Straight Outta Compton: Music for the Film a la Boyz-N-the-Hood

In the late 1980s, the East Coast rap was at the forefront of rap with such artists as Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. & Rakim and Beastie Boys touring and garnering radio airplay nationwide.

The previously unheard style of reality-gangsta rap had a distinct West Coast flavor that was born and bred across neighborhoods through South Los Angeles. N.W.A’s lyrics laid against stylized beats would simultaneously repel and galvanize the music game. What set N.W.A apart from East Coast rappers was their visceral, no-holds-barred social commentary, which at times melded straight-up candor with bawdy gallows humor about black urban life.

This trailblazing combination is what appealed to Ice Cube about the group. “At the time, I looked at our music as our only weapon and our only way to bring some attention to the ’hood,” he states. “Other than the little blips on the news, nobody really knew or cared about what was going on with the LAPD or the rock problem all around us. The political aspects of the records turned me on just as much as the gangster aspect, just as much as the flowing beats and rhymes. But we also made a point to lace our music with some comedy because we laughed at shit that would make most people cry.

Everything we had going on excited me about being a part of N.W.A.” Their music was made for the people in their ’hood, and no one was more surprised than these five guys were when their music made it onto the airwaves. “Boyzn-the-Hood” and the title song of the group’s 1988 debut album, “Straight Outta Compton,” were the country’s first introduction to N.W.A, and it evoked a wide range of emotional reaction: from recognition and intrigue to outrage and fear.

The album itself took a little over a month to record in Torrance, California, and decades later it is still relevant both musically—continuously topping Best Rap Album lists—and socially, as the nation grapples with the rising numbers of young black people who die at the hands of police officers.

While the album may have sparked interest in N.W.A, the song “F*ck tha Police” ignited a firestorm with the FBI leading the charge, citing the song’s lyrics as incendiary.  The song protested the police brutality and racial profiling that the group’s members saw everywhere around them, while “Gangsta Gangsta” painted the worldview of inner-city youth caught in the crosshairs of gangbangers.

F*ck tha Police Song

“I had no idea ‘F*ck tha Police’ would have any kind of impact worldwide,” says Ice Cube. “I knew people in every ’hood, every ghetto, every poverty-stricken area was feeling the same frustration and would feel the song. But worldwide? I just thought it all was relegated to America.”

The group got blowback from all fronts. They had to contend with church leaders, law enforcement and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center). The group was well known for its Parental Advisory sticker,  known as the “Tipper sticker”—referring to Tipper Gore, co-founder of the group and wife of then-Senator Al Gore, who was lobbying against N.W.A’s lyrics. But when the FBI condemned them, N.W.A willingly became embroiled in defending their right to free speech and creative expression.

MC Ren looks back on those early days: “‘F*ck tha Police’ was just like any other song on our album. But once it sparked such a controversy, it took us to a whole ’nother level. Everybody was mad about it. The FBI, preachers, politicians, everybody. But we didn’t care, we just wanted to do music. As I got older, though, I realized that it had a big impact.”

As with any movie so deeply rooted in sound, the filmmakers were faced with weighing their options when attempting to accurately capture the music. For director Gray and the other producers, it was perhaps even more difficult when it came to winnowing down the selections and capturing the singular sound of the N.W.A catalogue.

Ultimately, they wanted to celebrate the radical music of N.W.A, and in doing so it was essential that they nail the original tracks as realistically as possible. Would the actors who best fit the roles creatively have the musical chops to sound like the group? Would music supervisor

JOJO VILLANUEVA (American Reunion, Black or White), along with music producer HARVEY MASON, JR. (The Help, Dreamgirls), need to digitally enhance cast vocals, or would the actors be able to perform and record their own vocals and lay them over the original tracks?

N.W.A’s vocals are all unique, and of course none of the team wanted to diminish their essence. Early on, Villanueva and Mason ascertained that most of the cast, with some vocal coaching, would be able to pull off the demands of re-creating the majority of the “Straight Outta Compton” album, as well as music from Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s solo recordings. In some instances cast vocals would be blended with the real vocals to create a balanced hybrid.

The cast was obviously aware of N.W.A’s impact, both musically and socially, and once again numerous conversations with their real-life counterparts gave them additional insight that informed the perspective on their performances. Comments Jackson: “N.W.A’s music is the voice of the people. It’s them educating others on the realities that they would not hear through the media.

It’s them shedding light and taking the wool from over people’s eyes.” The actors approached their task of working in the studio very seriously. Hawkins and Brown would also take on additional instruction on how to work the mixing board and turntables with ROBERT “DJ ROBSHOT” JOHNSON, who joined the production as a deejay coach.

“Corey and I both had to learn how to deejay,” discusses Brown. “I wanted to be able to scratch, cut records, to be able to mix. I told Robshot, ‘Teach me everything,’ and he did. From setting up equipment to tearing it down and everything in between. I kept doing it until it became second nature, so I would feel like a proper deejay.”

It was Ice Cube who suggested that they bring in fellow rapper WILLIAM “WC” (pronounced “dub-C”) CALHOUN from Westside Connection, another Ice Cube music collaboration, to coach the cast with their rap styles and stage presence. WC took time with each of the actors, showing them a methodical process that broke down the lyrics of each song…as well as each member’s signature style, cadence, tonality and delivery.

The rap vocal coach’s teachings affected them deeply. “I’m an actor. I can’t really rap, but I can act like I know how to rap,” states Hawkins. “Dub has been a huge sounding board for all of us. We all went into the studio and recorded and would be sitting there listening to each other rap. Then to have Cube and Dre right there in our ears telling us we’re doing a good job and that Eazy would be proud? It’s just a powerful feeling.”

The critical performance scenes gave the actors a sense of N.W.A’s ascension and allowed them to bond on stage. The first scene has Ice Cube taking the stage with Dr. Dre and DJ Yella’s World Class Wreckin’ Cru at Compton club Doo To’s, when he performs a rough version of “Gangsta, Gangsta,” which catches the attention of audience member Eazy-E. It was the first time on stage for Jackson on the mic, as well as Hawkins and Brown, who were both just getting comfortable with working the turntables. To add a bit more pressure, Dr. Dre was on set that day.

One of the more memorable moments on set was the scene that depicted N.W.A’s first promoted performance at Compton mainstay Skateland U.S.A., a roller-skating rink that also hosted local and national hip-hop and rap artists. “In Compton, Skateland is like the Apollo,” cites MC Ren.

Joining the cast and crew that day were Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren and The D.O.C., who often wrote for and toured with the group. Those who had grown up in Compton were admittedly stunned by the set’s resemblance to the real Skateland (production filmed at a skating rink in Glendale), as well as how much the cast had nailed their first show.

Hawkins walks us through it: “When the day came to film the Skateland show, the crowd was a lot bigger and everybody was rocking out to ‘Dopeman.’ I’m back there chopping up the samples, and we actually started to feel like N.W.A and feel each other out as a group. There was a lot on the table for our characters, but there was a lot on the table for us, too, to show that we can bring it.”

By the time the on-screen N.W.A was scheduled to film the tour performance scenes, they were completely in sync. Those scenes, a montage of multiple dates on N.W.A’s one and only 40-date tour in 1988, included dates in Houston, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; and most notably Detroit, Michigan, where a now-infamous incident ensued when local police rushed the stage after “F*ck tha Police” was performed.

Those performance scenes were some of the more nostalgic moments for both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. A few especially gratifying compliments for Jackson came during several on-set conversations with Dr. Dre, who told him how much his movements, gestures and vocal inflections were exactly like his father’s. Sums Jackson: “For Dre to have flashbacks while looking at me perform on stage, I feel like I’m doing it right.”

Lensed over two days at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, and another day at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the scenes allowed thousands of background extras and die-hard N.W.A fans to sing along, cheer and clap as Jackson, Hawkins, Mitchell, Hodges and Brown performed “F*ck tha Police,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Compton’s N the House.” Between takes, you could N.W.A has something to say.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren were all on hand for many of those performances, which energized the cast and the audience. They were long days, even for the experienced extras, but each night everyone was rewarded when Ice Cube and WC jumped on stage and performed a couple of numbers for the crowd. Ice Cube even invited his son to join him for a song, which got the crowd roaring. All in all, everyone agreed it was a good day.