One has to start from the basis that N.W.A. changed the face of hip-hop forever. If only on a personal level, the “rap game” would look very different today had they never existed. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube would never have had successful solo careers, Dre would never have discovered Eminem, and, as covered in last week’s Sauce, Eminem would never have changed the world. This alone is a reason to value them, and their contribution extends further still. N.W.A. were the act that brought gangsta rap into mainstream youth culture, to a far greater extent than anyone before, and turned it from a genre that was exclusively “for” young black men into one that could be enjoyed by disaffected youth of all persuasions.
For instance, “Fuck Tha Police”, N.W.A.’s greatest hit, was covered (admittedly only live) by Rage Against The Machine, a band who were far from “in” with the rap crowd, and whose fanbase were too. N.W.A. undoubtedly formed a key part of the 90s post-grunge, pre-nu-metal “youth movement”, preceding and perhaps fostering the spirit of rap-metal. Ice Cube featured on Korn’s album “Follow The Leader”, creating a direct link, perhaps, between N.W.A. and “that sort of music”. However, large and lucrative as this contribution may have been, in The Sauce’s humble opinion, most of “that sort of music” is talentless tripe aimed at exploiting partially genuine disaffection in teenagers, so perhaps N.W.A.’s legacy is more one of size than of quality. There is, of course, “The Eminem Factor”, but somehow even this is not enough to raise them above the level of “influential”.
It is, of course, ridiculous to write any sort of appraisal of an artist’s career without reference to their music. N.W.A.’s contribution to music may have been deeply flawed, but does their back catalogue argue back? Is there some spark of genius in their discography that saves them? Well, not enough, to be honest. Straight Outta Compton is a seminal rap album, but mainly because of the title track’s vivacity and sheer front, “Express Yourself”‘s bounce and sampling genius, and, of course, “Fuck Tha Police”, an excercise in anti-authoritarian irrationality. The track has become an anthem for angry young kids everywhere, and there is no doubt that it is a great bit of fun (“Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothin’ but the truth or so help yo’ black ass? / You goddamn right!”), but any political credibility it may have had is totally destroyed by the obvious, inherent contradiction in the song’s lyrics. What possible justification is there in complaining about police racism (“A young nigga got it bad ‘cos I’m brown”) when the rest of the song is devoted to “When I’m finished / It’s gonna be a bloodbath” and “Takin’ out a police would make my day”, which fulfil entirely the unfair stereotype of the violent, criminal young black male? N.W.A. were never going to be another Public Enemy, though, and it seems somehow unfair to expect them to be. Their principal strength comes from Dre’s magnificent production, and the posturing toughness of their music. What a shame, then, that they suffer from the same malaise as Dre does in his solo work. I am referring, of course, to the sex stuff. The raps about being “Real niggaz with big dicks!”, the mind-bogglingly, embarrassingly graphic “Just Don’t Bite It” (Don’t ask. You’re right, it’s about precisely what you would think), and all that rubbish. N.W.A. are only worth listening to as cruisin’ music, tough, violent gangsta rap; songs like “Fuck Tha Police”, “100 Miles And Runnin”, and “Alwayz Into Somethin” are brilliant to play in the car, for example. You don’t need that cool, deadly facade to be shattered by the sound of some exceedingly underpaid voice actor chowing down on Eazy-E’s apparently ample tallywhacker. You just don’t. And not only this, but you also don’t need the “comic” stylings of “A Bitch Iz A Bitch”, for example, as Ice Cube is nowhere near a good enough rapper to pull off the comedy thing. Sometimes, even songs that are supposed to be half-joking are impossible to take entirely seriously (“If it ain’t ruff, it ain’t me / He’s big, he’s black, and he’s about to attack!”) and the listener eventually stops wanting to hear about cocks and hos. You just want to skip the majority of tracks, and that’s not a sign of good music. The Sauce’s summary of N.W.A. is that “they had their moments”. At their best, they were well produced, badass gangsta rap with some really funky beats (“Express Yourself”), but at their worst they were a bunch of offensive goons with a genital fixation (“Just Don’t Bite It”).
So, are N.W.A. overrated or underrated? I think it would be deeply unfair to discount entirely their contribution entirely, as they were one of the most successful rap groups ever to have existed. On the other hand, though, their music, whilst occasionally brilliant, is mostly patchy, and in retrospect, you realise that their musical legacy, bar Dre’s personal achievements, is almost valueless. It is, as I have said, one of size over quality, and yet so many people still harp on about them being “influential”. That’s as maybe, but they really aren’t that great to listen to, so The Sauce says they’re overrated.
P-Unit’s Saucy Recommendation:
Get N.W.A.’s Greatest Hits, by all means, but only copy the five tracks below to your iPod. Then bin the CD.
1 – Express Yourself (Remix) – *****
2 – Alwayz Into Somethin’ – ****
3 – Fuck Tha Police – ****
4 – 100 Miles And Runnin’ – ****
5 – Straight Outta Compton (Extended Mix) – ***