Biopics, film, Gangsta Rap, music, NWA, Straight Outta Compton
On August 15, “Straight Outta Compton”, a biopic focused on the rise and fall of N.W.A was released in theaters worldwide. As of September 13, I still haven’t seen the film, but hope to see it when it’s released on VOD.
My priors: I’m skeptical of all biopics, particularly those produced or enthusiastically endorsed by its subject(s). Even if the performances are great and the story is compelling, it’s impossible for me to ignore the giant conflict of interest. I’m always wondering if the filmmakers are avoiding controversial topics to satisfy their subject or creating a commercial for the subject that helps them develop their brand. I suspect that “Straight Outta Compton” has both problems, but I’m still looking forward to watching it, if only because the story overlaps with my memories as a fan of hip-hop music in the early nineties. I started to pay attention to the stories we tell about hip-hop around the time that N.W.A. fell and Death Row rose to prominence, so I’m all in for any story about that era or those artists, no matter how flawed.
Here are five thoughts about the phenomenon that is “Straight Outta Compton”:
- I wonder how much of the enthusiasm around the movie is linked to the fact that this is the first time one of the formative pop culture myths for our generation of hip-hop fans has been explored on the big screen. Notorious was about an artist, but “Straight Outta Compton” is about the rise of a subgenre and musical scene. I love how the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A. has evoked memories of late ’80’s Los Angeles for people who were teenagers at the time.
- I think there’s something valuable about the problems that some have identified with the film. It would be better if the film was more fair and balanced, but I’m interested in how the conversation about the film’s flaws has developed over the last month. Everyone I’ve talked to about the movie has identified a factual error or oversight in “Straight Outta Compton”. Some are minor, like the story behind Dre’s discovery of Snoop Dogg, and others are far more significant, like the film’s excision of Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes or abusive relationship with Ruthless (later Death Row) artist Michel’le. When I usually hear these kinds of concerns raised about a biopic, they’re cited as a reason to dismiss the work entirely, but this feels different. The focus of the conversations has not been on the merits or veracity of the movie, but about the events themselves. We’re talking about Dee Barnes, her journey from artist to journalist, and how she was blacklisted for trying to hold a guy who beat her up accountable for her actions. We’re listening to Michel’le tell her story and transform gossip into a reality that we can’t ignore. For fans of my generation, it’s also a chance to reminisce, to talk about how it felt when we heard Snoop on Deep Cover, or the critical role Warren G and Cold 187um played in the development of G-Funk. I was buying lunch at one of the tiny Starbucks like cafes operated by Yale when I overheard some of the staff talking about the movie. I asked the guy at the register how he liked the movie and he launched into an impassioned monologue about 213 (the seminal trio of Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G). We shared some memories of great Nate Dogg performances before I had to run to a meeting and he had to return to work (a guy behind me reeeeally wanted a cappuccino). I’m probably not going to see the movie until it comes out on VOD, but I’ve loved the conversations that I’ve had with people about the music and the era.
- The conversations around the movie have also reminded me of the ‘accidental mogul’ element of Dre’s legacy. I love the fact that Dre was talked into working with Snoop Dogg, co-founding Death Row Records, signing Eminem and partnering with Jimmy Iovine on those headphones. Most successful people put themselves at the center of their narratives – they were the ones who were the driving force every step of the way. If you listen to some people talk about Steve Jobs, they’d have you believe that the iPod/Phone/Pad sprang from his imagination like Athena from Zeus’ skull. The more complicated truth is that most innovations, whether int he realm of culture or consumer electronics, are created in a collaborative environment. Dre has been successful because he has a great track record of saying ‘yes’ to the right person with the right deal at the right time. It’s a less sexy story, but one that’s more grounded in reality. Most of the successful people that I’ve known or worked with have achieved great things because they are discerning individuals, not just because they have innovative ideas. Dre isn’t one of the best because he finds (or flips) the best samples, but because he creates a work space in which artists (band members, deejays, rappers and singers) can do their best work.
- I didn’t start to appreciate Eazy E until I was in college. In my mind, he was the Stan Lee of the NWA narrative, the slick-talking parasite who grew wealthy by exploiting those who were more talented but less financially savvy. He didn’t write or produce any of N.W.A.’s classic songs and his solo career was underwhelming. I loved Dre Day and hated It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa before I heard it (although I could never deny the brilliance of that album title). When I finally heard it, I was pleasantly surprised by its quality and amused by Eazy’s efforts to discredit Dre, but the Chronic was an unstoppable force. 187um Killa may have been well produced and gone double platinum, but no one beats the Chronic. I chuckled at the picture of Dre from the World Class Wrecking Cru and let out an impressed ‘oooh’ when I heard the clever ‘Dre Day only meant Eazy’s payday‘ line. But… Dre’s music was just better. I didn’t care if Above the Law’s Cold 187um was the real inventor of G-funk or B.G. Knocc Out was realer than most of Death Row’s artists. History is written by the victors. I didn’t feel inclined to give Eazy a fair shot until my sophomore year of college. Eazy, Tupac and Biggie were dead, Dre had left Death Row under mysterious circumstances and there seemed to be a brief moratorium on toxic beef between hip hop artists. I had also lost interest in being the kind of hip-hop listener who takes sides in a conflict between wealthy strangers. I was desperate for something to listen to while I worked out at the gym and stumbled across my bootlegged It’s on (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa tape. I popped the cassette in my Walkman and hit play. Thirty eight (or so) minutes later, it clicked. I could simply listen to the album as a piece of music and appreciate the great production and bizarrely entertaining ‘Eazy E’ persona. It became easier to separate the man from the music. He may have expressed troubling views about women, violence and well, everything, but if you put allllllllll of that to the side………. he’s not so bad. In the end, Eazy E was very much like Stan Lee, an entertaining figure who wasn’t as good as he pretended, but better than his critics would admit – a pioneer with a complicated legacy.
- Ok, I’m cheating. This is a thing that I forgot to include in my Compton post last week. Dr. Dre does a great job of delivering the lines that someone wrote for him on Compton, but he doesn’t quite sound like Dr. Dre. The whole slow to fast melodic flow thing works for artists like Kendrick Lamar, but it doesn’t fit the persona that Dre’s built since N.W.A.’s heyday. Kendrick is trying to convey emotional complexity through his shifts in flow. Dre is not that guy, so it just sounds like he’s imitating another guy’s style. I appreciate that Dre has high standards and wouldn’t want to release soemthing that made him sound behind the times, but I think that a return to the Chronic-era flow would’ve been appreciated by Compton’s target audience (which, let’s be honest, aren’t the kids hearing a new Dre song for the first time).
More later, schedule permitting. I’m hoping to find time to write about the Red Skull, but I’ve learned the folly of making such lofty promises.
See you soon.
- Why Trigger Warnings are So Controversial, Explained, by Libby Nelson
- Mass Incarceration, Visualized, by the Atlantic Magazine
- Race to the Top: The Meaning of Key and Peele, by Wesley Morris
- Why Wrestling Matters, by Wesley Morris
- Rap Music Analysis #10 – Dr. Dre’s Orchestration, 2000-2009, by Martin Connor
- ‘Lovecraft Never Said That His Entities Were Evil’ – Alan Moore on Myth, Magic and the Elder Gods, by Hannah Means Shannon
- Remembering Nola 2005, by Pierre Joris
- Tribute to Tupac Shakur, by Kendrick Lamar
- The Trouble With Befriending the Subject of Your Biopic, by Kate Kilkenny