N.W.A: Wayward–OR ELSE!
N.W.A: Wayward–OR ELSE!
There was a significant change in rap from the beginning of the 1980s to the end of the era. It can be argued that the most significant change was the shift from commercialized rhymes to hardcore gangsta rhymes. N.W.A (N****z Wit Attitudes) emerged as the very first official “gangsta rap” group. Coming from Compton, California, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella put out a persona that was unheard of across America. Their tough appearance was absorbed by a great number of America’s youth and it showed with the successful record sales of their first studio album, Straight Outta Compton. The image and persona that the members of the group portrayed went against the norms of rap and music in general. For this, N.W.A can be considered wayward in their own right. Their normal life in Compton was severely different than what most of the country was experiencing and it caused controversy when N.W.A showed this with their rhymes. The group wanted to tell America about issues going on in Compton but it seemed as if America wasn’t ready to hear them. As a result, N.W.A was labeled as criminal and dangerous. N.W.A. is wayward because the group battled with legislators, parents, law enforcement, and mainstream media to get their message across.
“Straight Outta Compton” is N.W.A’s first studio album. It is arguably one of the most controversial rap albums ever made as it is the first album completely composed in the “gangsta rap” style. Due to songs like “F**k tha Police,” the group developed a bad reputation with high levels of law enforcement and politicians. They were one of the targets of Tipper Gore’s crusade to stop obscene content from reaching youths, which resulted in the “Parental Advisory” warning on explicit music.
Continuation of Attitudes:
In their attempt to tell the story of youths growing up in Compton, California, N.W.A’s message was severely misunderstood and persecuted. They were the first group to tell their story completely through “gangsta rap” with their wayward rhymes and tough persona. They didn’t just tell their story; they dictated it and provided details that that was unheard of in rap at the time, which landed them in the hot seat. In February 1994, the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice held a hearing to “examine the effects of violent and demeaning imagery in popular music on American youth” (“Shaping our…” title page). The Parents Music Resource Center fought to have this hearing to question explicit lyrics but more specifically, “Gangster Rap.” During her testimony, C. Delores Tucker stated that “parents and elected officials need to be seriously concerned about gangster rap because it is obscene and sexist, it is driven by racism and greed, and it is ultimately destructive of community mores and values” (“Shaping our…” 12). This was the view of many of the people who attended and spoke at this hearing. They felt the waywardness of gangsta rap not only promoted, but also caused violence, especially among America’s youth. N.W.A, who claimed the opposite, was a focus of the discussion due to their involvement with the birth of gangsta rap. In an interview conducted by Davey D and Keith Moerer, after being questioned about their message, group member Ice Cube states “We got a responsibility to the kids to tell the truth. We don’t have to take a side…We just tell it like it is, and people swallow it if they can, and if they can’t they can’t.” Ice Cube is getting at something that Margena Christian writes in an article stating “N.W.A members considered themselves to be street reporters,” telling stories that people didn’t get to see on the news (Margena OL). They argued that they weren’t promoting violence in their raps but rather talking about everyday scenarios in their neighborhoods. Their rhymes weren’t geared to deliberately promote negativity; their rhymes were just a product of the climate in Compton at that time. They experienced situations like drive-by shootings, gang violence, and even police brutality but it was taboo to discuss these subjects at this time. By trying to burden the rest of the country with the harsh reality of life in the “CPT,” they caused an uproar.
Here we see N.W.A members Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Eazy-E, and Yella (respectively) sitting on a police car. Due to the opposition of the group by all levels of law enforcement, it can be speculated that the group took this picture as a way to antagonize law enforcement and other opposition to its music. This can also be a message to the youth being harassed in LA to not succumb to or be afraid of police brutality.
For example, N.W.A was harassed by the F.B.I. for their song “F**k Tha Police.” Even though the group used that song to lash back at police for their brutality, lines talking about killing officers clouded their original message. With lines like “I’m a smoke em now and not next time” (referring to shooting a police officer) recited by MC Ren, Ice Cube’s more enlightening lyrics are overshadowed in the eyes of opposition to the song. Ice Cube makes references to police harassing Black youths, abusing their authority, and even Black officers “showing out” for White officers. Both were subjects not being discussed at the time, which is a part of the reason that song and others like it got so much attention—people weren’t used to hearing these types of lyrics let alone seeing them in person. The video for the song “Straight Outta Compton” gave audiences a visual of what police harassment looked like. During MC Ren’s verse, one sees cops patrolling an area and pointing out that there are a number of Black youths hanging out on a corner. After a chase, the cops arrest them and put them in a police van for no reason. Most of the country couldn’t understand this concept of police brutality because it was not reality for them. N.W.A couldn’t understand why it was so controversial because it was their reality. They wanted to tell the world what was going on but the world wasn’t ready to listen.
One thing to question is why were conditions like this in Compton? Robin D.G. Kelley offers some answers in his article, “Kickin’ Reality Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles.” He discusses how the closure of a number of industrial factories in South Central L.A, caused an increase in the unemployment rate in that area, which resulted in high levels of poverty. This, with a combination of programs for inner-city youths being wiped out, is a major cause of the increase in the crime rate. Kelly writes “on the eve of crack cocaine’s arrival on the urban landscape, the decline in opportunities and growing poverty of black youth in L.A. led to a substantial rise in property crimes committed by juveniles and young adults” (123). What was seen as wayward scenarios by America was normal to Black youths in Compton. South Central L.A. became run-down, poverty stricken, and crime infested but most of the country didn’t see this. Again, in the video “Straight Outta Compton”, N.W.A showed the world what the streets of Compton looked like. In the video they ride through graffiti covered alley-ways and past abandoned buildings showing people what neighborhoods in Compton look like. After seeing images like this, it only makes sense that N.W.A chose to rap about it. They wanted to show the country that there’s places that need attention but don’t get any. Kelley also claims that “economic restructuring resulting in massive unemployment has created criminals out of black youth, which is what gangsta rappers acknowledge” (Kelly 118). Here Kelley is saying what N.W.A has always said, that they are just talking about what they see and what goes on around them. N.W.A and similar rap groups do not advocate violence or criminal activity even though their lyrics can appear that way. They speak on behalf of the people who don’t speak for themselves like the drug dealer that hates his life, the gang member who wants a way out, and the harassed youth that wants justice. N.W.A is wayward because they told these stories and because society couldn’t understand that their behavior was normal in Compton.
N.W.A was stigmatized as a threat to society due to their explicit and very graphic lyrics. The group welcomed this negative image and used it to their advantage to reach a wide variety of fans across the nation. It would seem that this picture was made by someone who opposed N.W.A’s music but instead it is part of an ad by a casting agency looking for actors to star in a movie about the rap group.
Christian, Margena A. “Parental Advisory: The History of N.W.A.” EBONY June 2011: 94-99.
Ice Cube, and MC Ren. “Fuck Tha Police.” Rec. 1988. Straight Outta Compton. N.W.A. Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, 1988. MP3.
Kelley, Robin D. G. “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles.” Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1996. 117-58.
“NWA- Art or Irresponsibility?” Interview by DJ Davey D and Keith Moerer. BAM Magazine 21 Apr. 1989: n. pag.
“N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton [Explicit] [HD].” YouTube. YouTube, 29 July 2009.
United States. Cong. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Shaping Our Responses to Violent and Demeaning Imagery in Popular Music. 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. S