Listening to N.W.A. in the Suburbs

nwa-straight-outta-comptonI grew up in the midwestern United States in the ‘burbs, and I first heard rap music some time in the 1980s. The first groups to gain any popularity with mainstream (read:white) audiences were the clownish acts like the Fat Boys. I had an older cousin who suddenly decided that he wanted to be a breakdancer, and I remember watching him practice his moves to the song “Fat Boys Are Back” in our grandparents’ living room. There was a local radio station, perhaps an AM station, that played what my cousin called “breakdance music,” and we spent an afternoon listening to these strange, alien songs on his boom box.

But a few months later my cousin wasn’t into breakdancing anymore, and rap music didn’t appear on my musical radar again for another few years. Those old enough will recall that everyone initially dismissed rap as a fad, much the way they had rock n’ roll thirty years earlier.

Seventh grade was my first year of Middle School, and it marked a distinct and abrupt transition into adolescence. Gone was the innocence of Elementary, where 6th grade was somehow still closer to kindergarten than it was to 7th grade, only one year away in time but aeons away in culture and ethics. Suddenly, the clothes you wore were the most important thing about you, followed closely by the music, films and tv shows that you liked, as well as the words you used to talk about how much you liked them (“Gnarly!”) which all together went a long way in determining whether or not you were cool.

For us boys there was a standard uniform of cool: I.O.U. sweatshirt and Z Cavarricci pants rolled so tightly around your ankles that it cut off the blood flow to your feet, which were covered by Eastland leather loafers, no socks allowed. I was too poor and too uncool to rock this gear myself, but I would’ve if I could’ve.

For the girls, it was the age of lycra miniskirts and the Wall of Bangs. I admit I still think this look is hot, and I have vivid memories of a girl named Holly walking down the hall in that skin-tight miniskirt with a tucked-in t-shirt that said “Just Do Me.” I have no idea what the father of this 13 year-old hottie must have thought about this, but I know exactly what this 13 year-old pubescent boy thought about it.

Somehow, despite my lack of appropriate wardrobe, I managed to ingratiate myself with some of the cool kids that year. This was truly a stroke of luck since I hadn’t been popular since 1st grade, when it was still cool to be one of the kids that got good grades in class. (Then we all learned from tv that good grades were for nerds, and there went that.) I don’t remember how it happened – maybe it was my skills on the Sega Genesis – but I quickly figured out that liking the same music and watching the same shows as these guys was a way to stay in their good graces.

Sixth grade had been all about Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. But somehow this music couldn’t make the leap from grade school to middle, and so I was forced to leave it behind along with my Trapper Keeper and my G.I. Joe toys. (Actually, I secretly continued to play with my G.I. Joes well into 8th grade.) The first song I remember being popular – immensely popular – that year was M.C. Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” I don’t recall if Hammer’s parachute pants came before or after Cavaricci’s baggy-thighs tight-calves look, but I suppose it’s a chicken-or-egg question anyway. The transition from hair metal to Hammer’s PG-rated rap seemed abrupt, but in retrospect, it wasn’t as abrupt as the move that would come next, from PG to O.G., an acronym I wouldn’t learn the meaning of until Ice T made it an album title.

I first heard gangsta rap music from my friend Mike, who I’d known since grade school. Prior to this, we’d become friends over our mutual love of action movies and toy guns. Kids today have no idea how realistic and how awesome toy guns were in the late 80s – none of that bright orange barrel, see-officer-it’s-not-a-real-gun-don’t-shoot-me crap. We could spend an entire day from morning til night engaged in an elaborate ritual simulation of war, battling imaginary enemies in the woods or shooting at each other, keeping tallies of our imaginary wounds and arguing over whether a shot from the other was a hit or a miss.

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Mike’s dad had a large collection of VHS movies which he recorded off cable and also from rentals, via the old two VCR, play-with-one, record-with-the-other method. All the great 80s action films like Missing In Action and Lethal Weapon, as well as T&A comedies like Mischief and Hardbodies, I probably saw them for the first time at Mike’s house. All of this is important because nothing happens in a vacuum.

Mike had gotten a dubbed cassette of rap songs from his older cousin – I guess we all get music from our older cousins – which had both N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew on it. Listening to N.W.A. made me feel the same way I felt watching R-rated movies on cable late at night. There were swear words that I wasn’t allowed to use but did when adults weren’t listening. There were fights and guns and killing, which of course are awesome to an adolescent boy whose only experiences of them have been pretend. And there was all kinds of talk about sex.

There was also slang and cultural references that I’d never heard before. Aside from being my first exposure to unadulterated ebonics, it was also the first time I’d ever heard of a drive-by shooting or a 40oz. Eazy E didn’t specify what exactly a 40oz. was, but he did say it was freezing his balls, which was pretty funny. I also remember that we started calling girls in our school “bitches” and “hos” only because of the influence of rap music. (The aforementioned Holly acquired the nickname “Holly the Ho”, perhaps not entirely undeservedly.) Eminem indignantly complained that he wasn’t “the first rapper to smack a bitch or say ‘faggot’.” Well, N.W.A. were the first, or at least the first to get famous in spite – or because – of it.

Technically, 2 Live Crew was not gangsta rap since they were all sex and no killing, but the profanity was enough to get them lumped in with N.W.A. and the other gangstas. Of the two groups, I liked them best – I guess even then I was fundamentally a lover and not a fighter. The songs on Mike’s tape were from their earlier records, and the one I remember was “Hey We Want Some Pussy.” Aside from being impressed by the sheer audacity of saying something like that on a record, I felt a deep resonance with the meaning of the lyrics. “Me too! Me too! I want some pussy too!”

I dubbed a copy of the tape and brought it home with me. When I told my friend Bill about it, going so far as to recite the lyrics from memory during woodshop, he told me about their new album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be. It turned out that a lot of kids already knew about gangsta rap, and I was a little late in getting on the bandwagon.

Some time later I went out and bought Straight Outta Compton and As Nasty As They Wanna Be, my very first rap records. I had gotten $20 in birthday money, and so I had my mom drive me to Radio Doctors, where I sheepishly grabbed both tapes from the small Rap section and took them up to the counter. Parental-AdvisoryThis was just before Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics stickers were invented, so my mom felt no need to check what I was buying, although the record store guy had to have known what was on those tapes. But then, I was with my mom, so he probably just felt really confused by the whole situation. I don’t remember if he gave me a knowing smile or not.

I had already heard N.W.A. from numerous friends, and so I was basically just buying my own copy for the street cred, or whatever the suburban equivalent of that is. (Hallway cred? Mall cred?) But I hadn’t heard 2 Live Crew save that one song on Mike’s tape. They did not disappoint. The lyrics were so pornographic that I got a hard-on just from listening to certain songs, although I was thirteen and got hard-ons for much lesser reasons, or no reason at all. I felt guiltier listening to this music than watching 2LiveCrew_NastyR-rated movies with sex scenes, because at least those movies had some other pretense, like being funny or heroic. You could watch an action movie or comedy with your parents and just feel awkward when the titties came out.  But how could I excuse listening to a song called “The Fuck Shop”?

My friends and I started listening to gangsta rap only months before it was all over the news media as the newest national controversy. Of course, the controversy just made us feel even cooler for listening to it. I remember seeing a Newsweek cover story about 2 Live Crew, probably shortly after they were arrested for performing, and wondering if my mom recognized the album as the very same one she had seen me buy a month or two ago. But she didn’t, and I quietly stashed my cassettes of As Nasty As They Wanna Be and Straight Outta Compton under my bed, away from the rest of my music collection, in case mom now felt compelled to sniff around and see what I was listening to. (She never found those tapes, but years later she did find both porn and pot on separate occasions of snooping in my room. Maybe I’d have been better off if she’d found the tapes and punished me early on. At least I might’ve learned how to hide stuff a little better.)

At the same time that we were listening to “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Me So Horny” (and the girls we liked were listening to New Kids on the Block) we were also really into comedy, specifically stand-up and sketch comedy. For the latter, it was Saturday Night Live and it’s yin-to-the-yang urban (read:black) equivalent In Living Color that stole our attention. Watching SNL over the weekend was an absolute necessity, because you had to be ready to quote from it on Monday at school. We could all talk like Wayne and Garth, and we could all do imitations of Dana Carvey imitating George Bush or being the Church Lady.

As for stand-up, the unquestioned kings were Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay. We liked them for the same reasons we liked gangsta rap: because they talked explicitly about sex. diceman comethMurphy’s Delirious was probably our all-time favorite, followed closely by the even more sexually explicit Raw. I had entire routines from both committed to memory. Clay’s The Diceman Cometh HBO special was basically the stand-up equivalent of a 2 Live Crew record. What it lacked in humor and creativity it made up for in filth.  We all enjoyed spouting his dirty nursery rhymes for a while. (“Jack and Jill went up the hill, both with a buck and a quarter. Jill came down with $2.50. That fuckin’ whore.”) Unlike Delirious and Raw, which hold up pretty well as classics of stand-up, The Diceman Cometh was basically vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake, which is probably why it’s not remembered as favorably as Murphy’s work (although surely it’s good enough to warrant a proper DVD release, wtf?)

The contrast between the legacies of Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy mirrors that between 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. Whereas the current consensus holds that N.W.A. had relevance in the social and political milieu of their time, I doubt that a Luther Campbell biopic will be in the works any time soon. But then who can tell where the culture is headed? For all I know Luke will end up on Mount-friggin-Rushmore, because if you would’ve told me twenty-five years ago that a film glamorizing N.W.A. would not only get made but would dominate the box office, I would’ve said, a la Wayne Campbell, “Shah – right!

Nowadays I’m told – by no less an authority than Hollywood – that N.W.A. were politically astute social critics, fighters for free speech and against police brutality, pioneers of black-owned businesses throwing off the yoke of white corporate control; in a word, heroes. Well, maybe for some. But I smell a whiff of bullshit here, because some of these white liberals (and Latino conservatives: Marco Rubio!) who are now gushing over the film Straight Outta Compton are probably around the same age as me, and probably first heard this music under similar circumstances, even if their particular hometown wasn’t as trashy as mine.

For us, gangsta rap fit into the larger cultural context of foul-mouthed comedians, action movie exaggerated violence, and late-night softcore porn on cable. It was part of a nexus of negative cultural influences that basically enabled us to act like Beavis and Butthead for the better part of our teens. For me specifically, who grew up without a father, what I learned about girls and sex and being a man from these media substituted for the birds-n’-the-bees talk that I never got. That may go a long way in explaining some of my own problems with women over the years, but more importantly it shines a light on the impact of this kind of art on certain segments of the American male population, because I’m far from the only fatherless child in the land.

I don’t deny that Straight Outta Compton and other gangsta rap had some positive value. I’m told that many young urban black men strongly identified with the sentiment behind “Fuck Tha Police” because they’d been in similar situations. But as a young white kid with no experience of that sort of thing, my only reaction was “Whoa! This song has ‘Fuck’ in the title!” Furthermore, it was hard for any of us to sympathize with the group’s complaints against the police, since virtually every other song on the album has them bragging about various illegal activities. Gangsta rap did absolutely nothing to undo our stereotypes of and prejudices against black people, since most of it basks in criminality and misogynistic hyper-sexuality. Granted, this appeals to the raw masculine energy that is present in adolescent boys, but it hardly channels it in a positive direction.

I’m not singling out N.W.A. – Hollywood did that – because they were just one of many negative cultural influences that bombarded my teenage brain. But since nobody’s making a film reinventing Andrew Dice Clay as Lenny Bruce or claiming that the transformation of Cinemax to Skinemax was a great leap for mankind, I’ll focus my attention on the gangsta rappers currently being lauded as fine artistes.


 

The debate about gangsta rap is actually much older than the music itself. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his companions have a long discussion about what kinds of stories young men and women ought to hear for their edification, and what kinds they should be prevented from hearing. Socrates says that any tales of the gods’ misdeeds should be banned, because

a young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is far from doing anything outrageous.

I can forgive Ice Cube for telling a thirteen year-old boy – me – that “life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”  He was basically a kid himself, and we all would like to be forgiven for the dumb shit that we say and do when we’re kids.  But I don’t forgive Jerry Heller and the other record company executives that promoted this crap and made sure that it wound up in my local record store, very far away from Compton.  They should have known better.  They probably did know better and just didn’t care, about anything except the money.

Tupac Shakur said that the reason his songs talk about terrible things is because he felt disgusted by these things and hoped that, by drawing attention to them, someone somehow could make them stop.  That’s another example of youthful naivete, at best.  Sorry ‘Pac, it just doesn’t work that way.  Art may initially imitate life, but life very quickly reciprocates, often in far greater proportion.

What has happened since the success of gangsta rap has actually been the gangsterization of the media at large.  Rude and in-your-face is now the order of the day, across the entire political spectrum, from Bill O’Reilly’s angry outbursts to Jon Stewart’s self-righteous snark.  Furthermore, selected incidents of violence are promoted to the forefront of national consciousness, virtually guaranteeing that they will spawn either imitation, retaliation, or both.

Give it a few more decades and it will be something like this:

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