by Daniel Paskowski
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
Dr. Dre’s opening words on N.W.A.’s debut is a proclamation that bites just as hard today as it did thirty years ago. Hip hop had just hit its teen years: DJ Kool Herc’s seminal 1973 block party was already fifteen years in the rearview mirror; Rakim had just permanently raised the bar with Paid in Full, featuring extensive use of innovative rhyme schemes that put his lyricism lightyears ahead of his contemporaries’; and on the other side of the country, a group of five hailing from Compton were poised to release a documentary that described their experiences and exploits in explicit detail. Indeed, one of the first albums required to feature a Parental Advisory sticker emblazoned on its cover, Straight Outta Compton proved to be both vicious and visceral in its unapologetic execution.
The album’s production is laced with hard-hitting drums, shrieking vinyl scratches, and liberal use of a dazzling array of samples carefully curated and flipped by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. Some tracks sound a little empty today, but each features rattling percussion underneath sharp lyricism. Ice Cube has unquenchable anger, MC Ren’s collectedness drips through his verses, and Eazy-E’s cold-blooded delivery makes his threats sound more like sure chronicles of previous escapades. The former two penned most of the lyrics on Compton, leaving Eazy the odd man out. His contribution was capital and publishing through his label Ruthless Records, a collaborative pursuit with the opportunistic Jerry Heller which resulted in quick resentment among N.W.A.’s members, leading to the untimely splintering of the group.
Past the album’s title track, iconic anthem ‘Fuck Tha Police,’ and smooth Charles Wright flip ‘Express Yourself,’ no other songs have ingrained themselves in the cultural consciousness – but perhaps no others have needed to. This is not to say other songs aren’t notable. Sure, MC Ren’s scheming solo track ‘If It Ain’t Ruff’ might not generate much excitement, but it’s immediately followed by ‘Parental Discretion Iz Advised,’ a whopping posse cut where the group’s four emcees trade verses with a little help from The D.O.C. ‘Something 2 Dance 2’ is certainly the odd one out on Compton due to the electro-hop influence of one-time group member Arabian Prince – he’s the sixth man on the cover who left N.W.A. shortly before Compton’s release, in case you were wondering – but ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ is more the album’s speed with provocative lyrics from Eazy and Ren matched by all the funk bells and whistles you could want.
More notable is the storm of controversy the album generated upon release that ensured its instant infamy. Straight Outta Compton launched the group into unrelenting scrutiny, something which immediately cemented the album’s legacy. Beyond just that, iconic whistles reflect its proto-G-funk style that Dr. Dre would go on to perfect with 1992’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s 1993 Doggystyle. Ice Cube’s skill with the pen handily translated to various solo efforts and even the silver screen, allowing him to pump out cult classics like Friday with ease. In his last days he managed to mend ties with his former group members, but Eazy-E’s untimely death put a full stop on his solo career punctuated by the venomous 1993 It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187umKilla, featuring no shortage of attacks towards his then-adversaries. While MC Ren and DJ Yella were not as able to catalyze N.W.A.’s success into solo careers, it would be a profound mistake to disregard their contributions to the album since they played just as large a part in its success as did its other members. No less at the center of everyone’s attention during the release of their biopic in 2015 than they were in 1988, the phenomenon that is N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton stands as a venerable hip hop classic and cultural cornerstone to this day.