N.W.A. Greatest Hits (Priority)
N.W.A's career might have been brief, their recorded output amounting to little more than two proper albums, but the impact of their music and attitude continues to resonate throughout popular music today, remembering that hip-hop has unquestionably established itself as the most popular of popular musics. They fused gang mentality fresh out of "A Clockwork Orange" with the kind of punk rock tactics beloved of the Sex Pistols, all propelled by an unstoppable "Funky Drummer" loop, in the process creating music that makes Public Enemy's contemporaneous work look like the product of beard-stroking sociology professors. Like the Pistols, the rank stench of blatant exploitation is never far away, Dr. Dre claiming that their debut LP "Straight Outta Compton" was thrown together in six weeks to give them something to sell out of the back of a car at Compton swap meets, and the cover boast that "Greatest Hits" 'includes previously unreleased material' is somewhat undermined by the fact that much of it appears to consist of between-song skits.
Nevertheless, this is brutal stuff: the cover proclaims them as "The world's most dangerous group", no idle boast having attracted the censure of organisations as diverse as the FBI and HM Customs And Excise, and the black and white "Usual Suspects" sleeve design is as sparse and unapologetic as the music contained within. Songs such as "Gangsta, Gangsta" and "Fuck Tha Police" carry a crushing power. Despite being hammered crudely together from assorted loops and samples they seem like living, breathing creations, constantly on the verge of exploding in a fireball of fury. "100 Miles And Runnin'" splices up an aural road movie with excerpts possibly taken from, or at least inspired by, Walter Hill's film "The Warriors". (Ice Cube would later star in Hill's "Trespass".) There's the odd moment of respite, however: in the middle of the deeply misogynistic "I Ain't Tha 1" Cube allows the listener a poignant insight into his seduction technique: "You want lobster/Huh, I'm thinking Burger King". Possibly their finest moment, "Express Yourself" seems almost custom tooled for the charts (a top 50 British hit, probably not through extensive radio play) being devoid of the expletives that liberally pepper the album, and powered by a sample from Charles Wright (Eazy E's dad) And The Watts 103rd Street Band's song of the same name. And "Don't Drink That Wine" is a few seconds' snippet of swinging gospel.
But even more than the music, it's the legacy of N.W.A that's important. They can take the dubious credit for single-handedly kick-starting the gangsta rap bandwagon, as well as spitting out a couple of solo careers that have proved to be equally as important. Ice Cube has forged parallel careers in music and film, whilst Dre's goldfingered console techniques have made him, via his stellar solo albums and work with Eminem, one of the most important producers on the planet. And while other anarchic artefacts have been cosily assimilated into mainstream culture (consider how time has lessened the impact of both the aforementioned "A Clockwork Orange" and Sex Pistols) nobody's playing N.W.A on daytime radio. Even ten or more years after the fact, their music still as dangerous as ever.N.W.A Straight Outta Compton (Priority/Ruthless)
Time and Eminem might have negated a deal of the shock value rap music once enjoyed, but this reissue of the genre's "Never Mind The Bollocks" bubbles and burns with a vitriolic contempt that still astounds 15 years after the fact. Retrospectively looking like something of a hip-hop supergroup, for this album at least N.W.A featured Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy E amongst their ranks, and if there's a less ambiguous statement of intent than "Straight Outta Compton"'s opening left-right-left of the title track, "Fuck Tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta" I can't think of it at the moment.
"You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge" intones the opening warning voice, and suddenly Ice Cube's dealing out a verbal battering of inventive, armed with a drum machine welded on the shoot-to-kill setting and a second line of plundered "Taxi Driver" string stabs. Mr Mathers' Presleyfication of gangsta rap has only served to heighten the tumbling, threatening power of this music - it still sounds frightening, a spur to moral and legal outrage.
"Fuck Tha Police" presented a three act drama about the harassment of young black males by police officers two years before America had heard of Rodney King, and brought the might of the FBI to bear against the band. It's the sound of society breaking down, captured on plastic, and the wreckage that remains is the predatory hunting ground for the protagonists of "Gangsta, Gangsta", a whole new breed of economics. And there's something perverse about the way Marvin Gaye's carnal hymn "Let's Get It On" peeps up from behind the rather baser suggestions of "8 Ball".
The finest, most powerful moments of "Straight Outta Compton" might already have been comprehensively documented on the "Greatest Hits" compilation, its true genius concentrated in a half-dozen tracks, but in their original context they carry even more of a bare-knuckled, brawling attack. Even in its depleted album mix "Express Yourself" comes on like a heavily armed De La Soul (altogether now "Moving like a tortoise/Full of rigor mortis"). Ice Cube's entry in the "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" school of relationship counselling, "I Ain't The 1", is still as funny as it is blunt, and the anti-crack message exposed amidst the primitive production of "Dopeman" is probably the one sentiment on the album with which we can all agree. And then, curiously, the original album closes on something else altogether, "Something 2 Dance 2" cutting up "Planet Rock" and "Dance To The Music" to dizzying effect.
This reissue adds a light dusting of extra tracks, all of them worthwhile. The more familiar extended mix of "Express Yourself" sounds as terrific as ever it did, whilst a similarly elongated version of the title track sacrifices some of the headcrushing impact of the original for some scene-setting theatrics. The real revelation, though, is "Bonus Beats": yes, it's nothing more than the drum track from "Express Yourself" looped ad infinitum for a few minutes, but I find its minimalism mesmerising, in an unlikely Philip Glass plays South Central sort of way. But in any form "Straight Outta Compton" is still uncomfortable, confrontational music making, and therein lies its importance.