With the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton currently riding high in the box office we look back at a time when hip-hop was maybe the last truly anti-establishment music in America and three seminal and revolutionary acts, N.W.A., Public Enemy, and KRS-One.
Since it’s birth as a cultural movement in the late 1960’s and 1970’s hip-hop has come a long way. Some might say it has come too long away from it’s roots, and no longer resembles the cool streetwise movement it once was and has instead become irrevocably linked with rap music, it’s watered down commercial counterpart which embraces a wholly unedifying ideology based on materialism, misogyny, violence, and narcissism.
In fact, hip-hop in it’s original form was posessed of four distinct but complimentary disciplines: rapping or mc’ing, turntablism or dj’ing, break-dancing, and graffiti, which between them embodied the oral, the musical, the physical, and the visual creating a complete and self-contained artistic ideology. Hip-hop was a street movement, quite literally, and in it’s South Bronx birthplace crews would gather to practice all four elements in basketball courts and parks and disused buildings. This was urban music in the truest sense.
As the movement spread across America in the late 70’s and through the 80’s it would be two elements – rapping and dj’ing – that would become prominent as hip-hop music grew past being the novelty it was initially recieved as and instead became a potent form of expression for African-American youth and by the late 80’s it had matured to the point where it began to move beyond b-boy braggadacio and instead picked up on a strand of protest consciousness in black American music that had been embodied by the likes of Gil Scott Heron, Curtis Mayfield, and The Last Poets some 15 or so years earlier. What follows are three artists and records who came out of a time when hip-hop was agitating and politicising whilst further making inroads in to mainstream American life, and enjoying it’s first sustained burst of innovative creativity and commercial success combined.
N.W.A. – Fuck The Police
Although they are often credited as being the progenitors of gangsta rap, in actual fact they represented something deeper and more biting than the lazy ‘guns and bitches’ cartoonery that came after them. When they burst on to the scene in 1988 they placed protest music like a ticking bomb in to the center of American life. ‘Fuck The Police’ isn’t merely a middle-finger to law enforcement, it’s the sound of angry, disaffected working class black youth fed up with racial profiling and cop violence. I use the term protest music because for all of it’s violent and occasionally crude fantasising this is a wilfully rude and forceful protestation of a reality that young black people from cities like Compton faced every day. Not for nothing did the band themselves call what they did “reality music”. As far as they were concerned it didn’t get any more real than this. As startling now as it was then, ‘Fuck The Police’ was an incendiary statement to make and attracted attention from no less than the FBI who contacted the record company to express deep concerns of the portrayals of violence in the lyrics, fearing they would inspire a wave of cop-killings. Instead, the track, and the band inspired a whole generation of hip-hop acts who were awoken to just how powerful music could be.
Public Enemy – Fight The Power.
Whereas N.W.A. came across like a street gang, Public Enemy, led by the fierce, intelligent political lyricism of rapper Chuck D, were something much more militant. Indeed, they were accompanied onstage by dancers dressed as soldiers who were collectively known as the Security Of The First World and the whole image of Public Enemy was akin to an organisation like the Black Panthers or the Nation Of Islam, organisations that would be namechecked in their lyrics. Chuck D called them “the black CNN” and likened what they did to reportage, and the anti-establishment message they espoused was never more perfectly realised than in this song, which was also taken from and heavily featured in Spike Lee’s successful film about racial tensions in New York ‘Do The Right Thing’. In 1989 there wasn’t a more potent or thought-provoking musical act in the world, and their influence on not just hip-hop but music more generally was profound. At a time when rock music had become a tinny, watered down version of itself played pretty boys in make-up and spandex, Public Enemy were making heavy music, both in terms of sound and intent, and when Chuck D raps “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me, straight up racist the sucka was simple and plain, motherfuck him and John Wayne” he deftly attacks the cultural plundering of black music by white artists and a predominantly white entertainment industry in one searing outburst.
KRS-One – Sound Of Da Police
If there was any one rapper who took politicising and activism to an even greater level than Public Enemy it’s KRS-One. A fiercely intelligent and articulate individual, founded in 1989 the Stop The Violence Movement to try an counter the increase in gun crime that was blighting black communities in America. ‘Sound Of Da Police’ taken from his 1993 album Return Of The Boombap has become a genuine hip-hop classic and continues neatly the strands of thought laid down in the previous tracks. The most powerful verse is the second one in which he compares police officers to plantation overseers in the age of slavery, suggesting that not that much has changed:
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patroling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest!
At a time in America when a series of high profile cop-on-black shootings have highlighted the persistence of racial tensions and inequelities that persist in modern American society this record seems as relevant now as it was then, maybe more so.
As hip-hop became more and more mainstream acts like the above began to be sidelined by the music industry in favour of those who dealt in the gangsterisms and self-obsessiveness I highlighted at the beginning of the article. Inevitably this meant the music lost it’s teeth as it was commodified and turned in to yet another product to be sold that spoke very loudly but had little to actually say. In 2015 the biggest rapper in the world is a multi-millionaire megalomaniac with a reality-tv star wife. Unfortunately he embodies just how far the last truly important form of music to come out of the USA has drifted from it’s roots. With the N.W.A. biopic currently reminding everone of a different time in the genre’s history we can only hope the next generation of hip-hop artists are inspired by it to use this most oral of musics to start expressing themselves more intelligently.