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It’s All About a Salary

The new biopic Straight Outta Compton is more mixtape than manifesto.

N.W.A. with Fab 5 Freddy. Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Music biopics have always struck me as having something off about them. I’ve never been one to connect my experience of music to the life stories of its creators, as fascinating as they often are. But it’s the genre itself. It has too much to do to do much of anything interesting.

The biopics have two main roles: first, to kick off a reappraisal of an artist’s work (a nicer way of saying “move some greatest hits compilations in the form of soundtracks”), and second, to offer a launch pad for young acting talent, who get a juicy role as a beloved artist. I’ve got no problem with either of these — I liked hearing more Ray Charles after Ray came out, and seeing more Jamie Foxx. What I really have a problem with are the films themselves.

Hollywood almost always burdens biopics with a pat genre conventions that polish off the edges of the lives of artists, pushing eccentric and troubled lives into a standardized narrative: early sparkles of talent, improbable rise, excess and betrayal, decline, and, in some form or fashion, redemption (even if only through death and a lasting legacy). Whether it’s Johnny Cash or Notorious B.I.G., the song remains more or less the same.

And yet, paradoxically, the stories music biopics tell are already so over-documented that reiterating them seems like indulging in nostalgia. These are famous entertainers, after all — their greatest moments have been repeatedly recorded, broadcast, packaged, anthologized and mythologized before the first words of the film’s script have been typed.

Straight Outta Compton, as much as I enjoyed it, suffers from both of these problems. If you haven’t you should check out Dee Barnes’s incredible run down of the film’s erasure of the women central to N.W.A.’s story, from the work of female artists to her own assault and subsequent career destruction at the hands of Dr. Dre.

It’s difficult to see Straight Outta Compton in the same light after reading this, though the film’s second half — a triumphal march through songs and stories we already know from a thousand MTV broadcasts — makes it clear enough that we’re watching a hagiography.

As this is a movie about the American music industry, it should, and does, have its fair share of shady business dealings. But the depiction of the scheming between Eazy-E and Jerry Heller, N.W.A.’s older Jewish manager, falls flat. By all accounts, the two men were close friends, but on screen there’s little chemistry between them. Paul Giamatti doesn’t seem invested in his portrayal of Heller, and Jason Mitchell never quite nails the epicurean gusto of Eazy-E, one of rap’s great trickster figures.

Heller used mercenaries from the militant Zionist Jewish Defense League for security, and Eazy met with George H.W. Bush — these are not your average impresarios — but such idiosyncrasies don’t make it in the film.

But what bothered me most was the way the film presents N.W.A.’s contribution to hip hop, and with it, popular music. At several moments, the film breaks from narrative exposition to show group members doing media interviews. This is to stage (rather didactically) a presentation of a philosophy of gangsta rap, a claim on its meaning and significance. That philosophy can be summed up in a word that surfaces a number of times in the film: reality. Or to put a finer point on it, from the sample from Boogie Down Production’s “My Philosophy” used in N.W.A.’s first single, “Gangsta, Gangsta”: “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality.”

This is to say that N.W.A.’s violent lyrics simply express the reality of their situation, and specifically, the film goes to great lengths to show, their repeated harassment by the police. This is not at all exaggerated. LAPD’s anti-gang program Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums or CRASH (LAPD chief Daryl Gates was seemingly fond of such acronyms, having also coined “SWAT” and “DARE”) created a “gang database” by shaking down every black and brown kid in the city.

Straight Outta Compton gives us the origin myth of “Fuck the Police” after the group is hassled outside of their recording studio by a black cop who, after humiliating them, declares rap isn’t art. The conflation of antagonists to young black men and to hip hop is almost too neat.

But the police war on hip hop was real too. In the film’s most electrifying scene, the kids ignore warnings from the FBI and the Detroit police, and perform “Fuck the Police” before being shut down, precipitating a near-riot. This isn’t uncommon. The comparatively tame Run-DMC faced numerous hassles and cancellations on their tour just a couple years earlier; more recently police crackdowns on live shows have put tremendous strains on D.C.’s go-go scene. Any sizeable congregation of black people is considered a potential threat.

We first hear “reality” used by Alonzo Williams, head of the World Class Wrecking Cru of which Dre and DJ Yella were a part: “No one wants to hear those reality raps,” he spits disdainfully when Dre and Yella put Ice Cube on the mic at Alonzo’s club. Of course, we the audience know better — the audience for these “reality raps” was larger than that of Williams’ post-Parliament electro-boogie.

But who exactly was this audience? What made for N.W.A.’s meteoric rise? Straight Outta Compton doesn’t really ponder this. With all the scenes spent on studio time, we might as well conclude that N.W.A.’s achievements come down to individual talents, a remarkable group chemistry, and an aesthetic conviction.

As Eazy puts it in his final kiss-off to Heller: “We made it because our shit is dope.” N.W.A.’s success in the face of resistance from parents, the music industry, and the police recapitulates an old American myth: stick to your vision and eventually your hard work will be rewarded. The people demanded reality and N.W.A. supplied it. The market works.

If only it were so simple. That violent, macho “reality” crafted by N.W.A. — I think this is the first time I’ve heard “braggadocio” used in a film — was an appealing fantasy far beyond the confines of Compton. It became the sound of rebellion, not of the ghettos, but of the suburbs too. And some of N.W.A.’s biggest critics were members of the hip hop community shocked at the perversion of the origins of a cultural movement that arose as an alternative to gang violence, not as a vehicle of it.

It wasn’t that commercial radio that wouldn’t play the group (there was barely any hip hop on commercial radio at that time); college and community radio stations, some of the only outlets putting hip hop on the air, rejected the group’s nihilism and misogyny.

That hip hop crosses class and race divides while simultaneously claiming to represent the most marginalized of US society has been a contradiction at the genre’s core since its birth — or, more precisely, what Jeff Chang calls “hip hop’s first death,” when it was put to wax. What had been an arts and culture movement rooted in participatory practices of poor black and brown youth was commodified by Sylvia Robinson, an affluent former R&B singer, who hired some kids to recite rhymes copped from local rap stars over riffs copped from disco band Chic. “Rapper’s Delight” was both beginning and end.

Since that first “death,” hip hop been a roiling cauldron of influences from a variety of class and racial backgrounds. And, like some kind of Freudian compulsion to repeat, it continually replays the questions that arose in that original trauma of appropriation when it was thrust from the streets into stereos. Who does this represent? Who is this for?

These debates over authenticity — over “reality”— go to the core of the politics of hip hop. They were exacerbated by the gangsta rap era — hip hop’s most successful — that N.W.A. kicked off, when creative embellishment veered into stereotype, and white and middle class audiences ballooned. Changes to Soundscan’s system for counting record sales settled this: N.W.A.’s second album debuted at Number 1, confirming that gangsta rap wasn’t just good business, it was the business.

Straight Outta Compton addresses these questions in a single line. When passing by a protest where copies of the group’s album are being destroyed, Eazy-E offers some perspective. “They can do whatever they want with it,” he quips. “They bought it.”

“Reality” is, at bottom, about business; politics ends at the point of sale, and rights are those of property. This agnosticism permeates the film’s centerpiece, a hazy slow-motion ride through the 1991 Los Angeles riots. The film can’t avoid the question of N.W.A.’s place within the insurrection, but doesn’t attempt an answer.

And so ultimately Straight Outta Compton punts on politics. For all the timely emphasis on police oppression in the first half, the second half is a nostalgic jaunt through some of the greatest hits of the ‘90s. Hip hop has always excelled at treating the past as a resource to be used, rather than a memory to fondly recall, and, as we certainly seem to be living through another “Fuck the Police” moment, a better film might have operated by this logic. Instead, we hurry along a too-familiar story: hit singles, a maudlin death (there is a lot of crying in this movie), and, the apotheosis of the story and its final image: Beats Headphones.

When I saw the film opening night, the crowd cheered at the product placement. If hip hop has a tendency to polarize, this was something everyone could get behind.