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How Compton Became The Violent City Of 'Straight Outta Compton'
How did a city with a farming community in its core spawn one of the most angry and violent rap albums of all time?
In 1988, the rap group N.W.A. (consisting of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella—and formerly Arabian Prince) put the city of Compton in the national consciousness with the release of Straight Outta Compton, a chronicle of violent life on the streets and fury aimed at the police. It's once again in the national spotlight with the release of a biopic about the rap group, sharing the same title as their landmark album.
Incorporated in 1888, Compton is one of the oldest cities in Los Angeles County. Legend has it that when the city was founded, Griffith Dickenson Compton stipulated that a portion of the city be zoned for agriculture—today that area remains known as Richland Farms and home to the Compton Cowboys.
For much of its early history, Compton was actually a quiet, mostly-white suburb that, briefly, was even home to the Bush family. In fact, white gangs terrorized blacks and Latinos throughout the county in the '40s and '50s, with The Spook Hunters the most famous of them. However, white flight began to take place in the 1950s after a 1948 Supreme Court case struck down racist housing practices, and the Watts Rebellion in 1965, centered only a few miles away from Compton, cemented the region's demographics for years to come.
The rise of the Crips and Blood gangs in the 1970s coupled with the drug trade and LAPD Chief Daryl Gates' paramilitary approach to handling crime turned South Los Angeles and Compton into the epicenter of street violence now immortalized by N.W.A. In 1990, Compton had experienced a staggeringly high murder rate of almost 91 homicides per 100,000 residents.
The emerging genre of extreme hip-hop in the mid-1980s was the so-called "gangsta rap" that the group did not invent, but came to embody. It served as a portal for mainstream America to see what was happening in the urban centers that the Reagan administration had left behind. It was stark, brutal, and unrelenting in their depiction of violence on the streets of South Central and Compton. "You don't like how I'm living? Well fuck you!" rapped Ice Cube on "Gangsta Gangsta."
The group would get an unintended boost in fame and notoriety when they received a letter from the FBI over the song "Fuck Tha Police," accusing the group of encouraging violence against law enforcement officers. "Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action," wrote Milt Ahlerich, an assistant director in the Bureau.
As much as street violence and police brutality were part of the reality of Compton, N.W.A., like other rappers across the history of the genre, were unabashed in their lyrical swagger to embellish and heighten their music's potency. "If [New York rap group] Public Enemy were the Black CNN, then N.W.A. were the Black Fox News," succinctly explains The Vinyl District.
The homicide rate would peak in Los Angeles County in 1992, partly due to the Rodney King Riots, but since then crime has waned across the county—some think due to the end of the so-called crack epidemic along with more effective policing.
Compton also experienced a major demographic shift as a result of black flight in the Riots' wake. According to the 2010 Census, it is now two-thirds Hispanic or Latino.
As you'd expect, many from the city are uneasy with the depiction of Compton's rough past in Straight Outta Compton, the film. "There's so many opportunities, economically and socially... that this community is definitely poised for a huge revival," mayor Aja Brown, the youngest mayor elected in city history, told NPR. "And so, when I think about Compton, I think about redemption." As Brown points out, Compton's crime rate has dropped over 70% over the past two decades.
"People think of Compton as a very dangerous place," Brown told the L.A. Times. "It's a different city from 25 years ago."