30 Years Since 'Straight Outta Compton' and the Birth of Gangster Rap

US hip hop group NWA (Niggas With Attitude) USA 1990s
US hip hop group NWA (Niggas With Attitude) USA 1990s | © Normski / PYMCA / REX / Shutterstock

To mark the 30th anniversary of N.W.A’s debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton, Culture Trip looks into the evolution of gangster rap and its legacy in today’s music.

When N.W.A released their first studio album on August 8, 1988, the music had already attracted controversy. Due to its explicit content, Straight Outta Compton was one of the first records to feature the Parental Advisory label. You only need look at the tracklist to see why parent groups were so worried about it. One song in particular, ‘Fuck tha Police’, was rumoured to have put N.W.A on an FBI watch list.

The album was classified as a new genre of hip-hop called gangster rap, but as Ice Cube, one of the founding members of N.W.A, said in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone: “Back then we was calling it ‘reality rap’; ‘gangster rap’ is the name that the media coined.”

The reality Ice Cube spoke of was the experience of growing up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton, an experience he shared with fellow bandmates Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and Eazy-E. In the late ’80s, the area was rife with violence, drug use and gang activity. In Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A aimed to capture their own experiences in ballads of inner-city life.

A scene from the 1992 Los Angeles riots

Four years after the release of Straight Outta Compton, riots broke out in Los Angeles. People took to the streets in response to the jury decision to acquit policemen charged with assault and excessive use of force against Rodney King. While some claimed the 1992 riots were a result of existing gang wars in the area, they actually broke out the day after the Bloods and Crips brokered a peace treaty. Anti-establishment anthems like ‘Fuck tha Police’ demonstrate the existing tension between the communities of South Los Angeles and the LAPD.

In 1989, Los Angeles critic Jonathan Gold interviewed N.W.A. Explaining why the band received so much criticism, he wrote: “while the urban-gangster life had been romanticised since Capone, nobody had ever made it sound quite so much fun before.” In the interview, Gold shadows N.W.A and casts doubt as to whether or not their gangster personas are performance or reality, noting that while a gang member “thought they were just talkers,” a rap promoter swore the band were “currently active gangsters, gun-crazy, slinging ’caine.”

N.W.A at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards

The divide between performance and reality is what has dominated much of the debate on the cultural significance of gangster rap. In The Drama Review, theatre historian Annette J Saddik argues that the persona of many gangster rap artists is a postmodern performance of black masculinity that accentuates the way historic oppression has conflated that identity with criminality. In a sense, a rapper’s performance of criminality was exaggerated to match the experience of reality, which drew attention to the mischaracterization and mistreatment of the community.

According to Saddik: “One of the central reasons that hip-hop artists, music and culture as a whole have been criticised as ‘dangerous’ lies in the power of the performing body to subvert traditional, hence safe, modes of representation in America.”

In Saddik’s analysis, MCs separate their actual selves from their performance through the use of stage names. Their on-stage persona becomes a reflection of an expected reality. In the performance of a ‘gangster’ identity, rappers like N.W.A took on the culturally imposed ‘dangerous’ identity of black men and commodified it.

Unfortunately, one aspect of this performed identity was also tied to misogynist behaviour. In a 2006 article in the Journal of Black Studies, sociologists Terri M Adams and Douglas B Fuller argue that women depicted in gangster rap songs are hangovers from racist depictions of African American women. In these historic depictions, black women are identified as either sexually aggressive or controlling, un-womanly traits that placed “the blame for certain problems in the African American community on the shoulders of African American women.” The ‘gangster’ performance is linked to an oppressive ideology that feminist theorist bell hooks explains is “part of a sexist continuum, necessary for the maintenance of patriarchal social order.”

As the statement from Gold’s rap promoter suggests, the performance of the ‘gangster’ identity was tied to the profitability of the music in the late ’80s and early ’90s. As a result, artists’ adherence to such an identity became key to their commercial success. Outside of the genre’s fans, the performed criminality of a ‘gangster’ became blurred with real-life actions.

Real-life domestic abuse and sexism were glossed over in the 2015 N.W.A biopic, also titled Straight Outta Compton, but that does not mean women were not speaking out. The reaction to the misogyny of gangster rap in the wake of its rising popularity in the late ’80s facilitated a conversation about feminism and the need for intersectionality in the feminist movement.

Though not an excuse for violent behavior exhibited by some hip-hop artists, gangster rap spurred a conversation about the realities of underserved communities that hadn’t been widely discussed.

Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar at the 31st Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016

In his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, historian Jeff Chang claims that “N.W.A conflated myth and place, made the narratives root themselves in every ‘hood’,” and empowered people to see that regardless of where they came from, they had a story worth sharing. Due to the commercial success of the music genre, the conversation about systemic oppression was brought into the public consciousness.

While Straight Outta Compton has not aged well in the era of #MeToo, the legacy of gangster rap is that the narrative of inner-city life was represented on a mainstream platform. Newer artists from Compton, such as Kendrick Lamar and Buddy, continue to discuss systemic oppression in their work. Although, they tend not to express the same ‘gangster’ persona as their artistic forefathers. The narrative in contemporary rap has become less ‘fuck the police’ and more ‘hold oppressive systems to account’. Though the latter is admittedly a little harder to incorporate into a catchy hook.

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