In 1988, history was made. N.W.A, the badass MCs from Compton also known as N——z Wit Attitude — comprised of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E — kicked down the door to suburban Middle America with their politically charged debut full-length Straight Outta Compton. Gritty. Uncensored. No f—-s given. Gangsta rap had officially arrived.
N.W.A’s bars took the First Amendment and ran with it, especially with the protest anthem “F— Tha Police.” At their 1989 show in Detroit, the city’s police department showed up to the arena with the intent of arresting them on stage and wound up cuffing them in their hotel lobby after. The FBI even targeted the Ruthless rappers, sending a warning letter to Priority Records, which housed N.W.A’s music, in the midst of the media storm surrounding the controversial track.
Years after the group split in 1992, N.W.A is (finally) being formally recognized for their trailblazing efforts. Their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t just a good look for rap (they’re the only genre reps in this year’s class of rock/pop veterans, which includes Cheap Trick, Chicago, Steve Miller and Deep Purple). It’s also confirmation that the Compton crew was on to something. Millennial rap hero Kendrick Lamar — whose song “Alright” became the unofficial anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement — paid homage to his hometown heroes and their honesty in Straight Outta Compton in a Billboard cover story earlier this year. “N.W.A did a lot more than entertain,” Lamar said in the story where he interviewed Dre, Yella, Ren and Cube. “They told the truth.”
The gangsta rap pioneers spit — sometimes screamed — their truth. Their personal tales of street violence, their controversial perception of women (See: “ A Bitch Iz A Bitch”) and their feelings about the men in blue were presented unapologetically. Even their wardrobe — a mostly black ensemble topped with L.A. Raiders and Kings caps and heavy gold chains — became a fashion statement mimicked by their fans, which ranged from hardcore hip hop heads in American cities to a growing group of bored middle class suburban rap fans who were drawn to that gritty realness and “truth” that Lamar spoke about.
In many ways, their album also served as a prelude to the madness of the 1992 L.A. riots that broke out following the acquittal of four LAPD officers who caught on videotape beating Rodney King. Despite the negative headlines that pervade the group’s legacy (Dr. Dre’s alleged past abuse with women, the fallout with Eazy-E before his death from AIDS in 1995), their stories from the ‘hood rang louder than the cop sirens, at a time when pop was the hustle for most rappers to chase.
The blockbuster movie Straight Outta Compton also helped solidify the group’s rock stardom this year. The big-screen biopic appealed to old school fans and N.W.A newbs alike (though the motion picture received heavy criticism for omitting Dre’s abuse allegations). Even their solo careers post-N.W.A, especially Cube and Dre, injected hip-hop’s DNA with the unfiltered aggression later heard in Snoop Dogg, the late Tupac, Eminem, 50 Cent and the aforementioned K.Dot. Rock n’ roll was founded on breaking the rules, and N.W.A has never been the type to follow.