For two weeks the top box-office draw has been “Straight Outta Compton,” a meandering biopic about the rise and disintegration of the Los Angeles-area rap group N.W.A., or Niggaz With Attitude. N.W.A. helped popularize “gangsta rap” in the late 1980s, and even this hagiography can’t hide the fact that its legacy has endured to the detriment of poor black communities.
The most prominent members of the quintet were Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, and they distinguished themselves from other rap acts mainly through relentless, jarring profanity. Materialism and braggadocio were already rap staples, but N.W.A. added heavy doses of sadistic sex, misogyny, gun violence and all-round thuggery. Typical are the lyrics to a song on their second album that invoke gang rape of a 14-year-old “preacher’s daughter.”
“Straight Outta Compton” not only doesn’t dwell on N.W.A.’s glorification of self-destructive behavior, anyone appalled by it is portrayed as a racist or a square. The film is more interested in presenting the rappers as authentic voices of decent young black men in poor communities who are regularly victimized by police. Still, the viewer can’t help but notice that our protagonists regularly engage in criminal behavior, dress like gang members in areas infested by ruffians and defy the police who suspect them of being up to no good. Their problem is not that the cops harass them but that the cops interfere with their lawbreaking.
In one of the film’s early scenes, designed to illustrate the kinds of experiences that shaped the rappers’ upbringing, a young Ice Cube is riding home on a yellow school bus when a group of gang members pulls alongside in a sedan. Some of the kids on the bus start shouting out the window and playfully flashing gang signs at the men in the car. The gang members respond by stopping the school bus, forcing their way inside and putting a pistol to the head of one of the teenage taunters. The scene suggests that the biggest bane of the black community isn’t the police officer but the black hoodlum. Yet Ice Cube and other gangsta rappers would go on to great fame and fortune penning lyrics that claimed the reverse.
In short, these rappers specialized in pushing a vulgar nihilism that has poisoned urban America for decades and retarded upward mobility. The enemy was social order and anyone who promoted it, from parents to teachers to cops. “You walk into a fourth or fifth grade black school,” Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy told a newspaper in 1991, “I’m telling you, you’re finding chaos right now, ’cause rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it.” Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist, also noticed the change. “Before rap, dance-hall lyrics were harmlessly erotic, something I could listen and dance to with my daughters,” he told an interviewer in 1992. “Rap lyrics, as you know, are incredibly brutal . . . There is a horrible sickness here.”
Twenty years ago, sharp social critics like Martha Bayles and Stanley Crouch took others to task for indulging or playing down this celebration of delinquency instead of denouncing it. “Too many irresponsible intellectuals—black and white—have submitted to the youth culture and the adolescent rebellion of pop music, bootlegging liberal arts rhetoric to defend Afro-fascist rap groups like Public Enemy on the one hand, while paternalistically defining the ‘gangster rap’ of doggerel chanters such as Ice Cube as expressive of the ‘real’ black community,” wrote Mr. Crouch.
But that type of criticism was in the minority and ultimately lost the day. Scholars like Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. would argue that gutter rap verse comes out of a black American tradition that enriches our language and culture. Cornel West, in his familiar mix of Marxism and gobbledygook, once described rap as “primarily the musical expression of the paradoxical cry of desperation and celebration of the black underclass and poor working class.” And Michael Eric Dyson credited rappers with “refining the art of oral communication.”
Today, gangsta rap is no longer edgy or even very controversial. It can only be described as mainstream. On a 2013 track, Jay Z, one of the country’s richest and most popular rappers, name-checked a convicted drug dealer and hit man who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in the 1980s. Lil Wayne, who specializes in rapping about drug-dealing and gun violence, has more entries on the Billboard charts than Elvis. In 2010, President Obama told Rolling Stone magazine that both rappers were on his iPod.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).