The Politics and Provocation of N.W.A

You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge. - Dr. Dre

When N.W.A surfaced in August, 1988 with their debut album Straight Outta Compton, they no doubt changed things. At the time, rap music was predominantly led by the East Coast stylings of Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, and a slew of others. The themes, though often socially conscious, were mostly centered around parties, girls, and a certain three-striped sneaker.

Comprised of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren, and the late Easy-E, N.W.A quickly became the group of a generation, giving a voice to the angst and distress of urban youth in cities across America. N.W.A's debut marked what many would consider the start of the ganster rap sub-genre, one that was as violent as it was revolutionary. Newsweek, 1988: "Hinting at gang roots and selling themselves on those hints, they project a gangster mystique that pays no attention to where criminality begins and marketing lets off." Songs such as "Straight Outta Compton," "F*ck tha Police," and "Express Yourself," delved into themes like police brutality, racism, and the various injustice's that revolve around inner-city living. N.W.A was new, they were terrifying. And it wasn't long before their approach, in all its candor, was called into question by both the public and governing officials.
In 1989, when "F*ck tha Police" was at the height of its popularity, the FBI stepped in, claiming the song provoked violence against law enforcement. Focus on the Family, bent on curbing the group's influence, convinced assistant director of the FBI Milt Ahlerich to send a letter (now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio) to Priority Records. Soon, the group was being banned and edited like mad. That year, nonetheless, an Australian radio station, triple j, made a bold move and played the song. "F*ck tha Police" lingered for six months until it was taken off the air, bringing the controversy surrounding N.W.A to new levels.

And although the group couldn't get security at their concerts, which led to them touring less during that time, the media coverage only helped, and made up for their lack of radio presence. The rappers basically saw themselves as reporters, mouth pieces on the frontlines of a Compton middle America knew nothing about. In response to this attack on freedom of speech, triple j played "Express Yourself" 360 times in a row, for 24 hours. Ice Cube, perhaps the most outspoken of the outfit, was stern and unapologetic, even with the pressure from Washington. He told the Richmond Times, "If you don't like it, if you don't understand it, don't buy the records. Don't come to the concert."

I was eight when my babysitter gave me a copy of Straight Outta Compton. My mother left for an engagement one evening and Carmelita, 16-years-old and wide-eyed, took the tape out of her backpack swiftly. The cover art instantly drew me in, dark eyes staring back, one of the men pointing a pistol at me ever-so-casually. For me, a kid in Fort Lauderdale, this was good. I surveyed the packaging as Carmelita put the tape in the small portable player we kept in the kitchen. PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT: I had no idea what that meant but I liked it and didn't bother asking.

For the next several hours, we played the tape over and over, reveling in N.W.A's power, their ability to make us feel what they were communicating. The music made me angry, made me all kinds of pissed off inside. It wasn't long before I was rapping along in front of the mirror, an eight-year-old protesting against the social ills of his day. Truthfully, it felt like I was part of a movement, something bigger than myself, a thing that might cause you harm if you dared question it. The profanity felt like candy on my lips and I let it out with not a care. And while I couldn't make much of the sexual language, everything in the universe confirmed these things in me, too, my mind already wired for such stimulation. I let all my friends hear it and most of them were similarly affected.

For months N.W.A was all I listened to. They managed to rouse something within me that no music had ever come close to bringing out. Michael Jackson and Menudo were great, yes, but this was protest music, illuminations from a world I neither new or had ever experienced, yet somehow understood. So many years later, I ache for that same feeling. While N.W.A helped bring about notable acts like Cypress Hill, Geto Boys, and even Dead Prez, and while most of N.W.A's members went on to lead successful solo careers, things were never quite the same. Their collective angst did a number on my psyche that would never be duplicated or challenged by another. Today, with so much to be pissed about, so much to rally for and against, we need an N.W.A more than ever. We need a group to fear, a post 9/11 rap conglomerate with no filter or concern for what radio may or may not allow. Really, we need to be provoked.