Monday, October 15, 2012

YOU ARE NOW ABOUT TO WITNESS THE STRENGTH OF STREET KNOWLEDGE: "Hip-hop came from the clubs and sidewalks of New York City as a party music made with turntables and rhymes by performers who usually couldn't afford music instruments," explained Geoff Boucher in the LA Times a few years ago. "It was party music, but then it came west and got a beat-down by a swaggering collective that called itself N.W.A. Run-DMC gave rap its commercial shape and Public Enemy provided the politics, but it was N.W.A that took the genre to the dangerous side of the street.”

Not many artists are generally deemed responsible for two separate musical movements, yet it is impossible to tell the story of the West Coast hip hop sound, or the lyrical content of gangsta rap, without placing N.W.A. towards the start and very much in the center of the tale. In discussing Deep Purple last week, we got into whether a band could be inducted based on only one song. Well, N.W.A. only recorded two proper studio albums, but the first is the defining document of a genre, and the second was the first of its genre to hit #1 on the pop charts. Its members would go onto massive success as solo artists, as producers, as stars of family-friendly films, and as multimillionaire headphone entrepreneurs.

Did N.W.A. glamorize violence? Somewhat. Is the misogyny and homophobia throughout their lyrics uncomfortable to stomach? Absolutely. Is it somewhat excusable by the whole “we were only playing characters/reflecting reality” thing? We’ll get to that. The influence, however, is not debatable. Here’s what Chris Rock said in 2005 in placing Straight Outta Compton atop his list of the top hip-hop albums of all time:
N.W.A. is the most influential act of the last thirty years -- bigger than Nirvana, Madonna or the Sex Pistols. Nothing has ever been the same since they came. I remember I was in L.A. when I was a kid, and I brought Straight Outta Compton back to New York. More people were coming over to my house to listen to N.W.A. than were going across the street to the crack house. I had the real shit. It was kind of like the British Invasion for black people.
N.W.A. has made the final ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this is the first year in which it was eligible. To the Keltners!

1. Was N.W.A. ever regarded as the best band in rap music? Did anybody, while they were active, ever suggest that N.W.A. was the best band in rap music?

Best? No. Contemporaneous critics were always with Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, and A Tribe Called Quest (among others), not with the Compton thugs. (Biggest? Yes.)

2. Was N.W.A. ever the best band in rock music in its genre?

Absolutely. They invented it, and you cannot deny the power of Straight Outta Compton. Well, the good parts, anyway.

3. Was any individual member of N.W.A. ever considered the best at his instrument/role?

Dr. Dre may be the most influential hip hop producer of all, but that’s mostly for his post-N.W.A. career as a solo artist and producer/mentor of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and others. Ice Cube will be near the top of anyone’s list of MCs, but here again we’re talking mostly about his solo career, as Cube only stuck around for the first N.W.A. album.

4. Did N.W.A. have an impact on a number of other bands?

Nathan Rabin: “Straight Outta Compton didn’t invent gangsta rap. Schoolly D and Ice-T both released gangsta-rap songs before Straight Outta Compton hit, but the album perfected the burgeoning subgenre while introducing a formidable collection of solo artists who would play a central role in its development, most notably Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. N.W.A. first surfaced with the Dr. Dre-produced 1987 compilation album N.W.A. And The Posse and ended its run with 1991’s Niggaz4Life, but four years was all it took to change pop music and pop culture forever. You’d have to look to the equally short-lived careers of the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and the Sex Pistols to find seminal acts that changed music as profoundly and permanently as N.W.A. did in such a short a period of time.”

5. Was N.W.A. good enough that the band could play regularly after passing its prime?

Not applicable; they all went solo long before that point was reached.

6. Is N.W.A. the very best band in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?


7. Are most bands who have a comparable recording history and impact in the Hall of Fame? How many #1 singles/gold records did N.W.A. have?

Short career, massive impact can get you in the Hall, as the above examples suggest. Both albums made platinum (Straight Outta Compton, double) with basically zero radio airplay, and lyrical content largely kept their songs off the singles charts as well.

8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the band was significantly better or worse than is suggested by its records?

The solo output which followed makes you wonder what a third and fourth N.W.A. albums would have sounded like.

9. Is it the best band in its genre who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?

If the genre is rap, I’d argue for Public Enemy, also first-time eligible this year. For gangsta rap, yes.

10. Did N.W.A. ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was N.W.A. nominated?

Zero nominations. The Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group was not introduced until after they broke up. For the 1989 Awards, “Fuck That Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” were bypassed for inaugural Grammy for Best Rap Performance in favor of “Supersonic,” “Wild Wild West,” “Going Back to Cali,” “Push It,” and the winner, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

11. How many Grammy-level songs/albums did N.W.A. have? For how long of a period did the band dominate the music scene? How many Rolling Stone covers did they appear on? Did most of the bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?

I feel like we’ve answered this already.  Four years themselves, with a legacy which dominated for quite sometime thereafter through solo works and impact.

12. If this band was the best band at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?

No. They didn’t tour much, in part because police refused to provide security.

13. What impact did the band have on rock history? Was it responsible for any stylistic changes? Did it introduce any new equipment? Did it change history in any way?

Asked and answered. An absolutely seminal band. They also sold a lot of L.A. Raiders gear.

14. Did the band uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Does occasioning a complaint letter from the F.B.I. count as a positive when it comes to this question?

Truthfully, this is the serious problem with the nomination, both inside and outside the music. Dr. Dre viciously beat up a female journalist at a record party for having written negatively about the band, cheered on by his bandmates. Eazy-E was a drug dealer who fathered seven children with six women before dying of AIDS at 31. And too many of the lyrics are simply indefensible. I won’t defend them. Women are reduced to bitches and hos, only of interest because of their capacity to provide sexual gratification. Homophobia is rampant.

The band, of course, went with the "we're just reflecting reality" defense, except reporters provide perspective. They recognize a difference between advocacy and objectivity. And they don't take such glee in oppressing the oppressed, and profiting off of it. That's not the side the protagonist is supposed to play in rock music, which is about fighting the man, not being the man. Yes, the Rolling Stones had "Under My Thumb," "Some Girls" and five other songs Isaac will list below, but their catalog is deep and rich enough to have some rather lovely views expressed of women as well.

Standing up to police abuse? Laudable. Being a voice for the voiceless? Great. The rest? Not my thing, and with a regrettable impact on the culture as a whole. I'll leave the most second-most cynical take to Robert Christgau, from his review of Niggaz4Life:
Catchy, yes, and funky in its laid-back electro way, but never hard enough to scare off the novelty audience. Which might be fun if they didn't outpig the LAPD in the bargain. Can Chuck D really believe they mean what they say? Sure they really hate women, and anybody else who looks at them funny. But unless they're even sicker than they seem, they're too greedy to murder anybody as long as they can make so much money fronting about it. And so they've calculated every rhyme to push somebody's button--to serve up the thrill of transgression to ghettobound and merely ghettocentric young-black-males, and also to the big score, culturally deprived white boys seeking exotic role models. That kids will take them at their word obviously doesn't concern niggaz who'll be hard-pressed to contain their pent-up hostility after the bubble bursts. It'd be nice to think they'll off each other when that great day comes, but I doubt they have the balls. So in the interests of public safety, pray they don't get taken by their investment advisors.
 First-most cynical? The band itself, from Spin magazine, September 1991:
Is there a limit to what you’d say or do?
Eazy: Nah, we don't give a fuck.
Is that the gimmick?
Eazy: No gimmick. It's real. I don't give a fuck about nuttin’.
But is it just one trick? N—gas, bitches, ho's, cops, and that’s it?
Eazy: Nah. Whatever goes on, we gonna talk about it. Like undercover reporters.
Dre: Puts bread on the table.
Eazy: Brings home the bacon.
Dre: That’s the bottom mothahfuckin’ line.
Verdict: Objectively, once it's decided that hip hop belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then N.W.A. eventually belongs in. That doesn't mean they merit the rather rare honor of a first-ballot induction -- Van Halen didn't, the Beastie Boys didn't, the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn't and neither did the Sex Pistols -- so I don't think I'd vote for them this year given how many fine choices are on the ballot.


  1. Joseph Finn10:30 AM

    " and the winner, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”"


  2. isaac_spaceman12:39 PM

    For some reason, this reminded me of that old Barney the Dinosaur/Tupac mash-up, which makes me happy.

  3. Adam B.3:35 PM

    By the way, my Kraftwerk analysis will largely read the same way, only missing a few of the bitches/hos references.

  4. Looking at the "First Ballot" list, The Pretenders stand out as an act that while decent enough, really shouldn't be a first ballot (and indeed, I'd question for worthiness in the Hall more generally).

  5. Isaac, I thought we had established in the Heart Keltners that you cannot write on your own blog ;) You elitist. Oh, and thank you for the way you handled that comment. Seems to have left that flame warrior flameless.

  6. isaac_spaceman8:02 PM

    Drive-by flamers never come back to respond.