Here’s One More Annoying Ass Article About “Straight Outta Compton”

I saw Straight Outta Compton at a screening in New York City a few weeks ago, partially because I’m a cool guy who gets invited to movie screenings and partially because I was going to be interviewing the cast for Esquire.

(which, of course you should read, by clicking HERE).

There are thousands of articles about Straight Outta Compton these days, which in and of itself is kinda cool — because shit, it’s a movie about some rappers and it’s about damn time hip-hop and Hollywood got back on a page that made sense — but my takeaways from the film are probably not necessarily in line with everyone else’s.

Right now, you’re either on two sides of the conversation. You’re either in a world of hyperbole saying this is the greatest movie ever made, almost like you’ve never seen a god damn movie before, or you’re saying Jesus Christ how could they have left out all the crazy super controversial stuff?

Dee Barnes, who was on the receiving end of an attack from Dr. Dre some 25-years ago, wrote a significantly-revealing personal essay yesterday about the film, the attack, the aftermath and so on. If you haven’t already digested it, it’s certainly worth a read.

I didn’t walk into the theater with a bias for or against the film. Hate or love it, Dr. Dre is a billionaire, Ice Cube is a Hollywood power player, Eazy-E is a rap legend and MC Ren is still MC Ren. The underdogs are already on top. So, Straight Outta Compton wasn’t going to sway public opinion in one way or another.

But while I was watching the film and even later, when I was interviewing the cast — not Dre, not Cube, not the deceased Eazy, but the actual cast — I realized something. Something pretty important, actually.

The entire cast of the film is young. They’re all in their twenties. I, myself, am 33-years-old. My exposure, at least at the pure fan level, to N.W.A., admittedly, came a little after the fact. They had already broken up by the time I really knew who N.W.A. was. Ice Cube was a solo act. Dre was a solo act. Eazy and Ren were solo acts.

So, I was aware of their story, but I wasn’t necessarily hyper-aware. Even now, I don’t know their story as well as I might know, say, the story of the Notorious B.I.G., or Wu-Tang, or even someone like Kendrick Lamar, whom I wrote one of the very first print articles about.

And even though I’d read many articles about N.W.A. over the years, plus their manager Jerry Heller’s autobiography, I’m not sure that I really retained that information. Certainly the broad strokes I was aware of, but some of the intricacies, the details, they were definitely fuzzy.

It’s funny what a few years makes. About three months ago, I was interviewed for a forthcoming documentary about Death Row Records, and particularly on the strength of having been the last person on earth to conduct an actual interview with Suge Knight — pardon me while I take a bow — I was peppered with tons of questions about him and Tupac, Dr. Dre and Snoop.

I certainly wasn’t around them personally during that era, but just by the sheer fact that a lot of what transpired at Death Row happened during my teenage years, when I was a little more dialed in as a fan, I could recall a lot of the finer points that much easier. I spent 3 hours answering questions and to be honest, I probably could not do that with N.W.A. I just don’t know enough of the little things.

Now, imagine you are not a rap nerd — definitely not a paid, professional rap nerd — and you are just a kid who has been born in the last 20 years. You like rap because, shit, who doesn’t like rap? You are aware of Dr. Dre, because everyone wears his headphones and he got that little deal with Apple last year. But that’s the second half of his career.

Up until he released his new record, Compton, Dre’s been to this generation what Berry Gordy was to my generation. Like, you know he did something — he’s Berry Gordy for god sakes! — but there is a little bit of a disconnect between the music and the mogul. Similarly, most teens nowadays have never heard Dre’s last record, Chronic 2001, in full. Do you think they’ve heard Straight Outta Compton, which came out a decade prior? It’s doubtful.

It’s the same with Ice Cube, who is certainly more well-known now for his work in Hollywood than in hip-hop. That doesn’t take away his contribution to hip-hop; in fact, he’s among the best to ever do it, and in my mind, still is.

But culturally, I think there is a really giant disconnect nowadays between the hip-hop of the past and hip-hop of the present. Listen to what is popular now, and you are hearing a sort of mish-mash of influences. Rap is a little all over the map. It’s a genre that doesn’t treat its elders well. It erases its past, because the only thing that matters is the present. Rap fans these days, heck rap artists these days, couldn’t pick KRS-One or MC Shan out of a lineup.

Cube himself said as much at the screening: “The hip-hop is missing from hip-hop.”

There is a larger discussion to be had about the way hip-hop is regarded by the institutions that are in charge of preserving these things — and particularly, the people in power who make those decisions — but hip-hop is not like rock n’ roll, classical music or even jazz. There are very few institutions, or even current-day participants, doing the things for hip-hop that were done, for those genres. Not saying it’s none, but it’s few.

So, when the chips are down, the job of educating people about N.W.A. is, well, N.W.A.! It’s Ice Cube. It’s Dr. Dre. It’s Eazy-E’s wife Tomika Woods-Wright. It’s other producers. It’s F. Gary Gray. Because nobody else is going to do it, and if they are, it’s certainly not at a level where it makes sense to put money behind it. In the arts space nowadays, if it doesn’t make money, you might as well just launch a Kickstarter and cross your damn fingers.

Naturally, in the wake of a film of this magnitude, there’s going to be conversation about things that were left out and facts that were twisted. It’s not like a bunch of journalists were making this movie. It’s not a documentary. Yes, it is going to be partially-biased. It is going to obscure things. Because for better or worse, history is written by the winners, and the winners are the ones who made this thing.

But as I watched it, I realized, if this can tell at least a part of the story, enough where people pick up an N.W.A. album and dig into what was happening back then and why, and maybe even do a little homework regarding the shit that got left out, that’s significantly more than anyone else is doing right now.

No recollection or reinterpretation of the past is ever going to be perfect. In fact, as we know through the way American history books are written, they can be terribly flawed. But some history is better than no history, and if we walk out of a film with just as many questions as answers, that is a step toward correcting things in the future. Until now, there have been very few real attempts to even begin doing that with hip-hop.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.