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Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics

No One Was Ready for N.W.A's 'Straight Outta Compton.' But It Sold 3 Million Records and Transformed the Music Industry.

April 14, 2002|TERRY MCDERMOTT

The bureau's interpretation of the song was so literal it's a wonder it didn't form a task force to dig up the bodies that Eazy, Ren and Cube bragged about dispatching. Bryan Turner didn't know how to react.

"I was scared. You kidding? It was the FBI. I'm just a kid from Canada, what do I know?" Turner says. "I showed it to some lawyers. They said they [the FBI] couldn't do anything. That made me feel better. Then we circulated the letter. The thing was like a nuclear explosion. Once we circulated that, everybody wanted to hear the record the FBI wanted to suppress."

N.W.A went back on tour. Sure enough, they were banned from performing in some cities, touching off small riots. Every time it happened, there was a spate of publicity followed by a spurt in sales. "It was free publicity as far as I was concerned," Yella says. Bill Adler, a former rap label executive, says it's simple to identify elements of a hit record. "Pop music is teen music. The stuff that's going to explode are the things that appeal to teens. Girls want somebody cute. Boys want somebody tough."

What could possibly be tougher than to have the FBI after you?

"The FBI helped out," Heller says. "MTV banned the 'Straight Outta Compton' video and we sold 100,000 copies. A whole cultural phenomenon. Several months into it, Elle did a 10-page spread on gangster chic in the foreign edition. We did a Newsweek cover." N.W.A woke the music industry to the huge commercial possibilities of hard-core hip-hop.

Eventually people quit asking if hip-hop was a fad. Rap music worked its way on to the radio, dominated it to some extent, ending what had been a decade of de facto radio racial segregation. Hip-hop, now dominated by gangsta rap descendants, is the best-selling music in the world.

"The economics of it were staggering. Just staggering," Heller says. If you were with Warner Bros., for example, and you sold 500,000 records, they might drop you from the label. The way we were doing it, if you sold 200,000 records you made a quarter million dollars. And you made it right there. We'd take the check to the bank, cash it and split it up on the corner."

Whether all of the checks were for the right amount would later become a subject of much debate and litigation, but for the time being N.W.A was riding down Main Street in the biggest parade any of them had ever imagined.

Consider the things that had to happen for "Straight Outta Compton" to become a hit record.

It required an economic catastrophe to overwhelm metropolitan Los Angeles, leaving African American neighborhoods in shambles, their residents in despair. It required a crack epidemic to then sweep through those same streets, offering more misery but also complicated opportunities that enriched people such as Eric Wright.

It required the invention of the VCR and the sudden, unforeseen decline of drive-in movie theaters, creating the space where new American bazaars--the swap meets--would rise. It required the existence of Macola Records, an old-school oddity hanging on in a new-school world, and the persistence of inner-city, word-of-mouth recommendations in an age of mass-media dominance. It apparently even required the existence of animated raisins lip-synching Marvin Gaye records.

This history is a crooked street, crowded with more happy accidents than are comfortable to contemplate. It begins to seem like fate. It begins to seem as if Puffy Combs might have underestimated Dr. Dre when he said, "Dre is to rap what God is to the church."

I Shot a Man in Reno

Here are sample lyrics from yet another song without redeeming social value:

"Early one morning while makin' the rounds,

I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my baby down

I shot her down then I went to bed,

I stuck that lovin' forty-four beneath my head."

The song continues with the protagonist chased and caught by police, then sent to prison. In the last verse, unrepentant to the end, he laments that he "can't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down." He regrets only getting caught.

Rap critics would be right in finding very little social uplift in this song, "Cocaine Blues," recorded by Roy Hogshead. Hogshead, however, was not a rap star. He didn't even have a nickname.

He recorded this song in 1947, and at least five versions of it have been made since. Johnny Cash sang it on his best-selling "Live at Folsom Prison" album in 1968. Nobody protested or even noticed.

Alan Light, founding editor of Vibe magazine, an influential hip-hop publication, says he asked Cash about the potential harmful effects of rap lyrics. Cash referred back to the Folsom Prison record, specifically to the title song, which includes the line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." You know, Cash said, I don't recall ever hearing about anyone listening to that song, then going to Reno and shooting somebody.

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