At a Time of Ferguson, Freddie Gray, 'Straight Outta Compton' Still Resonates Almost 30 Years Later

At a Time of Ferguson, Freddie Gray, biopic about young, black rappers hits home

August 13, 2015, 7:10 PM

— -- Compton, California was where a group of young, gifted, black artists sparked a movement with a new sound no one had heard before in the late '80s.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren were the original members of N.W.A. Undeniably angry in their raw lyrics, they had a swagger that shocked the nation.

“The name is 'N****** With Attitudes' can't listen to N.W.A. asleep, you got to be wide awake,” Ice Cube, whose real name is O’Shea Jackson, told “Nightline” in a recent interview.

N.W.A. pushed back against police violence with a blunt object readily acceptable to them: Music, at a time when rap was still new.

“You know, it was our only weapon,” Ice Cube said.

In this year of Ferguson, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, N.W.A.’s lyrics still resonate almost 30 years later.

Their sounds from the street are now on the silver screen in a new biopic about the group that has been 10 years in the making called, “Straight Outta Compton,” in theaters Friday.

Ice Cube’s oldest son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., plays his father in the movie.

“This movie is so relevant with the times because nothing's really changed, except, you know, we got camera phones,” Ice Cube said.

PHOTO:O'Shea Jackson, Jr. plays Ice Cube in the film, Straight Outta Compton.
O'Shea Jackson, Jr. plays Ice Cube in the film, Straight Outta Compton.
Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Studios

The movie takes its title from the group’s 1988 title album, back when N.W.A. says the federal government tried to censor them.

“We had the F.B.I. against us,” Ice Cube said. “We had major media against us...people who really didn't understand what we was about.”

The group formed in an era when crime in Compton was at an all-time high, crack cocaine was introduced to the streets and police were making routine gang sweeps. It was a time when if you were black, you felt like a target.

Before there was the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, N.W.A. started their own movement with a song that even today has the power to shock called “F*** Tha Police.”

The real-life group, shown in this 1989 photo below with rappers The D.O.C. and Laylaw, was prohibited from performing the song in some cities. But that didn’t stop them from performing it anyway.

PHOTO: Rap group N.W.A. pose with rappers The D.O.C. and Laylaw from Above The Law backstage during their 'Straight Outta Compton' tour in June 1989 in Kansas City, Mo.
Rap group N.W.A. pose with rappers The D.O.C. and Laylaw from Above The Law backstage during their 'Straight Outta Compton' tour in June 1989 in Kansas City, Mo.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Frederick Staves, a former gang leader of the Santana Block Crips, remembers when N.W.A. came out with that song.

“They basically were saying every black male in America is feeling because we weren't saying it out loud,” Staves told “Nightline.” “But when they were saying it we were feeling it because we had been through the bull**** so you know when they say f*** the police we was lovin’ it.”

Along with the controversial lyrics against the police, N.W.A. got a lot of criticism for their attitude towards women, heard in their song “Automobile.” They were also accused of being anti-Semitic and homophobic in their songs, which Ice Cube says is “a little unfair.”

“That's not who I'm about,” Ice Cube said. “You know, being a black man, you can't discriminate on anybody, and you shouldn't. And you should understand anybody's position, when they're being discriminated on, or when they're being singled out for their color or whatever. So, you know, that's something we're trying to fight. That ain't something we're trying to embrace.”

Now 46 and married for 23 years, Ice Cube has mellowed some, even if Compton hasn’t.

Today, the leading voice for change in Compton is not an edgy rap group, but an elegant, young female mayor with a degree in urban planning from nearby University of Southern California.

“I don’t think it’s my job, single-handedly, to fix anything," said Compton Mayor Aja Brown. "I think it's my job to have a vision and have a plan that is reasonable and workable and get as many people to the table to effect change as possible.”

In city where “street cred” matters, Brown has plenty. The 33-year-old said her grandmother was raped and murdered in Compton. When she speaks of healing “old wounds,” no one questions her authenticity.

“I was raised by a single mother,” Brown said. “We were definitely below the median income of our area. It’s all about making sure kids can have access to educational opportunities… you may not need a necessarily traditional college environment, but access to trades and employment development.”

The landscape of Compton has changed some since N.W.A.’s debut in 1986. Now the city is predominantly Hispanic, and the murder rate is down. Since 1989 to 2014, overall crime has dropped 65 percent, according to the County of Los Angeles Sheriff's Department

But gangs are still rampant. Of the 25 homicides there in 2014, police say 24 were gang-related and only five have been solved, according to the County of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department The streets of Compton are still a dangerous place.

“[The violence has] come down a lot in Compton compared to the way it used to be,” said Deputy Victor Montes of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “We’re down by 5.6 percent now compared to last year. We’re almost at 8 percent so violence has been coming down. We have made a big difference in the city.”

But when asked if he would live in Compton himself, Montes paused.

“I know how Compton is, I wouldn’t want to live in Compton,” he said. “I want to feel safer than what Compton is right now.”

Pastor Michael Fisher of the Greater Zion Church in Compton said he also wants to feel safe in this city, and has tried to bring gang members and police officers together for meetings to iron out their issues.

But the difference between Compton when N.W.A. came on the scene and Compton 2015 isn’t much, Fisher said.

“You had your Jheri curls, people standing out on the corner, but you also had a lot of violence, a lot of Bloods and Crips,” Fisher said. “I do remember you have to be very careful with the color of your shoe laces. Unfortunately 2015 doesn’t look whole lot different.”

Eric Jones, a former gang member who Fisher brought to a meeting with police officers, said he agrees with the pastor that much hasn’t changed in Compton over the years. Jones, now 50, said he started gang-banging when he was just 10 years old.

“It comes from a lack of value, that’s the whole system,” he said. “My pain was I was raped when I was 8 years old. I didn’t know how to read when I was little because of inside home issues. My mother she was a great women, but my father he was a womanizer.”

When asked if he had ever shot or stabbed someone, Jones laughed and said he had been convicted of both.

It’s a hurt and rage N.W.A. documented in its lyrics, which, oddly enough, Ice Cube exposed to his own children early on. He said he even took his son O’Shea with him on tour when he was just over a year old.

“You keep everything in perspective, you know?” Ice Cube said. “This is entertainment. This is art. This is fun. You know what I mean? The world is real. And you know, I let them know the difference.”

Father and son make it clear that music was mostly entertainment, and that mom, Ice Cube’s wife Kimberly Woodruff, was the engine and moral compass that drove their family.

“My dad just seems so-- more reasonable than my mom,” said O’Shea Jackson, Jr., laughing. “When she gets mad, she's mad. You know, Dad will kind of explain to you why you messed up, so you kind of want to catch Dad.”

“You know, my wife, she ain’t no punk,” Ice Cube added.

Compton, California, then and now, is like many corners of America still deeply plagued by problems that are generations old. And “Straight Outta Compton” is also an old American story told in a new way, built on the strength of friend, the redemptive power of perseverance with a heavy dose of attitude.

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