For most hip-hop enthusiasts, the year 1988 signaled an paradigm shift in the culture. At its birth, hip-hop as a culture was far different from what it has evolved into today. Hip-hop’s roots were in New York, and it started as a movement to provide a creative release for young artists who were struggling to fight past the bonds of poverty in the inner city. Through the culture of hip-hop and each of its disciplines of emceeing, deejaying, breaking and tagging allowed young poets, musicians, choreographers and painters to find creative, non-violent expression. Instead of forming gangs and fighting one another, hip-hop provided a way for those in the inner-city to show pride in their various blocks and to “battle” one another with their talents, and not with their fists or worst.
However, hip-hop as a culture had begun to spread outside of New York, thanks to the rise In popularity of the music video. All over America, young men and women saw the music of hip-hop and began to emulate it. Not only did they begin to emcee, but they also began to add their own unique experiences and cultural tastes to it. This led to the creation of rap, and it’s many different genres. The evolution of rap can be seen even today, from the southern “club” rap of Houston, Memphis and Miami, to the “soul” rap from Chicago and Philly. However, there was one genre of rap that completely engulfed the artform, one that threatened to choke it out as an artistic expression completely. The genre was “gangsta rap”, and its origins were from a group that came “Straight Outta Compton” called NWA.
Gangsta rap was powerful for one reason and one reason only: there was nothing else like it. It was crass, rude, misogynistic, but most importantly, it shone a light on an impoverished system which was warping and tormenting those forced to live under it. In Compton, and other major metropolitan cities like it, the poor were herded into specific areas of town. This effectively ensured that the level of education in those areas was low. In each of these areas, the crime rate was high, and many of the youth who grew up in these areas, unlike the youth in New York, didn’t have the hip-hop culture to turn to. The result was gang warfare which, in the eighties became even more inflamed by an increased distribution of drugs throughout the community.
In 1988, NWA with their debut album Straight Outta Compton cast a light on the bleak situation they and others like them faced daily. The resulting popularity of the album was a shift in the way that rappers in each subgenre of rap presented their stories, poetry, songs, and themselves for the next twenty-six years. Many today feel that NWA paved the way for rappers such as Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, T.I., and Rick Ross, each of whom have glorified their own past criminal lifestyles of guns, drugs, and misogyny in their raps. With song titles such as Who Shot Ya?, Ten Bricks, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Rubberband Man and lyrics that not only glorify the sale of illegal drugs, but clearly presents it as being a means to a very lucrative end, it’s clear that N.W.A. created a fantasy theme that still exists in the world of hip-hop today.
However despite N.W.A. and hip-hop’s many critics, no one has clearly defined the fantasy theme that was created by N.W.A., though many would quickly agree that it exists. With this critical deficiency in mind, I’ve decide to perform a fantasy-theme analysis, not on the overall genre of hip-hop, but on the titular song from the Straight Outta Compton album. Why this one song? As many hip-hop enthusiasts would agree, the Straight Outta Compton single, while not the first gangsta rap song, did still signal the beginning of the “gangsta rap” era. As already previously discussed, this era and genre of rap is characterized by references to criminal activities. To this fact, Straight Outta Compton is no exception to the rule. However further analysis of Straight Outta Compton might reveal that the fantasy theme it created is deeper than just the standard glorification of crime.
A fantasy theme criticism is a rhetorical criticism technique based upon symbolic convergence theory, which states that symbols create reality, and that individual meanings for symbols can converge to create a shared reality. The “fantasy” in this case is that created reality, which can then be shared among a group.
Straight Outta Compton is a composite of three rhetors, though it is solely by two people. Ice Cube, the first rhetor, wrote his and Easy E’s verses, and MC Ren wrote his own verse. This is worth noting, since there are similarities in the characters, actions, and settings between the two verses penned by Ice Cube. However, there are three major themes that appear in all three verses of Straight Outta Compton. The first is that of power and dominance. The second major theme is cunning, or guile. The final major theme is an almost nihilistic lack of concern for anything or anyone.
The main characters that can be identified are the three rhetors, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Easy E; a group of faceless people who are portrayed as antagonists of each of the rhetors; the police, which interestingly enough is constructed as separate from the rhetor’s antagonists and the listener, which alternates between partial observer and faceless antagonist. The faceless antagonists are framed in multiple different ways, many of them vulgar and obscene, but the recurring similarity between them is their lack of intelligence and power, or strength. In several instances, the antagonists are called “dumb”, and in another instance, they’re described as being “pussy ass niggas” or weak. In each case, the ending for each of this antagonists is the same, they are bested, and lose, either money or even their lives. Just this framing alone helps to construct the three aforementioned major themes. The scene rarely changes, as stated by each of the rhetors, the scene is the city of Compton, more specifically the “streets” of Compton, as stated by MC Ren.
The opening states that the listener is about to “witness the strength of street knowledge”. This theme is carried throughout the opening verse. Ice Cube, the first rhetor, speaks almost exclusively mainly about his own strength as a form of power. In fact he makes several references to his prowess as a fighter. He “has a sawed off, and bodies are hauled off” and if antagonists ”start to mumble, they want to rumble, (he’ll) mix em and cook in a pot like gumbo”. Throughout the verse, Ice Cube glorifies, not violence and crime, but his own power and cunning. It’s constructed as being such that only the police can stop him (“the police are going to have to come and get me, off your ass, that’s how I’m going out.”) The theme of power is continued throughout the song. In his verse, MC Ren makes references to himself as being “ not the right hand, but the hand itself” as well as his “control(ling) the automatic, for any dumb motherfucker who starts static.” The theme of power and dominance surfaces again when he says, “ Easy E continues this theme of power when he says “when I see a…cop, I don’t dodge him” and again when he says “If I ever get caught, I make bail.” In each of these instances and in more like it, the theme of power and dominance over antagonists is constructed.
Ice Cube not only brags about his strength, but also his cunning, when he says “give it up smooth, ain’t no telling when I’m down for a jack move”. This theme of cunning is reinforced by the following two rhetors, both who speak separately about their ability to commit murder without getting caught. MC Ren refers to himself as a “villain” and paints a scene where the listener is “the witness of a killing, that’s taking place without a clue.” Another interesting word choice is when MC Ren says, “once you’re on the scope your ass is through”. This implies that he’s killing his enemies from a distance while he himself if either hidden from their view, or they are unable to reach him. In another instance occurs when Easy E says he’s “smart”, and tells a story of a cop looking for him when he says “I’m smart lay low, creep a while, and when I see a punk pass, I smile, to me it’s kinda funny, the attitude showing a nigga driving, but don’t know where the fuck he going, just rolling”. Again, the theme of cunning and guile shows, such that for Easy E, the cops looking for him, which should be threatening makes him smile. This again feeds into the theme of cunning, and the fantasy that antagonists, victims, and even the cops are no match for the rhetors. The theme of striking enemies from a hidden or safe position resurfaces here: “Never seen like a shadow in the dark except when I unload, see I'll get over the hesitation and hear the scream of the one who got the lead penetration. Give a little gust of wind and I'm jetting, but leave a memory no one'll be forgetting”. This idea of being safe from antagonists or adversaries again is a construction of the theme of cunning. In both cases, the characters who are given the role of adversaries are not even capable of launching an offensive, thereby rendering themselves victims because of their lesser intelligence.
The third theme, the one of nihilism, or a complete disregard on the part of the rhetors for other human beings as well as their own well-being is constructed in several ways. First the word choice throughout the song. There is an extensive amount of disparaging language used to describe all of the characters. As mentioned before, the faceless antagonists are described with terms such as pussy ass niggas, dumb, motherfucker, and bitch. It should be noted that the police are never described as any of these things, though they are called punks by Easy E. This is a relatively important detail since the rhetors refer to themselves in the same manner as they do the faceless antagonists. Ice Cube says that he’s a “crazy motherfucker” from “a gang called Niggas With Attitudes” while MC Ren calls himself a “bad motherfucker” and Easy E says he’s a “dangerous motherfucker raising hell”. Each of the rhetors paints himself in this light as a character. It’s also of interest to note that two of the rhetors use the phrase, “I don’t give a fuck”, portraying themselves as nihilistic characters. This theme of nihilism suggests that even though the character of the rhetor is smarter and stronger than his antagonists, he’s ultimately no different. Whether this speaks to how the rhetors as people feel that the rest of society views them or is just a result of identifying with antagonists due to geographic similarities, i.e. the antagonists and the rhetors are both from Compton can’t really be ascertained. Further proof of nihilism are the lyrics, “So what about the girl who got shot? Fuck her, you think I give a damn about a girl? I ain’t a sucker.” While many would argue this is more misogynist than nihilist, the argument could be made that throughout the rest of the song, the same disregard for the other characters described can be seen throughout the song, from the disregard for other men, the law, the police, and the welfare of the rhetors themselves. This theme is in line with the statements made by the artists that their lyrics are a reflection of life in Southern California, and not just a glorification of violence. The artists may have realized that, as Social Attribution theory states, that society as a whole didn’t see their individual talents and abilities due to attribution error. The argument could be made that his led to the artists becoming nihilist in their views and the expressions of that view.
As previously stated, Straight Outta Compton wasn’t the first gangsta rap song, but it did establish a fantasy theme that came to be repeated throughout the genre of rap, namely the fantasy of power, dominance and cunning being shown on the part of the artists. At any rate, when comparing the established fantasy theme of Straight Outta Compton to those who followed it, I would argue that one find the same themes of power, dominance and cunning. However, the nihilist theme that permeates Straight Outta Compton doesn’t appear in much of the gangsta rap that followed. That nihilist theme separates the work of N.W.A. from those that followed it.