Earlier this year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted N.W.A as part of their Class of 2016. This was a huge step forward in recognizing one of the most influential and important artists of all time. Formed in Compton, California in 1986, N.W.A were one of the first artists to write about police brutality in black communities, and they were made into pariahs because of it.
It’s jarring to listen to N.W.A’s lyrics today, because even though these songs were written decades ago, they sound as tragically current as ever. N.W.A, whose classic lineup comprised of DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren, wrote songs about racial profiling and police brutality, including the seminal “Fuck tha Police.”
When that song was released in 1988, it was a lightning rod for controversy. The group found their music censored, their concerts boycotted, and even received a threatening letter from the FBI. But the root of all of the uproar was the simple fact that an artist was audacious enough to call out systemic racism in America.
Here’s a fact: About the same number of white people and black people smoke marijuana. But if you are black, you are four times more likely to be arrested for it than if you were white.
This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the centuries long struggle between black people and racist law enforcement.
Beginning with the founding of this country, when sheriffs would bring back escaped slaves to their owners, to when cops prevented freed slaves from daring to enjoy the same amenities as their former owners, to the present day, there has always been a different set of laws if you are black.
This self perpetuating system of oppression and injustice has affected the daily lives of black people in this country literally every day since its inception. Somehow though, this dynamic has been willfully ignored by white people since day one.
A combination of hate, ignorance, and obliviousness has led most white people to live their lives either ignoring the reality of black life or outright denying that black lives are more difficult, or even matter.
That is why N.W.A was and is so important. From 1980s Compton to 2010s Ferguson, (and Florida, Staten Island and beyond), a number of police officers, as Ice Cube put it, “think they have the authority to kill a minority.” This stream of police brutality has been divisive, leading to a national conversation about race. (I highly recommend reading this brilliant piece on white privilege, especially if you are reading this thinking that racism isn’t really a problem.)
Shortly after the group was nominated for the Hall of Fame, I spoke with MC Ren. We discussed N.W.A’s impact as well as the resistance to acknowledge their success. This was their fourth nomination– they’d missed the cut three times before.
“I have no clue why we keep getting snubbed by the Hall when they have other hip hop groups in,” Ren said, adding that “our group had as big an impact as all the rest.”
Only four rap acts had been inducted prior to N.W.A: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (2007), Run-D.M.C. (2009), Beastie Boys (2012), and Public Enemy (2013). Depending on your point of view, four is either way too small a number, or four too many. But many listeners of both rap and rock would argue that rock isn’t so much a genre, but rather a style of expression.
“‘Fuck Tha Police’ is hip hop and has a rock & roll attitude by the statement alone,” Ren said.
Ice Cube later elaborated on that thought, saying during his induction speech:
Now, the question is, are we rock & roll? And I say you goddamn right we rock & roll. Rock & roll is not an instrument, rock & roll is not even a style of music. Rock & roll is a spirit.
That rock & roll/hip hop spirit means standing up to adversity. Calling out discrimination. Fighting the power. N.W.A embodies that spirit without a doubt. As they knock down barriers upon their induction, the larger problem of police brutality still looms large. But today, perhaps more than ever, there seems to at least be a raised awareness of the issues.
“It’s not that America is catching up with the brutality,” Ren said. “It’s just now with technology, more events are getting captured on film and [are] bringing light to more of these evil crimes committed by crooked police officers who abuse power because they wear a badge.”
Recently many of the cop-on-unarmed-black-man crimes have blown up nationally because there are cell phone videos of these crimes. There has also been a push for body camera laws to hold police more accountable.
N.W.A went into the Hall of Fame alongside Deep Purple, Chicago, Cheap Trick, and Steve Miller. I asked MC Ren what his thoughts were on a potential all-star jam, and he said “I think all the groups together would make magic.” However, N.W.A wound up not performing at the event, feeling that they “weren’t supported.”
But like it or not, MC Ren and the rest of “the world’s most dangerous group” are now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong. In many ways, the resistance to their induction stems from the simple fact that they make white people uncomfortable. By calling out police brutality and systemic racism, they shatter the pleasant safe space that white people have created for ourselves. They scare us through their art.
But I have a feeling that they don’t really mind the attention, even if it is negative.
I asked MC Ren what his reaction was when N.W.A’s music was practically forbidden in white America, and they were villianized and censored. His response?