For the most part, the reception to the incoming (in the UK, at least) N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton has been surprisingly positive. Despite boasting a running time that rivals Gladiator – the film is a hefty 147 minutes long – critics have found F. Gary Gray’s opus to be a tasteful testament to an incendiary collection of individuals who dared to question institutional authority and what it meant to be a young, black man at the tumultuous end of the 1980s when the streets of downtown Los Angeles were ignited by racial conflict.
During this time rap music rose to prominence not only as a creative means of expressing identity, but as a method through which these individuals might catalogue their experiences and challenge the structures that determine identity in the first place. Variety magazine’s Scott Foundas writes of the film: “if Compton is undeniably of the moment, it’s also timeless in its depiction of how artists and writers transform the world around them into angry, profane, vibrant and singular personal expression.” Rap music pushed boundaries by bringing to light the truth of growing up working-class and black in Compton; for this group of individuals the violence, drugs, and institutional oppression inherent in their music was not a means of commodifying the black experience into a commercial product, as later rap music sought to do. Instead, N.W.A’s legacy established a voice for the black, urban youth of the US; their music stands as an ongoing testament to the structurally inconsistent experience of growing up in the country, an experience that is determined predominantly by race and economic class.
Beyond this, however, N.W.A and rap music in general are regularly cited for the anger inherent in both their sound and lyrics, not to mention the signification of violence. It is, in fact, more important to dwell not on the what but the who of rap music; what remains is a characteristically black urban experience manifesting as a rallying cry against the establishments that seek to silence their altogether singular voices. In one of his more unusual works, David Foster Wallace (alongside Mark Costello) notes the significance of N.W.A’s anti-establishment agenda: they write that:
very often the fresh new usurper bands are several orders of magnitude harsher, harder, meaner, than their precursors, their terminology and themes right over the edge into what even in ’89 couldn’t get airplay: N.W.A’s real name, ‘Niggers With Attitude,’ is one that no white DJ or requester can even mention without a cringe at how it’ll sound; while their monster underground hit “Fuck Tha Police,” like Schoolly D’s “Mr. Big Dick,” seems almost designed to ensure radio/cable rejection and thus, at least for a while, a kind of intense racial locality, special appeal to a cognoscenti of B-boys and esoteric retailers, a def insulation against the white sirens of big labels. (Signifying Rappers)
N.W.A’s controversy is fundamentally entwined with their appeal, a matter that lies at the very heart of rap music’s success: from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre to Jay-Z and Eminem, to contemporary artists such as Kendrick Lamar and beyond, the genre has provided a platform for subversive voices to speak out against the various oppressions that they have fallen victim to. While at its lowest ebb rap music is often at risk of being sensationalised into the ‘guns-and-hoes’ genre it is often disregarded as, at its best it speaks to the politically disenfranchised and its voices signpost pertinent truths regarding the socioeconomic configuration of the United States. Take Kendrick Lamar’s recent album To Pimp a Butterfly; not only was the album a critical smash but it proved once again that rap music has the power to shake the world around it. The fourth single taken from the album, ‘Alright’, was accompanied by a provocative music video that was aimed squarely at the depressingly frequent police shootings of black youths that have occurred over the last few years; since release Lamar’s track has become an anthem for the protesters of police violence and has been sung at demonstrations throughout the country.
The success of N.W.A seeded the rise of gangster rap as a prominent genre within the music industry. Gangster rap was originally seen as a West Coast sound but was matched in quality by East Coast artists such as Public Enemy and, later, Nas and Jay-Z. The rap film genre rose around the widening success of the music genre; films such as Krush Groove, cult favourite House Party, and CB4 capitalised upon the success of rap music. House Party starred rap duo Kid ‘n Play and was, at the time, a critical and commercial success. Over a decade later Eminem would star in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical film of his own life. Eminem’s presence in rap was more to the industry than just his whiteness. He utterly transformed the potential of the genre, atomising, internalising, domesticating the urban youth experience; through his music he took the violence from the street and absorbed it within the home, but more than that he transformed rap music into a vehicle to communicate a multitude of urban circumstances. 8 Mile dealt with issues of race within the industry and won its star wide acclaim and an Oscar for Best Original Song (for the hit single ‘Lose Yourself’) – it maintains cult adoration to this day. Rapper 50 Cent tried to follow in Eminem’s stead with Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but despite boasting an Oscar-nominated director, Jim Sheridan, and following 8 Mile‘s template of basing the film around its star’s life, the film was universally slammed. Craig Brewer’s Oscar-winning Hustle & Flow and recent Fox series Empire are evidence that rap music can still prove to be a popular subject when handled correctly.
Of course, Eminem and 50 Cent are not the only rap stars to have staked claims in the film industry. In fact, the rap-star-as-film-star paradigm is more often than not a successful transition. Owing much to the evolution of the music video in the 1980s, a medium through which rap music boomed, the genre’s traditional trappings became an easily marketed iconography that translated well onto visual media. Ice Cube, in fact, a primary member of N.W.A, has enjoyed a film career that is almost as long as his music career. To this generation Ice Cube is probably more recognisable as an actor than as a rap artist, and while no one can deny that he’s done a few clangers (we’re looking at you, Are We There Yet?), few can argue against the quality of his work in Boyz N the Hood, Three Kings or the lesser-known Rampart, nor the cult recognition of Friday, or the self-parodying brilliance of his supporting role in the Jump Street franchise. Beside Ice Cube a whole host of other rap stars have made the leap into the film industry: from Ludacris’ recurring role in the now-lucrative Fast & Furious franchise, to Mos Def, 2pac, LL Cool J, Sean Combs, RZA, T.I., Eve, André 3000, Queen Latifah, and Ice-T, it is clear that rap music is a frequently successful platform for success in the film industry.
It is easy to forget that two of our biggest film stars started out as rap artists. Long before his Oscar-nominated turns in Ali and the suspiciously-spelled weepie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith was one half of the Grammy-winning rap duo known as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Following the success of early 1990s TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith rose to the A-list with a string of hits including Independence Day, Men In Black, and I, Robot. Despite not making as great an impact in recent years, Will Smith returns next year as DC Comics’ Deadshot in David Ayer’s highly-anticipated Suicide Squad.
The other truly notable rapper-turned-actor is, of course, Mark Wahlberg. Unlike Smith, who still retains fans of his music (even if they are guided most forcibly by nostalgia), Marky Mark’s rap output is now most frequently met with astonishment and amusement. Despite not being critically lauded, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch did enjoy a platinum album with Music For the People in 1991. Like Smith, Mark Wahlberg has had his share of flops, but his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, David O. Russell’s Three Kings (coincidentally alongside Ice Cube), and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed succeeded in establishing him as a worthy performer. Throw in The Fighter for which he was robbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination and you have the makings of an excellent career.
Straight Outta Compton is upon us, but the rap revolution has been continuing for the best part of three decades. Rap music and its stars have found themselves a permanent place with in the film industry; love it or hate it, it is here to stay.