I just came back from watching Straight Outta Compton.
I loved it.
I missed out on the golden era of gangsta rap growing up. My parents went out of their way to keep it out of my hands. My first exposure was 2Pac’s posthumously released single, Changes, and soon thereafter, I caught onto the everlasting rap bromance that is Dr. Dre and Eminem, all on the radio and out of sight of my parents. As I grew older, I explored the genre more and more and I quickly realized two things: rap had hit its peak and was going downhill, and I loved it at what I felt was its peak, which turned out to also be its formative period, the period covered in the film. I quickly came to admire Dr. Dre as a perfectionist in his art, a man who took pride in his craft.
Coming from me, this may surprise a lot of people. I wrote a novel with cop-hating anarcho-capitalists as the bad guys and I’ve been quite vocal in my support of law enforcement. Why, then, would I come running to the defense of a film that depicts in a positive light the group that not only “glorified” the gangsta lifestyle, but also so famously shouted, “Fuck Tha Police”?
As with many things in life, it’s not quite so black and white as one might think.
The movie gets the point across crystal clear, but for those who haven’t seen it or don’t plan on seeing it, there’s a bit of a misconception about gangsta rap. People who don’t understand it think it’s glorifying life on the streets, that it’s glorifying a criminal lifestyle. In reality, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella followed an age-old adage repeated ad nauseum by writers:
Write what you know.
These five men grew up in the impoverished streets of Compton. They were front and center for the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Eazy E was in the drug game before he moved over to the rap game. The other four were all exposed to the drug game and the gang scene in one way or another.
This was their life as they knew it. At the end of the day, they wrote what they knew. They told a story. Their story. That’s why gangsta rap gained widespread appeal. For those who lived that reality, they found a group with whom they could relate, people who would finally go forth and tell their story to the world. For those living in Suburban America, where a considerable amount of rap records are sold, it’s a look into an American subculture different from theirs. It’s raw. It’s gritty. It’s uncut. It’s revealing a reality that others would prefer to ignore and pretend is not there.
I think that pretending that reality was not there is part of why race relations have taken a turn for the worse. I believe after Dr. King won his battle for civil rights, people thought that was the end and all was okay. There was not really a true conversation about the history and the lasting effects of Jim Crow. Worse, there were little to no corrective actions taken. Repealing Jim Crow was the largest step, but close behind should have been bringing inner city schools hit hardest by Jim Crow into the rest of the United States. That step never really got off the ground, which added fuel to the powder keg. Poor education leads to poverty, and poverty leads to crime. Crime and poverty are what set the stage for NWA to engage in music and rise to fame.
Where I disagree with many members of the black community is that this is not “the white man’s” fault. This is the United States’s fault as a society. We, the people, should have pushed harder for that sort of reform, found eloquent ways akin to Dr. King to articulate the necessity of such reform. Sadly, the sort of eloquence Dr. King embodied is rare. I certainly do not have it. Few do. Collectively, had we pushed in that direction, strived for that standard, we might have made progress on that front.
Now, for the big elephant in the room: Fuck Tha Police. How can a pro-law enforcement guy be down with a song that is vehemently anti-law enforcement? Conversely, how can a guy who is pro-LE understand their sentiment?
Simple: I deal in stories and I am a student of history.
In many police departments (not all, but many), the Jim Crow attitude carried on well past 1968, particularly when the War on Drugs hit hard in the form of the crack epidemic. Particularly in Daryl Gates’s LAPD, anybody who remotely looked like a banger was scuffed up. That was part of the command culture that Gates fostered. To fully understand this, though, you have to study even before Gates’s time.
When William H. Parker took over the LAPD in 1950, it was notoriously corrupt. He had served with LAPD for fifteen years prior to the outbreak of World War II, and had taken leave of the police department to serve overseas with the United States Army. When Parker took over and was tasked with reducing corruption, he did what many veterans in his shoes would do: harken back to his military days. LAPD was transformed into a more paramilitary organization, akin to the Army peacekeeping operations he had seen during his deployment, and given strict professional standards for his officers to abide by.
Daryl Gates, a Navy veteran who saw action in World War II’s Pacific Theater, started his career as a chauffeur to Chief Parker. His command style is often seen as the same mold as Parker’s. In 1978, Parker took over as the Chief of Police, a position he held until after the Rodney King riots. He is often credited as the man behind the creation of SWAT teams, another testament to his paramilitary style of policing.
Shortly after Gates became the chief, the crack epidemic hit in full swing, and the Crips and Bloods hit their stride as they rose to prominence. On the outside looking in, Gates saw two factions warring, and he did what he thought was right: he cracked down a la a Vietnam-style search and destroy mission. But, much like the Vietnam-era conventional military, the LAPD did not realize the second- and third-order consequences of such an approach. By assuming all minorities they encountered in the ghetto were the enemy, they alienated many who were not party to the actual crimes.
The song Fuck Tha Police is an extension of that alienation. I don’t agree with the sentiment, but I can certainly understand where they are coming from with it. I do enjoy hearing their story, even the unpleasant parts. It’s the only way to learn where they are coming from.
A student of recent history will notice that in the wake of the Rodney King riots, many police departments began a shift towards community policing. LAPD CRASH was the last of the old-school approach in Los Angeles, and after the Rampart Scandal, that was gutted, as well.
That’s not to say cops are perfect, by any means. They’re human. You’re going to have your bad apples, much like with any other group. But, police at large and LAPD in general are leaps and bounds ahead of the attitude and operational approach that drove NWA to pen Fuck Tha Police. In effect, they learned a lesson that took the Department of Defense decades after Vietnam to learn: counterinsurgency must be one part fostering trust and goodwill with non-affiliates in the area of operations, and one part surgical force limited only to those affiliated with the bad guys. That is, in effect, community policing: knowing the neighborhood, relating to the community, and rooting the bad guys out of it.
To that end, how can I answer your question with brevity? I can listen to NWA, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and gangsta rap in general in an attempt to understand the culture. It’s no different from the cultural training I received prior to deploying to Iraq to better understand the Iraqi culture. Gangs are no different: they blend into civilian populaces and are protected by community animosity towards law enforcement, intimidation against those who would speak out, or both. If a peace officer tries with earnest to understand the community in which he or she works, they will see results. If they turn it into an us-versus-them mentality with anybody without a badge being the “them,” they will run into many of the problems the Gates-era LAPD encountered and the vicious cycle will continue.
It’s been a long time since a movie has made me really think this much. For that alone, I love Straight Outta Compton. That it’s a great story and a piece of modern American history that everybody should acknowledge makes it even better.
P.S.: To the parents who brought their four year old child to watch Straight Outta Compton, you guys sure are serious about the running for Parent of the Year. Really? What were you thinking?
P.P.S.: Shut your damn child up. It’s a movie theater, not a play pen.
Cover image courtesy of Forbes.