monday musing: black history month, nwa


It sounds like it might be a baritone sax. One note repeated over and over underneath the song. Low and nasty. The beat is driving and has a funky edge, set off by the little guitar riff looped over the top. The whole sound is there from the first note. No build. No games. Within the first second you’re hearing the lyrics, which come hard and relentless…

Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off

It is hard to explain the way that song makes you feel when you first hear it: Los Angeles, 1988, coming out of the giant speakers of a low-slung Oldsmobile rolling down Pico Boulevard just after sunset. Bad Ass. Rock and Roll died that day. Whatever its other virtues, Rock and Roll was driven and sustained by one thing… badassness. But that summer in LA in the late 80s was the final straw. Bad Ass moved to Compton.

The first two songs from the album Straight Outta Compton hit the NWA formula perfectly. The sound and the mix were put together by Dr. Dre. It was mean and gritty but it always managed to stay light. Hip-hop wasn’t plodding anymore, it was leaping around like Bizet, plus a growl. Then you get the lyrical triumvirate: Ice Cube, Ren, Eazy-E. Ice Cube always had the strongest voice and the solid rhymes. You start with Ice Cube. Then Ren comes in and picks up where Ice Cube left off with a slight twist, different emphasis, stranger thoughts. And then, just when it seems that you know what to expect, comes Eazy-E. Eazy-E has a crazy high-pitched voice. It comes out of nowhere. It’s evil and funny at the same time. Plus nobody in NWA was a Bad Ass quite like Eazy-E. His first lines from Straight Outta Compton are legendary…

straight outta Compton
is a brotha that’ll smother yo’ mother
and make ya sister think I love her
Dangerous motherfucker raises hell

He’s like a maniac from some ghetto nightmare. Unbelievable. Brilliant. He is going to kill your mother and he’s going to treat your sister badly. Bad Ass. Same thing on Fuck Tha Police, the second song off the album. You get excited by Ice Cube and Ren but you’re secretly waiting for Eazy-E. And then, after a slight pause, the Eazy-E madness kicks in.

I’m tired of the muthafuckin jackin
Sweatin my gang while I’m chillin in the shackin
Shining tha light in my face, and for what
Maybe it’s because I kick so much butt

I kick ass, or maybe cuz I blast
On a stupid assed nigga when I’m playin with the trigga
Of an Uzi or an AK
Cuz the police always got somethin stupid to say

He is in extra Eazy-E whine mode for these lines and really works himself into a stunning sing-songy rhythm for the lines “cuz I blast / on a stupid assed nigga when I’m playin with the trigga.” Nobody ever had more fun than Eazy-E being an inexcusably awful person. That’s the nature of a Bad Ass. Done right, there are no excuses. There can’t be. It isn’t a moral position. It isn’t something that can be argued about, for, and against. That was what was so silly about all the debates around gangster rap. The defenses missed the point every bit as much as the denouncements did.

NWA was not great because the music “directed our attention to the real conditions in the inner city” or any such twaddle. And every attempt to attack NWA for glorifying crime and violence simply added another six figures in the “albums sold” category. You can’t beat Bad Ass with logic or politics or ethics. Bad Ass is an aesthetic category. It’s inimical to discourse. Bad Asses don’t explain themselves because there is nothing to explain.

That begs the question, I guess, as to why we ever cared about Bad Asses in the first place. Why are we thrilled and excited by them, if even despite ourselves. The answer is not a definitive one, I suspect, and the matter can’t be looked at dispassionately. Maybe you’re sitting on a stoop somewhere, any half-assed bungalow in the southland on a dry night with the Santa Ana winds blowing just so. You’re young and the world seems new enough still that something different might just happen. But probably it won’t. There’s the dull ache of empty desire and the vague scent of a wild fire burning itself out in one of the canyons. And then you hear the sound again, from a boom box or a car radio. The bounce of that sound, the drive in it, the thump and the relentless lyrics. Bad Ass.

NWA is satisfying in the same way as a James M. Cain novel or maybe Byron’s Don Juan. It isn’t pretty and isn’t meant to be. It’s something else. But anybody who isn’t drawn to the Bad Ass in some way is missing an essential human bone. You can’t listen to those NWA songs without feeling a moment of thrill, when the beat comes, when the lyrics blast out, whenever. It is Bad Ass pure and simple, stamped and sealed and impossible to ignore. We want the Bad Ass to blast the world apart, if only for a moment, or to deny it just for the sake of denying it. We don’t want to take up the task of being the Bad Ass ourselves, but we want somebody to be it, we want some Bad Ass out there to say fuck it all, every single bit of it.