get right.

The frustration of youth, the frustration of one's surroundings, the frustrations of life and being in a place that you desperately want to get away from bubbles to the top subliminally. People who look only at the surface will never get it correct because it really isn't what NWA said; it's more the themes that were between the lines and what they didn't.

1 comment:

Rick said...

"But something happened from age 15 to 35; I grew up a bit (not too much) and gained a bit of perspective."

I'm willing to bet that in the intervening years, something happened to Ice Cube, too, although I can't say for sure if it's "growing up" that moves one from gangsta rap to formulaic Hollywood comedies (Are We There Yet?).

But I'm curious to know his thoughts about the album when (if?) he listens to it now.