In the Summer of 1988, I “worked” as a camp counselor for the Danbury Parks and Recreation Department. It was a glorius gig, and damn near criminal. I got paid to hang out with my friends nursing hangovers, playing hoop and listening to hip hop while ostensibly supervising kids. That summer, NWA released “Straight Outta Compton”. From Ice Cube’s opening bars, nothing would ever be the same again. His voice, direct and powerful, like Chuck D, but where Chuck’s lyrics resonated with righteous indignation and were burdened by the weight of progressive, aspirational change, Cube’s were vivid and free of fucks given. I hung on every word, devouring them while questioning if he really said what he just said?
There is a scene early in the movie where Dre has a DJ gig at a club where the owner wants a vintage BET Midnight Love vibe, but during a break, Dre brings Cube on stage. The beat drops and heads bounce. Cube comes in painting pictures with his words and hands raise. He’s got them, just like he had me in the Summer of 1988. For that scene alone the movie is a success to me because it transported me back to that moment in my life when NWA was new and something I couldn’t get my head around fast enough.
I took my daughter Holland and her boyfriend Tre, to see “Straight Outta Compton,” and I couldn’t help but wonder how the movie resonated with them. NWA broke up long before either of them was a spermshot in the womb, and lyrics of comparable violence if usually less art have been pumping through speakers for the entirety of their lives. We could not possibly experience this movie in the same way. Unfortunately, teenagers are not known for the candor of their emotional reflections, and I received little more that “great movie” and having gained “an appreciation” for NWA in response to my queries. I choose to believe there is something in their “appreciation”, and it’s the same thing that is valuable in all efforts to delve into history. The acquisition of context. How did we get to where we are? And have we really traveled all that far?
Relations with law enforcement have been strained to say the least in the past year, and “Fuck the Police” seems more than topical. The movie depicts a number of incidents of racial profiling, cultural ignorance and general insensitivity that occurred to the members of NWA and to Rodney King, which of course resulted in rioting in Los Angeles. Sadly, the incidents are eerily similar to the recent events in Baltimore, with Sandra Bland and so many others. The voice of protest does not have a duty to be kind and polite as it would go unheard. The voice of protest must be true and illuminating to the injustice it protests against. It is in this sense and manner that NWA achieves historical significance.
They are, however, human, and were torn apart by the eternal tormenter of money. Ice Cube did not receive his perceived value and went solo after the first tour. Dre grew to feel undervalued and cheated later leaving as well. Easy E would watch his career wane without the creative juice of Cube and Dre, and would watch his life end with AIDS after only 31 promiscuous years. Ren and Yella representing the mean for their ride on this most tumultuous of glory trains.
Cube and Dre have persevered in the most extraordinary of ways. Cube succeeded as a solo artist and has transitioned into legitimate box office success. Dre has done even better as a music mogal he introduced iconic performers, Snoop and Eminien, and BeatsbyDre has yielded astonishing wealth. Not too shappy for two musically inclined kids from a blighted community called Compton.