Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: "Straight Outta Compton"

The recent biopic of the rise of L.A. gangsta-rappers NWA had me thinking.

If art imitates life, what, then has happened to American society for a group like N.W.A and a song like "F*** Tha Police" to exist?

The film does little to answer the question, as I suspected it would. However it does a good job at least of depicting the symptoms of the problem: the underclass of working poor; the allure of crime as a way to escape the aforementioned underclass, police harassment, limited hope and limited opportunity.

So what does one do to get ahead in such an environment? Get a steady job that doesn't cover all your bills, join a criminal gang, or turn to music. Band member of NWA Easy-E in this case, chose both the latter two.

Easy-E is the only one depicted as having associations with crime on any level. If the rest of the group were involved at any point, it was certainly airbrushed out of this version of the story. There's been plenty of media around to discuss the inconsistencies with this account of the events, so I will not go over them here. But let's just say that the victors write history.  Album sales aside, N.W.A.'s legacy is assured, with or without this film.

N.W.A. started at a time whereby rap was a burgeoning style of music in the 1980s. It was party music, devoid of social commentary. Grandmaster Flash touched on it with his anti-drug single "White Lines (Don't Do It)" earlier in the decade, but LL Cool J and Run DMC weren't in the business of promoting causes. And certainly not the Beastie Boys! Public Enemy started to take a more socially conscious approach with the view to empowering and bettering the inner city urban dwellers, in a similar but ultimately more militant way that James Brown or Stevie Wonder had tried a decade earlier.

With that in mind, N.W.A. tried to create a style of "reality rap" not too dissimilar to South Central LA rapper Ice-T. Rapping about life in Compton meant talking about being harassed by police, hassled by street gangs and trying to find some kind of success in your future. And to do so in the most direct and confronting way.

If "reality rap" was the mission, then an ugly reality requires some ugly music. And it certainly is. Hearing N.W.A. for the first time is something that one tends to remember for a long time: it sure as hell is NOT "easy listening" and nor should it be. There is real danger in this music: it is a danger that is "lived in", first hand. There was a real scare that if you were to cross these guys on a bad day, it wouldn't end well  Then of course was the threat of your parents losing their shit at you for buying the music! Despite this, people of all races and creeds lapped it up, because it is sometimes better to be an observer of the action than to be a participant.

"Straight Outta Compton" reaffirms what we've known about the music industry for years: when confronted with ground-breaking music, record labels would rather play it safe and stick with what they know is going to sell: "When you think you've found the next Bon Jovi, call me" one executive remarks during the band's showcase gig. Another one for the Dick Rowe "Beat groups are on the way out, Mr Epstein" file.

That said, N.W.A. established the template for what we now know as Rap music. A lot of teenagers today seem to be unaware of the significance of N.W.A. and the need for this film, despite really wanting to see it. This film depicts a time whereby Rap wasn't mainstream. It wasn't accessible, and it certainly wasn't dangerous as this is. To be fair, if things were different, the members of N.W.A. could've make rap music a la Run DMC and do a fantastic job at it. However they chose to push it closer reality as they knew it, making pieces of art that are still as confronting and as relevant today, even if some of the in-fighting and diss tracks that were created during the ensuing years make them look cartoonish.

With the band having raging parties and getting letters from the FBI, it always makes me wonder if they knew the controversy that went down in Sydney in 1989 when Triple J started playing "F*** Tha Police" on air. That tale is a story for another time...

This is a film that is as forthright and as confronting as the bands music was. You wouldn't expect any less.

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