Tuesday, September 8, 2015

'Straight Outta Compton' Review:

While in New York City this weekend, I took in a showing of 'Straight Outta Compton'. I went in thinking it was a documentary, but quickly realized it was a drama. I wasn't disappointed for long. We were transported back to Compton, California in the late 1980's when five black men changed the music industry with reality, or "gangsta" rap. It also took me back to the time I got my first copy of "Straight Outta Compton" in 1988.

I was clothes shopping with my Mom at a smaller mall in our town. We always stopped by a little music store called Camelot Music. She browsed the Barry Manilow section. I had heard a few N.W.A. songs at a friend's house playing in the background. When I saw the cassette staring me in the face, I figured I would try to convince my mom to buy me a copy. I grabbed the tape and walked over to her. I asked if I could get it. She looked at the front of the cassette and asked me what it was. I fumbled as I told her they were a new R&B group and everyone was listening to them. My mom, a trusting woman, took my word and said, "Yes". As we approached the register, the 16-year-old working reminded my mom that the music had explicit lyrics. She was half listening and nodded. They rang us up and we went home.

I ran straight to my room, put fresh batteries in my walkman, and hit the play button. "You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge ... Straight Outta Compton". Now, picture an 80 pound white girl with hair that stood up about 6" in a poof with bangs, (thank you Aqua Net), chicken legs, jelly shoes, jean shorts, and an Oakley windbreaker on head bobbing and feeling like a bad ass. I rewound that song about 50 times before I had it memorized. Debbie Gibson seemed so childish all of a sudden.

I took my walkman to school, as it had just started that week. During lunch, I passed the walkman around my lunch table, letting my friends hear the hard lyrics flowing through the crappy headset. Their eyes lit up with a mixture of awe and shock. I wore that tape out within a couple of months. I read the reviews and saw the news on TV blasting the album as glorifying violence and some dismissed it as garbage, dumb street kids who were ignorant to reality so they resort to profanity and violence. I often laugh at the hypocrisy of how we can sit in a theater and watch tons of violence play out in front of our eyes, police being shot, drugs being used, women being beaten, and walk away feeling entertained, while N.W.A. was labeled as "The World's Most Dangerous Group" for putting these things into song.  Of course, the ones who labeled it as such were men who wore 3-piece suits and worked in a high rise who had never once been profiled in their life unless it was for a magazine piece on how they were the best music critic in the business.

I'll never forget a few years later, when I had my first convertible with a tape deck. I was listening to "F- the Police" at a red light when a cop pulled up beside me. I immediately turned it down and just stared straight ahead. I glanced over to see him chuckling. Maybe it was my reaction or maybe it was the white girl with her hair pulled into a ponytail in a car daddy bought her blasting the song. I was the last person on earth who would ever have a need to say, "F- the Police". (I love the police. They keep me and my kids safe). Just wanted to put that out there.

I think the 'Straight Outta Compton' album was more of a social commentary of a life most of us can't imagine. When we were kids, most of us weren't stopped by police for walking down the street or standing in a group. These guys were. They were around gangs, they were around drugs, and they stepped away from that and made a name for themselves rapping the harsh truths of life in Compton and every other "hood" in America. I find it funny that the album had its strongest sales in suburbia. 80% of the sales came from people who had no real clue what the lyrics really meant. But it was catchy, and we all felt a little tougher listening to it. We were getting our street smarts from a cassette tape.

The movie itself was amazing. I wish there was more back story into the individual lives of the members of N.W.A, but the movie focused on how they came to be as a unit. And, if you have seen it, you will know what I mean when I say I was totally confused for 15 minutes into the movie about how they had Ice Cube looking like a teenager again. A quick Google search told me that Ice Cube in the movie was portrayed by none other than his own son, who worked for two years, taking acting classes, and who had to audition many times to land the role playing his dad. Ice Cube himself said that if a better "Cube" had come along, they would have went with him. That's how important it was to get this movie right to the members of the group.

N.W.A was served with a letter from the FBI who scolded them for encouraging violence against law enforcement and the group often found it hard to get security for their shows. They quickly had disputes over royalties and leadership of the group. In the movie, we see many familiar faces, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight, 2Pac, and more. We are reminded of the rap greats that came to be because of N.W.A. In the end, they went their separate ways. Ice Cube became a phenomenal solo artist, movie writer, and actor. Dre became a bajillionaire with Beats, continued rapping, and created his own label which discovered Eminem. We all know that Eazy-E, "The Godfather of Gangster Rap", sadly died of AIDS in 1995.

As a whole, the movie is an intriguing look into how rap music as we know it came to be. I've heard it said that the release of the movie encourages violence against police. I say that's ridiculous. The movie in no way shows any brutality to the police. These songs were out long before the epidemic of police murders that we have today. The story was written well before that. Is it uncomfortable for us because we are reminded of the few bad seeds that wear blue and are depicted very briefly in this movie? Maybe. We bond with the characters, so it is hard for us to see them be profiled when we know they're not doing anything that would warrant nothing more than a nod and a smile from an officer. In Compton and other inner cities in the country, this is every day life. Most of us have no clue what it's like to grow up in gang infested neighborhoods, in poverty, and seen as less than human.

I highly recommend the movie to anyone who grew up listening to the early days of rap. The story is about building something, rising above the stigma and the assumptions, and making an impact in the music world.

There's a sequel being filmed right now, "Dogg Pound 4 Life" which focuses on Death Row Records.

Until then, I'll leave you with two words:

"By Felicia"