“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”
As a teenager growing up in the late 80’s, street knowledge was not the kind of wisdom I possessed. I lived in a quiet and peaceful San Antonio suburb, where the challenges of urban life were far from familiar to me. That changed with the release on N.W.A’s debut album – Straight Outta Compton.
Whether or not a sheltered life disqualified my ability to relate to their message, or include me as part of a targeted market audience – when the album was released, like many my age, I latched on to the records of N.W.A and to the artists of the group. Fast-forward twenty-seven years later, the music & lyrics still have meaning for me. Now, thanks to a new film by Director F. Gary Gray, (Set It Off) you get to see the story behind them.
The quality of life in Compton was hostile in 1988, and the music I listened to was a first-hand account of the lifestyle and of the struggles endured, it was told by a group of streetwise young men in a straightforward tone and unfiltered vernacular. N.W.A’s music and subsequently this film are direct reflections of the young black man’s experience moving about the urban landscape of the time and in society at large.
To the uninitiated and to those depending on him for survival, it would appear that Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins) was just another DJ trying to fulfill a pipe dream, but his vision & ideas were unique elements of his talent, strengthened by a gifted ear for music.
Enter Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), who would bank roll those ideas, and now you have the beginning of something special. With the beats and money in order, the addition of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) systematically checked all the boxes for what would become the world’s most dangerous group.
As word of their music spread like wild fire, fame arrived instantly, and just like any fire raging out of control, the risk of getting burned is extremely high. It didn’t take long for divisions to occur within the group and for the suspicions and rumors to become truth. Soon the group was torn apart, one by one. What followed were years of embattled words between the three heavyweights of the group, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dre as they went separate ways, and forged their own paths.
When you look back at music over the last twenty years, can you name a more influential group than N.W.A? N.W.A formed the root and trunk of a rap & hip-hop genre, the branches and leaves that sprouted after would only remind us of where the strength of the tree came from. With music bios, it can sometimes be tricky on how the stories are told, because while you enjoy the magic, you don’t always want to know what goes on behind the curtain.
During the first half of the film, you’re settled at ease, because you realize that the story’s direction is in the right hands. F. Gary Gray has made films with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube before – and I believe helped to give the storyline a much more personal feel by having him in the chair. And it’s not just the direction alone contributing to achieve that, it is also the performances by a group of actors taking pride and ownership of their assigned roles; including Jackson Jr who plays the role of Ice Cube – his biological father.
With all that working for it, the music never takes a back seat, as the film at times feels more like a documentary than a biographical drama film. Having grown up when this album was released, and witnessing its influence over the two-plus decades since then, my concern going into it was that the people involved might not properly characterize the events surrounding the rise and fall of N.W.A. As a fan, I walked out feeling very satisfied because everyone involved made a pretty good movie and did justice to the group.
At the end of the day – just like the lyrics which end the song that gave the film its title, you can’t help but say “damn that shit was dope” as the credits roll and you leave the theater.