I watched “The World’s Most Dangerous Group,” a Vh-1 documentary about the legendary hip hop group, NWA. In case you live under a rock, NWA stands for “Niggaz wit Attitudes.” The group can make the undeniable claim that they are single-handedly responsible for inspiring the multi-billion dollar gangsta rap industry. I was personally impacted by NWA, since one of its leaders, Ice Cube, has always been my favorite rapper. In fact, I didn’t really listen to music until NWA came onto the scene.
Given that they were such a powerful part of my upbringing, I watched the Vh-1 documentary with a tremendous amount of nostalgia. I thought about the first time I heard Ice Cube’s booming voice at a house party, wondering, “What in the f*ck is this?” The documentary reminded me of the beefs between Ice Cube and his fellow group members, and the unfortunate death of Eazy-E. Given the way that Eazy-E rapped so much about the number of women he had sex with, it was no surprise that he died of AIDS. We also know that Lil Wayne, TI, and almost none of the most prominent artists today would even exist had it not been for their “Hip Hop Grandfathers” out in Compton California.
In the midst of our nostalgia, we gain added perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is productive, since it allows us to see things that we didn’t see the first time around. But there are also times when our perspective is flawed, leading us to see things that were never there in the first place. On the good side, we can now see the impact that NWA had on the hip hop industry itself. We can also see how the group told the world about some of the atrocities taking place in hoods throughout America. Finally, the group was a sad reflection of the way the United States’ government, through corrupt behavior of its own, helped to create a war zone in South Central Los Angeles.
On the not-so-good side of things, the documentary seemed to want to paint NWA as a west coast version of Public Enemy: A socially-conscious group that chose to shake the establishment via public awareness campaigns. They seemed to argue that this group, founded by drug dealers, was motivated by a fundamental desire to speak up for the downtrodden and to liberate black folks. Sorry my friends, but that’s just not true.
Don’t get me wrong, I love NWA with a passion. In fact, my entire life, I’ve only listened to hip hop, and 70% of that music came from NWA or one of its descendants (I am not sure what this says about me, but I really don’t care). But the truth is that social consciousness did not drive NWA’s music. Instead, the group was primarily motivated by money that could be made when profiting off our nation’s intrigue with gang culture and anti-social behavior. One of their most famous songs, “Gangsta Gangsta,” (which I loved) was a creative glorification of the lifestyle of a gang member in South Central Los Angeles. Without songs like this one, the Crips and Bloods may not have spread throughout the nation. I also remember Ice Cube saying in one of his most famous bars, “Life ain’t nothin but b*tches and money” – hardly the words of the next Malcolm X.
Many of the most prominent artists in America, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, The Game, can be defined as Gangsta rappers. The violence within hip hop spreads to real violence within black America, and whether the chicken or the egg came first, most of us can agree that some parts of urban America are in serious decay. While we can’t blame all of this on hip hop, we can certainly argue that commercialized hip hop and BET are partners in crime when it comes to perpetuating and legitimizing behavior that is ultimately destructive. NWA was an undeniable part of that legacy. So, if we are going to give them credit for the good things, we should also give them credit for the bad. In the midst of their musical brilliance, the founding members of NWA were not the visionaries that Vh-1 wants them to be. That’s just being real about it.