Even with my limited knowledge of hip hop, I know how important N.W.A are in the genre’s history. They were one of the first hard core, gangsta collectives to break big. And Dr Dre has spent that last three decades as one of hip hop’s most influential and successful names. I know the singles that everyone knows, but I’ve never gone back to where it all started. Which is why it was time for me to listen to Straight Outta Compton.
The opening, title track is probably one of the most well known in gangsta rap, and there’s a reason. Dre’s beats, samples and production seem like they there was no way this hook laiden song wouldn’t be hit. Add to that amazing verses by each MC, even Eazy-E, and there’s nothing in this song not to love.
While the production and feel of Gangsta Gangsta might sound similar to the more tame rap from the years before N.W.A, Ice Cube’s stories and brags of crime, drugs and jail bring plenty of that South Central edge that would define so much of hip for the last 27 years. As good as MC Ren is on If It Ain’t Rough, it’s Dre’s samples and production that really stand out. The funk and disco guitars, combined with 80s record scratches and big 808 beats is something that I now realise is such a major part of the N.W.A songs I know and love, and what I’m discovering is a big part of Straight Outta Compton in general.
Things are really mixed up with the quirky rhythms, beats and early digital noises of 8 Ball. But anything interesting in its sound is overshadowed by the awkward vocal work of Eazy-E. Declaring any music that’s not rap as, “crap”, or telling people to, “kiss my butt”, doesn’t really fit with what I assume this band was trying to do. Although, the tiny snippet of the iconic guitar chord from the opening of Beastie Boys Fight For Your Right and the declarations that we need to, “forget the brass monkey” makes me wonder if the corniness of the lyrics is some sort of deliberate attack on the main stream rap of the time.
Then comes Express Yourself, right up there with the title track as the most well known song from Straight Outta Compton and from N.W.A in general. The most sustained and best example of Dr Dre behind the mic instead of being behind the production console, it’s great proof of why hip hop fans lost their mind when Dr Dre’s first new album in over 15 years dropped recently. As amazing a producer as he is, songs like Express Yourself make me wish he spent less time making other people sound great, and a little more time showing off his own MC skills.
For a band built on such a foundation of gangsta toughness and thuggish notoriety, N.W.A don’t mind getting a little silly. Dope Man is almost funny in some of its playful turns of phrase. And while it’s not terrible, I came to this record wanting gangsta toughness and thuggish notoriety. And when it delivers that, Straight Outta Compton is at its best.