With Straight Outta Compton hitting cinemas, Dave Fawbert asks where is the music of protest nowadays?
Music is the great language of life. It's there to cheer us up, to soothe us, to get us dancing, to comfort us in times of need. But it's also something that can be a potent weapon, with clear, physical results.
This week sees the release of Straight Outta Compton, a biopic which tells the story of a 1980s hip hop group called N.W.A. - and, for the uninitiated, that stands for Niggaz Wit' Attitude. The film is excellent, capturing the differing personalities of the members of the group - producers Dr Dre and DJ Yella, rappers MC Ren, Eazy E and Ice Cube - alongside their manager Jerry Heller and label bosses including the notorious Suge Knight, head of Death Row.
Talking to people, I've been surprised by how many people were unaware of the group - brilliantly, many are still shocked by that name (imagine the impact it originally had) - with many familiar of the works of the legendary Dr Dre, but not au fait with the group that he began his career with. Perhaps it's not surprising, after all, the band formed almost thirty years ago, way back in 1986, but the fact than many do not know their story more than justifies the decision to bring it to the big screen - to make sure it's not forgotten.
Because it's a hugely important story. While the group, and subsequent Dr Dre productions, may have kickstarted the gangsta rap era and all of the many failings that had - misogyny, glorification of violence and all the rest of it - it was also an incredibly pure form of music. They were a group of young black men in the city of Compton, a desperately poor part of America, where Police discrimination and racism was routine. The unfairness and toughness of their lives, and the lives of the people around them, was unrelenting. So they told their story, and fought back, through their music.
They described what they did as 'reality rap' rather than gangsta rap - the latter term emerging because their reality was gangsta. They were angry, they refused to compromise and they gave a voice to thousands of similarly oppressed people. Crucially, by having a genius such as Dr Dre on the controls, they also did it with a groove and with serious musical style. The opening trio of songs from their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, leap out from the big screen and - 30 years on - punch you in the face like nothing that's around now.
The self-titled opener introduces the band and tells you this is not an act who are going to tone it down ("when I'm in your neighborhood, you better duck, coz Ice Cube is crazy as fuck"/"See, I don't give a fuck, that's the problem, I see a motherfuckin' cop I don't dodge him").
Next up, Fuck Tha Police, an incredible piece of work that was so incendiary that the F.B.I. got involved. It's clever (the courtroom scenario is a brilliant piece of storytelling), it's direct, it's truthful, it's funky and it still sounds utterly threatening to this day.
Finally, Gangsta Gangsta; a five and a half minute journey through everyday life (with a bit of creative licence) for a young black man in mid-eighties Compton ("To drinkin' straight out the eight bottle/Do I look like a motherfuckin' role model?").
Anyone who doubted what they were talking about saw with their own eyes less than three years after the release of Straight Outta Compton, as unarmed taxi driver Rodney King was savagely beaten by police officers who were all acquitted of assault and using excessive force. Weeks of riots in LA then followed the verdicts. N.W.A. had shone a much-needed light on what was going on in deprived parts of America.
Meanwhile, last week Rage Against The Machine announced plans to release the DVD of their 2009 free show in London's Finsbury Park. For their part, Rage came out like a rocket in 1992 with their self-titled debut album which was highly political, highly funky and highly angry at the many injustices they saw in the world around them. Mixing rock with rap, in many ways they took on the baton from the likes of N.W.A.
But where are the likes of these bands now? Where is the anger?
Is everything right with the world these days? We hardly think so. It's been just over a year since the civil unrest in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown, with a series of videos emerging subsequently of acts of clear racism from American police officers. Closer to home, we have a Conservative government that's never been more right-wing and elitist, abandoning those at the bottom of the social order to deal with their own problems without much help. It's just over four years since the widespread riots of 2011 which started in London and worked their way out; frustration and anger manifesting itself in an uncontrolled way for a few crazy summer days.
So who is speaking out, who is smashing their way into the public consciousness telling their story? Well, in the UK there's Sleaford Mods; but theirs is a world-weary outlook and, crucially, essentially not very good musically - they will never reach critical mass, even as they create their own niche. And they're in their forties - not exactly the voice of youth. The grime scene is always bubbling away, but hasn't produced anything for a long time that really captures the frustration of youth. In the US, Kendrick Lamar has been widely hailed as the new social commentator for the masses - after all, he's from Compton too - but his recent record To Pimp A Butterfly, while excellent, is simply too dense, too complicated and too introverted to really resonate widely. There's nothing like the direct call-to-arms that N.W.A. gave us on their record.
And that's about it. Current musical trends favour introspective, introverted minimalism, as Drake quietly mopes to himself, or the endless risk-averse electro R&B that's clogging up the blogs right now. Where are the angry young bands coming out like a sledgehammer, whacking you over the head with a clear, simple message that things are bad, things are wrong, and they're not happy about it?
Perhaps music is no longer the avenue of choice for people trying to make a difference. Perhaps there are acts like that, but they're not getting through. Perhaps people are happier just posting passive aggressive messages on social media. Perhaps they've given up. It may be a vain hope, but maybe some kids out there will watch Straight Outta Compton, pick up a mic, get a massive funky hook behind them and start telling it like it is, with every ounce of fury from within them.
And the world will sit up and listen.