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The album "Straight Outta Compton" by rap group NWA burst onto the hip hop scene in 1988, evoking the turmoil of gang violence, crack cocaine and poverty and the tension between young black Americans and the police. A new movie, borrowing the same name, details the rise of those musicians and resonates with ongoing struggles today. Jeffrey Brown reports.
But, first, a new movie opening today revisits a key period in the evolution of hip-hop music, as well as present-day issues of race and justice.
Jeffrey Brown previews "Straight Outta Compton."
You are now about to witness the strength of street violence.
It was music with attitude, aggressive, angry, sometimes funny, always profane.
The album "Straight Outta Compton" burst on the hip-hop scene in 1988 from the rap group NWA. It described a place reeling from gang violence, crack cocaine and poverty, a war zone between young black men and women and the Los Angeles police. The new movie, which borrows the album's name, details the rise of NWA.
What's NWA stand for anyway? No whites allowed?
No, Niggaz Wit Attitudes.
The group included D.J. Yella, M.C. Ren and Eazy-E, a drug-dealer-turned-producer and rapper who would die from AIDS in 1995, as well as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who've gone on to enormous fame and who served as producers for the film.
ICE CUBE, Producer, "Straight Outta Compton": It's been a long, long road, but now is the time.
And I think, you know, America really, really wants this story because it's really a slice of American history.
The movie, spanning a decade, was directed by Compton native F. Gary Gray.
It shows how NWA established itself at a time when New York rap was dominant and how the group responded to its environment, as when its members are detained by police outside a music studio as they're recording their first album.
We're trying to check these bangers, make sure they're clean.
All right. I'm sorry. These are not bangers.
These are artists.
Excuse me. Artists?
What kind of artists?
Rappers. And they're working with me in the studio right now.
Well, see, rap is not an art. And I'm sorry. Who are you?
I'm their manager.
Well, you're wasting your time, Mr. Manager.
You have to be kidding me.
You're wasting your time.
These clients of yours, these rappers, they look like gang members.
To the average law-abiding citizen, a war on gangs seemed pretty good. But if every cop thinks every kid he sees is a gang member or a gangbanger, then that's where all the problems of abuse, excessive force, harassment, all these things start coming into play.
Many of the songs in that album dealt directly with racial profiling and police brutality.
That particular song provoked great anger and caught the attention of the FBI.
Todd Boyd is a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California.
TODD BOYD, University of Southern California: They rapped in a way that, as I say, was very confrontational. I think it had been common for African-Americans, for instance, over a period of time to sort of resist the stereotypes that mainstream society may have hoisted upon them.
What NWA did was they said, you know what? If you think we're thugs, if you think we're outlaws, you're right. And you should be afraid of us. We're going to embrace the stereotype. We're not going to run from it. We're your worst nightmare.
The group called it reality rap, but it became known as gangsta rap.
The response, captured in a 1993 "NewsHour" report, was sharply divided. Some loved the raw energy and message.
We know what's right. We know what's wrong. And music is not the killer. It is not the ill. The ill is the streets that we are forced to live like rats on.
Others heard a glorification of guns, drugs, and extreme sexism.
REV. CALVIN BUTTS:
This is not a place, as one young woman stood up and said once, where I hear women called bitches and whores around every corner and M.F.s. It's not. It's not like that in Oakland. It's not like that in L.A. There is some of it. But the world must not understand that that is who we are.
In this scene from the film, the group responds to some of that criticism.
We gave the people a voice. We gave the people truth.
Yesterday, Ice Cube told me this:
No, I don't have any regrets. You know, that was a time capsule. Music is a time capsule. So, you know, that's what was happening back then. That's what we was talking about. Making music about it, to us, was a positive thing. It was more positive than going out there and doing some of these things literally.
So, making a record was extremely fun, positive, creative, something to get us off the streets. And we made history with it.
The arrival of the film offers a chance to take stock of that history, to consider how NWA and rap evolved from an underground movement to today's popular culture.
Think about the prominence of "The Godfather" and "Godfather II," Vito Corleone, Michael. Well, by 2000, we have Tony Soprano and "The Sopranos." The gangster has been domesticated and moved to the suburbs.
We have a long tradition of embracing and celebrating gangsters in popular culture. Hip-hop is another version of that, so what was once threatening for many people by now is rather mainstream.
The film also comes with powerful new resonance. It's set amid the beating of Rodney King by four police officers in 1991, and the riots that followed not-guilty verdicts for all but one officer, who was convicted on a lesser charge.
The film arrives a year after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, further stoked by more recent videos showing blacks being killed at the hands of police.
That's actually sad, to be honest, the fact that the stuff that we were going through in the late '80s, the early '90s, you know, is still fresh in the news today. So what we were speaking on was the reality of how we were living and what we were going through. And it's just a shame that people are still going through the same things, and nothing has changed.
Now, though, Ice Cube himself is a veteran acting star, even in family-oriented films. The music long ago became mainstream. And the story of NWA is being told in theaters across the country.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.
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