Is N.W.A.'s 'Straight Outta Compton' an Accurate Historical Social Commentary of that City?

Departures is KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project that thoroughly explores neighborhoods through the people that live there. In January, SoCal Focus is taking readers through the Richland Farms series one day at a time.

In the 1980s, Compton was actually a pretty typical example of the urban crisis bred out of gangs, crack cocaine and the dismantling of virtually every effort to fight the "War on Poverty." What was unique to Compton, however, was--and still is--its proximity to the entertainment industry, which has made the city into an international symbol of urban chaos in the United States.

Compton today is very different. Like much of the Los Angeles area, crime is down. But old habits, or in this case, perceptions, are hard to break.

"You can travel anywhere in the world today and people still talk about Compton as if it were Compton in the early 1980s," explained Josh Sides, the Director of the Center for Southern California Studies at CSU Northridge and author of "City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present."

Thank pop culture for that.

"It has to do, first of all, with rap music, in particular N.W.A., which popularized the notion through their first album, 'Straight Outta Compton,' that Compton was a uniquely troubled place, a uniquely hard place, a uniquely violent place, and that anybody who was able to live in Compton was somebody to be feared and respected," said Sides of Compton's branding that was exploited--even if the problems were not unique to the city--in films of the early 1990s.

"I think N.W.A. quite successfully exploited a notion of Compton for the same reason that any musician or filmmaker exploits any set of imagery, and that is to be successful," Sides continued. "But if we regard that music and the films of that era as accurate historical social commentary then I think we've missed a lot of what's happening in the rest of black Los Angeles, which is a real aggressive pursuit of an upper middle class dream, and blacks are actually accomplishing that. And so my complaint about that exploitation of the ghetto imagery is not that it's false, but simply that it leads the rest of the population to believe that's the only thing there is."

When Cliff Williams moved to Compton in 1971, the pursuit of an upper middle class dream was exactly what he saw. "I was blown away from that because I'm from Houston, Texas and had never seen as many black business owners and black entrepreneurs as there were in Compton," he said. In turn, that environment inspired him to become a businessman himself, owning several over the years, most recently two restaurants.

On the other side of things, the explosion of gangs and crack cocaine in the 1980s had its effect. "Every geographical area [in Compton] I associated with a gang, whether or not they really doing anything," said Mayor Eric Perrodin who used to be a police officer who specialized in gangs.

And that's the life N.W.A. highlighted, which Sides does not fault them for, rather pointing to consumers. "I think ultimately it can be said that white consumers of hip hop music in the 80s and the 90s--and they were then and still are the majority consumers--that that imagery fulfills both a fear and a fantasy among whites that does no service towards getting us to a point of racial equality or even seeing eye to eye in this country."

The Departures Richland Farms series is broken down into two parts as interactive murals: The Past and The Present. The above information is based on The Past's seventh mural hotspot, where two additional video interviews with Williams and Perrodin can be found.

Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading