N.W.A.’s lasting legacy in rap music is examined at length in this two-part episode of Disgraceland. In the first part, host Jake Brennan takes us through the environment of gang violence and police brutality that defined the streets of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s and the group itself, informing their lives and their lyrics; the story of how the group formed to create their own record label; the music they made that shined a harsh light on the realities of living in Compton; and the tension between the group and law enforcement all across the nation. “They were labeled sensationalists, misogynists, profanity-spewing opportunists, anything but what they really were: protest musicians.” Until the day their lyrics were proven to be all-too-real, to the horror of the entire country.
In Los Angeles in 1985, unemployment was high and violent crime was higher, thanks to the trafficking of crack cocaine. Rival gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, controlled the drug trade, offering “real financial opportunities” to young black men who otherwise had no options. “Their presence, their violence, was a daily reality for residents of South Central, particularly in Compton,” Jake tells us. Drive-by shootings, often leaving a number of innocent bystanders dead in the streets, were common; “there were 3,000 gang-related murders” in 1980s Compton. But gangs weren’t the only thing residents had to worry about: “Beat downs were common. Bare knuckle brawls, boot kicks to the head. And when the beatings didn't work, they'd use their gats to make a point. Pistol-whippings, cold steel to the temple to intimidate,” Jake says. “Straight gangster. Except I'm not talking about gangsters...I'm talking about the LAPD.” Between the gangs and the police, there were very few safe places for a citizen to be; “If you grew up in L.A. during this time and were black and male, you were six times more likely to be murdered than your white counterpart.”
It was in this environment that Eric Wright, soon to be known as Eazy-E, grew up. By the time he was 23, he had four kids, and like many of his contemporaries, he dealt drugs to pay the bills. But he was smart about it; he didn’t live large, he didn’t call attention to himself, and he wore all black everything to maintain neutrality and avoid gang colors. But he knew it was only a matter of time before the gangs or the police or both caught up to him, and the only other thing he liked was rap music. He met Andre Young, or Dr. Dre, who made beats, and O’Shea Jackson, calling himself Ice Cube, who wrote lyrics, and N.W.A. was born. “They were forced to dodge stray bullets from rival gangs and shakedowns from abusive cops on the regular. This violent and horribly unjust daily life informed N.W.A.’s music, imbued it with a sense of reality that previously had not existed in pop music and for many, was too unbelievable to be true.” Their first album, Straight Outta Compton, was a sensation. “Reality raps over hard beats come to life in album form over 60 minutes. And it was as hard to ignore as fresh spray from an AK-47.”
But it was their signature track, “F**k Tha Police,” that really showed the world what they were made of. It unapologetically called out the LAPD and law enforcement for overusing their power, for thinking they “have the authority to kill a minority.” Jake calls it “the greatest protest song in the history of music, period. No other song got to the point quicker...or had a greater impact.” Most of America dismissed the track as mere hyperbole at best, or outright lies at worst; even the FBI wrote a letter condemning the song. Playing it even started a riot at one of N.W.A.’s concerts in Detroit. “Critics throughout the country railed against the group. Their criticism of the cops, it was stated over and over again, was a fabrication and exaggeration and way over the line. Nothing more than sensationalism, contrived to sell records.”
But then, one night, a reporter named George Holliday caught the truth of N.W.A.’s words on videotape. He, and then the rest of America, watched with horror as a defenseless black man was brutally beaten by heavily armed officers on the streets of Compton. “A beating that shocked Americans, but a beating that did not shock N.W.A. It was a beating they’d warned us about over and over again on Straight Outta Compton,” Jake says. “Rodney King, being struck 56 times with batons by a gang of white thugs: young, angry, violent, heavily armed L.A. cops.”
It wouldn’t be the first time N.W.A. predicted the future. Listen to the episode to learn more about Eazy-E and Dr. Dre’s vision, the world that informed their music, and the aftermath of the shocking Rodney King video; then, tune in to part two to hear about what split the group apart, and the riots that set L.A. aflame, on Disgraceland.
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