My favorite NWA tape was always 100 Miles And Runnin’ EP. It was their peak. Ice Cube had just left the group, with MC Ren taking over the lead rapper spot without missing a breakbeat. Musically, the EP shows Dr Dre at a crossroads. The title track is the epitome of his early sound, with his typical breakbeat funk taking all kinds of detours through breakdowns, sound effects and voice overs. “100 Miles And Runnin'” is an action movie in song form, rebranding the Compton kids from the debut album as hood superheroes. It’s so cinematic that a video is superfluous. “Just Don’t Bite It” starts with a fellatio PSA before squirting into a Chronic-style beat that sounds built for Snoop (who wouldn’t meet Dre for another few years). Notice the attention to detail in Dre’s production, where even the girl’s slurps in the skit are in crisp full stereo. His skit work is unmatched here – “Sa Prize (Part 2)” (aka “Fuck Tha Police (remix)”) cuts in and out of scenes at a police precinct, a shootout ambush, two traffic stops with corrupt cops, and a Cheech and Chong car crash, all complete with full sound effects and actors. You have to marvel at how extraordinarily creative this is to incorporate within the context of a song. Finally “Real Niggaz” addresses the Cube exodus directly, though there are disses to him throughout the EP. 100 Miles And Runnin’ is a perfectly realized work – it’s powerful, funny, entertaining, succinct, endlessly listenable.
Last year’s film Straight Outta Compton presented the inside story of NWA as a character drama. It was so clearly made for and by real fans that we can forgive its occasional hackiness: Dre working out the “G Thang” riff on a keyboard, Pac somehow recording “Hail Mary” BEFORE he even meets Dre, etc. My favorite bit was Cube’s reconciliation with Eazy-E by jokingly acknowledging Eazy’s dismissal of Boyz N The Hood as an “afterschool special.” (Which was what made Eazy-E so great – that comment was from an interview in which he also referenced his donation to George Bush and the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle: “I paid $2500 for a million dollars worth of publicity! I don’t give a fuck. I don’t even vote.”) O’Shea Jackson Jr shines in his performance as his father, and Paul Giamatti is good enough to unintentionally make Jerry Heller seem sympathetic. Suge Knight’s character seems fair enough all things considered, but he was critical of his portrayal – and we’re not talking Roger Ebert style.
But the film doesn’t tell the whole story. That is, it doesn’t tell the more interesting story of NWA which was the way they impacted the culture. They were different – consider the song “Express Yourself” which flips a classic Charles Wright sample for what sounds like the perfect palette for an uplifting hip hop anthem for 1988. We can even picture a video: girls and guys in zuba pants breakdancing in a vibrant, urban backdrop safe enough for MTV. Express yourself everybody! But not NWA – “I’m expressing to my full capabilities/And now I’m living in correctional facilities.” Things done changed: the video of the boys in black marching through the alleys, rapping from jail cells. This is the secret of how NWA changed the world – the music itself is fun, it is uplifting, so the smart rebellion in the lyrics becomes all the more subversive. “Fuck Tha Police” is an anthem, as imbued with genuine pop sensibility as “She Loves You.”
“Express Yourself” is solo Dr Dre (though presumably written by Cube and the DOC). Lest we forget, Dre’s music was the power behind three separate rap empires – Ruthless/Priority, Death Row, Shady/Aftermath. Dre was not just a beatmaker, not just a producer, but a music mogul. Straight Outta Compton was probably too kind to his personal life, dramatizing a drunk driving arrest as an extension of righteous anger and completely ignoring his assault of Dee Barnes. But it actually understates his musical influence. His best NWA-era work may not have even been the band’s albums but Eazy’s Eazy-Duz-It and The DOC’s No One Can Do It Better. And he followed all that with The Chronic, such an undeniable masterpiece that it immediately put NWA in the past tense. Even The Chronic 2001 (so named thanks to Suge Knight’s interference) lived up to expectations and remains a classic of gangsta rap decadence. How did Eminem turn from white boy battle rap prodigy to international superstar? Dre’s beats – “My Name Is,” “Guility Conscience,” etc. (Not to mention Relapse, which I’d argue is Eminem’s best album). 50 Cent was a mixtape king who was essentially blackballed from the industry before Dre’s “In Da Club” sent Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ to diamond status. Dre’s music is that rare beast that can crossover to pop while remaining dope and authentic. It’s no coincidence he’s endorsed and worked with Kendrick Lamar.
NWA’s last album Efil4zaggin also shows that the band ended at just the right time. The act was growing stale – they sound reactive and repetitive. The visceral crime cinema of 100 Miles And Runnin’ turned into self-parody, just playing their roles for another paycheck. Not to say that it’s bad, but it’s not nearly as inspired. Even Dre’s music is spinning its wheels, aside from a few highlights like the Chronic style “Alwayz Into Somethin'” and “The Dayz Of Wayback” and Eazy’s goofy cover of Parliament’s “My Automobile.” In the end they needed Ice Cube to keep that social relevance – The Predator-era Cube with NWA would have been some powerful shit. Cube like Dre is an entertainer, a charismatic talent who created gangsta rap then broke down its confines as an artist.
The film Straight Outta Compton for all of its unavoidable drama, remains true and respectful of the group. It’s a celebration, just like the music. And this is exactly how the group reached such a wide audience. There was a lot of controversy, hype, and general fukkery around NWA. That was the point. But the music, the talent backed it up. And what’s more relevant today than “Fuck Tha Police”?