Biopic 'Straight Outta Compton' Tells The Epic Story Of Hip-Hop And N.W.A

Aug 14, 2015
Originally published on August 18, 2015 12:59 pm

In the late 1980s, Los Angeles hip-hop group N.W.A created a sensation and controversy with their music, which was labeled gangsta rap. Like the group's story, the making of their much-anticipated biopic, Straight Outta Compton, is filled with drama.

From the jump, the movie is a raw look at the rise of N.W.A — five tough, talented boyz-n-the-hood who became provocative hip-hop icons. It's the story of producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, rappers MC Ren, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, whose character in the film explains to their manager what N.W.A stands for: "Niggaz Wit Attitudes."

The movie depicts how their attitudes were shaped in the badlands of Compton, a city in south-central Los Angeles County with a reputation for drugs, crime and street gangs and a shocking murder rate. After years of getting racially profiled and harassed by the police, N.W.A obscenely defied the cops on vinyl and onstage.

Music Intended To Provoke

One scene re-enacts a 1989 concert in Detroit as the band performs their song "F*** tha Police." The scene shows the cops descending onto the stage, inciting the audience to protest. The song had earlier prompted the FBI to write an angry letter to N.W.A's label, Ruthless Records, which in turn used it to generate publicity.

"This kind of counter-cop resistance music existed before N.W.A, but N.W.A gave it its name," says Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. The former writer for The Source magazine says N.W.A's diatribes against police brutality put West Coast rap on the map. And Charnas says their songs are still relevant today.

Ice Cube, born O'Shea Jackson, was just 16 when he joined N.W.A to write what he called reality raps. "We always saw ourselves as street reporters," he told NPR, noting that "F** tha Police" continues to be used during protests against the police, from Los Angeles to Ferguson, Mo.

"This song was bigger than N.W.A at that point — it was an anthem," Ice Cube says. "We just wasn't five guys crying wolf or complaining about our little incidents with the officers, but that it was an epidemic and it was everywhere."

The movie includes vulnerable moments of brotherhood and friendship, and a moment during the 1992 LA riots depicting the truce between the Bloods and the Crips gangs. The film also includes the group's musical beefs, their business dealings with manager Jerry Heller and menacing incidents involving former bodyguard Suge Knight, who co-founded Death Row Records with Dr. Dre.

Long Road To Making The Film

Ice Cube, who is also one of the movie's producers, says getting Straight Outta Compton made was rough. "It was hard to get the financing that we needed, to license all the music we needed, to also get a studio behind the movie that wouldn't treat it like a typical hip-hop biopic," he says. "Then you had calls and threats from Jerry Heller to Suge Knight, so it just was a mountain."

Now a Hollywood actor and screenwriter, Cube says he also had to convince Dr. Dre to drop his skepticism. "He was like, 'Don't touch our history, don't mess with our legacy, don't mess it up,'" Ice Cube recalls. "And I'm like, 'We're not messing it up, we're gonna enhance it.' I just told him that we're not gonna be wack."

Dr. Dre eventually joined Ice Cube to produce the movie. But the whole venture took more than 11 years, says executive producer Bill Straus, who began his career as a production assistant on Ice Cube's movie Boyz n the Hood. Straus says the key was getting Eazy-E's widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, to release the rights to N.W.A's music.

"She had a reputation of being guarded," says Straus. "I think a lot of people had come at her, right after Eazy died — she'd inherited a lot of money. And I think that experience, like, sort of frayed her a little bit."

Straus says one of the writers invited her to meet. "The first hour, she seemed sort of guarded, but after a while it just became this love-in. And she told us so many stories about Eric. She took her shoes off; by the end of the meeting she was crying."

Controversy Before Filming

Woods-Wright also signed on as co-producer on the film. The movie, like N.W.A's music before it, has already been criticized for its misogyny. Casting calls offended many when they asked for "the hottest of the hottest" girls with "great bodies;" "light-skinned" girls with "small waists [and] nice hips," as well as "medium to dark skin tone" African-American girls who are "poor" and "not in good shape."

The filmmakers don't apologize for the anti-female lyrics and dismiss their early antics as boys will be boys. But all these decades later, Dr. Dre's new album, Compton, inspired in part by the movie, includes the song "Loose Cannons" in which the rapper kills a woman and buries her body.

That song is not in the movie, but Straus says the first drafts of the script did include a scene in which Dr. Dre brutally attacks TV host Dee Barnes during a record release party. That alleged incident in 1991, for which Barnes filed a $22 million lawsuit, didn't make it into the final cut.

Dan Charnas says that's no surprise. "I think this movie is kind of a hagiography, because N.W.A did do some significant things in our culture. But I don't expect Dr. Dre to be honest or introspective about the Dee Barnes thing. Because he's never been honest or introspective about the Dee Barnes thing."

Dr. Dre declined to be interviewed by NPR.

There are other incidents alleged to have happened in real life that didn't make it into the film. Director F. Gary Gray told NPR, "The original version of this movie was three hours and 30 minutes long, and the original script was almost close to 150 pages. And you just have to make a lot of decisions when you're in a process like this, 'cause you can't release the Gone with the Wind. They call it the Lord of the Rings version. It was so long. And we just had to really pick and choose, and I think we picked the right things to tell the story."

Keeping It Real

Gray says he wanted the movie to be authentic. He put his actors, including Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., through a hip-hop boot camp, teaching them to walk, talk and rap like they did in LA in the 1980s and '90s.

"Instead of hunching down and getting low like these guys perform nowadays," said Gray, "standing up straight with chin out with bravado was part of it, with their chest out."

Gray says he insisted on filming on location in Compton and South Central LA, though he shot scenes of the LA riots in the San Fernando Valley. He says audiences might be surprised the movie is more than just a long rap video.

"Some people say, 'Hey, it's something kind of Shakespearean about this movie,' " Gray said. "You have brotherhood and betrayal, you have tragedy and triumph, the rags-to-riches element. Think about it: Dr. Dre starts in a garage spinning on two turntables. Then he becomes a billionaire? That's crazy."

Of course, not everyone from N.W.A's heyday is a billionaire or a movie star. Suge Knight is in jail awaiting a murder trial after allegedly running down two people during the shoot for a commercial for the movie. Still, N.W.A's music resonates across the country as protests against police brutality take place.

When the pioneering album Straight Outta Compton came out in 1988, it went double platinum. Now, Universal Pictures hopes N.W.A's story is a hit on the big screen.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn back the clock to the 1980s and Los Angeles. A hip-hop group with a provocative name abbreviated as N.W.A was creating a sensation and a lot of controversy. Their music was labeled gangsta rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

DR. DRE: You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.

GREENE: N.W.A's much-anticipated biopic "Straight Outta Compton" opens today. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, both the group's story and the making of the movie were filled with drama. And be aware, the n-word appears in this story as part of the hip-hop group's name.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "Straight Outta Compton" is a raw look at the rise of N.W.A - five tough, talented boyz-in-the-hood who became hip-hop icons. Dr. Dre. and DJ Yella, MC Ren, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, whose character in the film explains what N.W.A stands for.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

JASON MITCHELL: (As Eazy-E) Niggaz With Attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Straight outta Compton...

DEL BARCO: The movie shows how their attitudes were shaped by the badlands of Compton, with its reputation for drugs, gangs and a high murder rate. Tired of being racially profiled and harassed by the police, N.W.A's music shot back with obscene defiance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

O'SHEA JACKSON JR.: (As Ice Cube) Yo, Dre.

COREY HAWKINS: (As Dr. Dre) What up?

JACKSON JR.: (As Ice Cube) I've got something to say.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) (Rapping) [Expletive] the police, coming straight from the underground...

DEL BARCO: This scene depicts their 1989 performance in Detroit, with local cops storming the stage and rounding up the musicians. "F*** Tha Police" was one of their most inflammatory songs, prompting the ire of the FBI, politicians and many others.

DAN CHARNAS: This kind of counter-cop resistance music existed before N.W.A, but N.W.A gave it its name.

DEL BARCO: Dan Charnas is author of "The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop." He was also a writer for The Source magazine. He says N.W.A 's diatribes against police brutality remain relevant. O'Shea Jackson, who goes by the name Ice Cube, was just 16 when he joined N.W.A to write what he called reality raps.

ICE CUBE: We always saw ourselves as street reporters.

DEL BARCO: Ice Cube says that hit song continues to be used during protests against the police from LA to Ferguson, Mo.

ICE CUBE: This song was bigger than N.W.A at that point. It was an - it was an anthem. We just wasn't five guys crying wolf or complaining about our little incidents with the officers, but that it was an epidemic and it was everywhere.

DEL BARCO: The movie features vulnerable scenes of brotherhood, and a poignant moment during the 1992 LA riots when the Bloods and Crips called a truce. The film shows N.W.A's musical beefs, their business dealings with manager Jerry Heller and menacing incidents involving former bodyguard Suge Knight, who co-founded Death Row Records with Dr. Dre. Ice Cube is now a Hollywood actor and screenwriter. He's also one of the movie's producers. He says getting "Straight Outta Compton" made was rough.

ICE CUBE: It was hard to get the financing that we needed, to license all of the music we needed, to also get a studio behind the movie that wouldn't treat it like a typical hip-hop biopic. Then, you know, you had - we had calls and threats from Jerry Heller to Suge Knight, so it just was a mountain.

DEL BARCO: Ice Cube says he also had to convince Dr. Dre to drop his skepticism.

ICE CUBE: He was like don't touch our history. Don't - don't mess with our legacy. Don't mess it up. And I'm like we're not messing it up. We're going to enhance it. I just told him that, you know, we're not going to be whack.

DEL BARCO: Dr. Dre eventually joined Ice Cube to produce the movie. But the whole venture took more than 11 years, says executive producer Bill Straus, who began his career as a production assistant on Ice Cube's movie "Boyz N The Hood." After Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995, his widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, held the rights to N.W.A's music. Those rights had to be secured in order to make the movie, says Straus.

BILL STRAUS: I think a lot of people had come at her right after Eazy died. She'd inherited a lot of money. And I think that experience sort of frayed her a little bit. You know, the first hour, she seemed sort of guarded. But, you know, after a while, it just became this, like, love-in. And she told us so many stories about Eric. She took her shoes off. By the end of the meeting she was crying.

DEL BARCO: Tomica Woods-Wright signed on as a co-producer on the film. The movie, like N.W.A's music, is already being criticized for its misogyny. Casting calls offended many when they asked for quote "the hottest of the hot girls" with "great bodies;" "light-skinned girls" with "small waists and nice hips," as well as "medium to dark skin tone" African-American girls who are "poor" and "not in good shape." Decades after N.W.A's anti-female lyrics, Dr. Dre's new album, released last week, includes this song, in which a rapper kills a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOSE CANNONS")

SLY PYPER: (Rapping) Somebody better [expletive] stop me because I'm a loose cannon. I can't stand myself. I'm bad for my own health.

DEL BARCO: The song, supposedly inspired by the movie, is not in "Straight Outta Compton." But executive producer Straus says the first drafts of the script did include an infamous scene in which Dr. Dre brutally attacks TV host Dee Barnes during a record release party. That incident in 1991, for which Barnes filed a $22 million lawsuit, didn't make it into the final cut. Writer Dan Charnas says that's no surprise.

CHARNAS: I don't expect Dr. Dre to be honest or introspective about the Dee Barnes thing because he's never been honest or introspective about the Dee Barnes thing.

DEL BARCO: Dr. Dre declined to be interviewed by NPR. Director F. Gary Gray says the movie left out a lot of important moments in N.W.A 's story.

F. GARY GRAY: The original version of this movie was three hours and 30 minutes long. And the original script was almost close to 150 pages. And you just have to make a lot of decisions when you're in a process like this because you can't release the "Gone With The Wind" - they call it the "Lord Of The Rings" version. It was so long. And we just had to really pick and choose. And I think we picked the right things to tell the story.

DEL BARCO: Gray says audiences might be surprised the movie is more than just a long rap video.

GRAY: Some people say hey, it's something kind of Shakespearean about this movie. You have brotherhood and betrayal, you have tragedy and triumph, the rags-to-riches element of - I mean, think about it, Dr. Dre starts in a garage spinning on two turntables. Then he becomes a billionaire? That's crazy.

DEL BARCO: Not everyone from N.W.A's heyday is a billionaire or a movie star. Suge Knight is in jail, awaiting a murder trial after allegedly running down two people during the shoot for a commercial of the movie. Still, N.W.A's music resonates across the country with tense protests over police brutality. When the pioneering album "Straight Outta Compton" came out in 1988, it went double platinum. Now Universal Pictures hopes N.W.A's story is a hit on the big screen. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

EAZY-E: (Rapping) By a stupid dope brother who will smother. Word to the mother, yeah, straight outta Compton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.