Academic analysis of popular music and its associated manifestations was initially slow to develop, only recently have issues been raised and the value of studying popular music explored. NWA (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yela, and Eazy-E) are an example of a band who created an independent, revolutionary and controversial sound through their style, personae and performance. Their 1988 sophomore album, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, reflected the rising anger of urban America. Their lyrics were “a sonic uprising in which personal, political, and economic resentment were all merged into one frightening noise”, leading to the media dubbing them ‘the world’s most dangerous group’.
In the ‘old school days’ (1976-83), hip-hop was primarily dance music, with feel-good call-and-response lyrics, (‘everybody say hey… ho’, ho-tel, mo-tel, ho-li-day-inn’). However, the emergence of gangster-rap, a sub genre emphasising the violent lifestyle of the rappers soon came to the public’s attention, largely due to NWA (‘Niggaz with Attitude’). Active from 1986 to 1991, sensational media coverage was central to the groups escalating notoriety as the group endured controversy after controversy as they were banned from radio and television stations, banned from touring and denounced by the FBI.
However, they were condemned and rejoiced in equal measure, with the group being largely credited for creating the gangster-rap genre. However, the group saw it differently; Dr. Dre called it ‘reality rap’ and Ice Cube, once said of the groups lyrical content “we’re like reporters.”
Rap, one of the more controversial musical genres, is not as new as some may think. Originating from 1970’s New York, it is a cultural, intellectual and spiritual vessel delivered with or without a beat through the use of poetry, speech, prose and song. However, hip-hop culture has a long history, far beyond that of the seventies, as music critic Simon Frith recalls the emergence of hip-hop in the seemingly arid music landscape of the late seventies:
“What I’d often missed is that hip-hop, like previous black musical forms, was not fundamentally new; black kids (and adults) had been signifyin’ and trading verbal toasts since slavery days and beyond.”
So NWA’s ‘reality rap’ must be based behind a notion of lyrical realism, meaning that it must assert a direct relationship between a lyric and the social or emotional condition it describes and represents which is very much evident in the group’s most prominent and controversial record, ‘Fuck tha Police’, which protested police brutality, stereotyping and racial profiling:
‘Fuck tha police comin’ straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown’
The lyrics voice the opinions of an ethnic generation and give the listener the artists’ views on personal issues. The single was in Tricia Rose’s observation a “cinematic, well-crafted, gritty and vulgar rap” which in turn provoked an unprecedented official FBI letter which said that “advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.” Further controversy ensued as the album was one of the first of its kind to be stuck with a parental advisory label. Moreover, police refused to lend any support at their concerts, after-all, in their eyes they were helping crowd control a group that were condemning them, thus entire tours had to be cancelled. In addition, radio play was refused on most stations and their music videos banned by MTV for contravening a charter designed to prohibit videos that glorify violence and/or show gratuitous violence. Studying the lyrics challenges the status quo as it strives to emphasise the differences from the mainstream, yet has the power to influence other communities. The group was still selling millions, no doubt helped by the media hullabaloo and they continued the same themes that their key audience, of young black inner-city males related to, as highlighted in ‘100 Miles and Runnin’:
“Since I’m stereotyped to kill and destruct
Is one of the main reasons I don’t give a fuck.”
The violence of South Central that the group preached foreshadowed the Los Angeles riots, and moreover, the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, itself an act of police brutality that the group had been previously rapping about. Much like ‘Beatlemania’ where young female fans expressed previously repressed and unrestrained female sexuality; NWA’s fans expressed themselves by committing millions of dollars of damage across Los Angeles during the riot.
However, of all the violence and profanity throughout their career, it was ‘Express Yourself’, a track with no obscenities that is the most revered. It was anti-drugs, anti-violence, and went some way to explaining the group’s previous content:
“I still express, yo, I dont smoke weed or a sess.
Cause its known to give a brother brain damage…
“Its crazy to see people be
What society wants them to be. but not me…
“Some musicians curse at home
But scared to use profanity
When up on the microphone.”
In essence, yes, there’s hardship, yes, there’s oppression, but at the end of the day, the only person who’s going to change your life for the better is you. Thus an emotional bonding takes place by the listener, with the meaningful lyrics which commemorate the artist’s personal events.
However, the evolution of rap and its subsequent playing to the masses changed the genre as rappers soon became disinterested in creating political messages and more in commercialism. Gone were artists like NWA, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest who spoke ‘the truth’ and in marched rappers who spoke of ‘money, guns and bitches’. Shusterman argues that these self declared ‘underground’ rappers at once denigrate commercialism as an artistic and political sellout, but nonetheless glorify their own commercial success, often regarding it as indicative of their artistic power. Dr. Dre agrees adding “it’s about who makes the best record… it ain’t even about that, it’s about who sells the most records.”
In contemporary opinion NWA are largely considered one of the greatest hip-hop acts ever, yet during the early nineties they were branded as violent, trouble-making thugs; names the group were happy to live up to. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube knew this, making it their ethos; in fact both came from middle class families and had degrees from University as a back-up. Tricia Rose similarly agrees, identifying hip hops prolific self-naming as a form of reinvention and self-definition, something that MC Ren, DJ Yela, and Eazy-E were indifferent to. Shapiro agrees, stating that NWA sounded like they had first hand experience of everything they talked about… they produced the most powerful records hip-hop had produced, and not only lyrically, but sonically. So therefore, if NWA could convince critics of their ‘reality rap’ yet be middle class and university educated then perhaps their identity and personae were just examples of marketing. Shuker explains that marketing is a complex practice, involving several related activities: research, product planning and design, packaging and publicity and promotion and hence forth NWA weren’t necessarily a product of their environment but a product of the record label.
Dr. Dre went onto form his own record label and become one of the biggest producers in the business, discovering unknown talent such as Eminem, and Ice cube continued a highly successful solo career as well as an acting career spanning from Boyz N Da Hood to writing, directing and acting in his own films, such as the Barbershop franchise. Cube has since apologized excessively for his personae during NWA and has made up for this through writing strong, moralistic characters respecting one-another. However, the other members weren’t so lucky, Ren disappeared into obscurity, Yella now directs porn films and Easy-E died of aids. And so after only three albums, NWA are still recognised as one of the most influential rap group ever, in performance poet D-Knowledge’s phrase they were “all that and a bag of words.’”
Arezoo, A; ‘http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/A31321261′; January 2008, Last Accessed 1/12/08.
Frith, S; ‘The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock’; University Press, Cambridge, 2001.
Rose, T; ‘Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America‘; Wesleyan University Press, Hanova and London, 1994.
Shapiro, P; ‘The Rough Guide to Hip-Hop: From Grandmaster Flash to Outkast and Beyond’; Rough Guides, London, 2005.
Shuker, R; ‘Understanding Popular Music’, second edition; Routledge, london, 2001.
Shusterman; The Fine Art of Rap’; Pragmatist Aesthetics, London.
Toop, D: ‘Rap Attack: African Rap to Global Hip-Hop, Expanded third Edition’; Serpents tail, London, 2000.