The FBI Helps Out
The record came out in late 1988. Radio wanted nothing to do with it. When the group taped a music video, MTV refused to play it. Still, sales climbed into the hundreds of thousands.
"How did it happen? I was there from the beginning and experienced pretty much every part of it from up close, and it's still inexplicable," says David King, a Priority salesman. "Other labels would ask me how we did it. I couldn't answer. Basically, we just manufactured and shipped records. And people kept asking for more."
In other words, "Straight Outta Compton" sold itself.
Johnny Phillips, the Memphis record distributor, cites the unusual relationship between small, black-owned record stores and their customers. "Black consumers in particular will buy where they can trust the store. Doesn't matter what it is. We've sold to combination record store/barber shops, even a pet store/record store."
Turner says the knowledge of distributors such as Phillips was crucial in getting the record introduced nationally. "Those were the really critical relationships, with the mom-and-pop stores, because there was a whole list of them that could actually get your record promoted, get your record sold because kids would come buy it. There was such a demand for rap and such a lack of supply."
At first the album received little national attention; sales built region by region. When it broke within an area, it crossed over to white markets almost immediately, King says. The hardest part was getting stores to stock it. "Once you got it in, that's all it took," King says. "It sold fast with junior high kids. It was illicit, forbidden fruit."
By the middle of 1989, six months after its release, "Straight Outta Compton" was a stealth phenomenon. Then N.W.A got lucky--perversely so. Milt Ahlerich, an assistant director of the FBI, sent a letter to Priority, accusing the label of selling a record ("F---Tha Police") that encouraged "violence against and disrespect for the law-enforcement officer." Ahlerich didn't propose to do anything. There was nothing he could do. He said merely that "we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action."
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.
Neither, as far as anyone knows, has anybody killed a police officer after hearing N.W.A's "F--- Tha Police." So why did the FBI send a letter to N.W.A? Alan Light contrasts the reception of rap music with that of other popular arts that sometimes celebrate violence. Some of the best movies ever made--the "Godfather" series, for example--are exceptionally violent, and no one attempts to ban them. Dre points this out when he compares "Straight Outta Compton" to "Pulp Fiction." His songs are dark comedies, he says; he wonders why people don't see that.
"The difference is the level of respect accorded not to the artists but to the audience," Light says. The audience for movies is presumed to know better, to distinguish fact from fiction. The hip-hop audience, presumably, cannot.
Maybe that's the key to understanding the feelings "Straight Outta Compton" aroused, the success it enjoyed and the effects it continues to have. Maybe it disguises its fictional base too well. It's too real. When N.W.A shouted at you, you were compelled to shout back. N.W.A was together in its most potent lineup for less than two years.
Cube, financially frustrated, left before the end of 1989 for a highly successful solo career. He has since become a screenwriter, actor and movie producer, a virtual corporation unto himself. The other four members put out two more N.W.A records, but to considerably less effect.
Dre split acrimoniously from Ruthless in 1992 to help form Death Row Records, where he recorded the second most influential hip-hop album ever, "The Chronic," which defined the sound of rap for a decade. He has discovered and produced two of the biggest individual stars in hip-hop history--Snoop Dogg and Eminem.
Ren and Yella have had more limited solo careers. Ren is still recording, while Yella has a pornographic movie production business. Eazy continued to run Ruthless and to record until his death from AIDS in 1995. There continues to be talk of a reunion, with Snoop taking Eazy's spot.
Whatever comes of that, N.W.A had more of an effect in less time than probably any figures in pop music history. It's as if Sinatra had become Sinatra by cutting a single record, as if Dylan quit before going electric. N.W.A incited a revolution that redefined hip-hop just as hip-hop was poised to overrun popular culture. As pop has increasingly become the culture that matters, hip-hop has reached deep into mainstream America.
It really was the beginning of the end of life as we knew it. The beginning of the end, it turned out, was accompanied not by heavenly choirs but a rhythm section.
This is not an idle point. Rhythm is a drug. Maybe, like medicine, it should never be consumed in combination with other dangerous substances.
Maybe that's what happened with "Straight Outta Compton." Maybe by combining deadly rhythm with taboo subjects--violence and sex and drugs--it gathered unprecedented strength. Maybe it was unstoppable; just too powerful, too forceful.
Maybe, in other words, it was just too damn good.
Terry McDermott is a Times staff writer who last wrote for the magazine about songwriter Steve Earle.