Five hard lessons from ‘Straight Outta Compton’

There’s a deafening hype surrounding F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, a film depicting the short-lived but high-flying career of the rap group N.W.A in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It comes toward the end of a summer filled with music movies: Love and Mercy, about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, Amy, on the tragic life and death of pop singer Amy Winehouse, and the Netflix documentary about Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone?

But Straight Outta Compton stands apart, and for good reason. There were few musical acts in the 20th century as game-changing as N.W.A. After one album, N.W.A had completely remade an entire musical genre, rattling it to its core and holding it upside down to shake out any spare change. Straight Outta Compton portrays the multi-faceted story perhaps as well as any film could.

What can your business learn from the film? Quite a lot, actually.

1. Get your signal-to-noise ratio right

Gray is able to channel how powerful the band was before introducing us to a single character. As the known-around-the-world Universal logo appears at the start of the film, Gray plays snippets of news reports about police abuse from just before N.W.A’s debut album was released in August 1989. The sound becomes cacophonous, each clip overlapping the next. Just as it’s about to become overwhelming, Gray abruptly cuts to silence. “You are now about to witness the power of street knowledge,” we’re told by an unseen narrator, echoing Dr. Dre’s legendary opening to Straight Outta Compton.

Gray is using the moment to say that in the middle of all that noise, one direct message can change the narrative. In a few seconds, Gray is able to establish that the members of N.W.A were, at their best, unparalleled masters of changing the message.

2. Have a clear vision

Dr. Dre—portrayed in the film by Corey Hawkins—is depicted as someone determined to be anywhere but where he is. He doesn’t want to be in his mother’s house listening to records while she pushes him to go to a job interview, and he doesn’t want to DJ in the nightclub where he makes his meager paycheck.

Turning to music to escape your situation is a time-honored tradition; everyone from Bob Marley to Morrissey has done it. But Dr. Dre doesn’t just want to start a musical group, he wants to start his own label. He approaches his friend and local drug dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright for a little startup money. With a label of their own, he argues, the two can maintain a level of creative control. Eazy-E buys it, and Ruthless Records is born.

But Dre’s vision for independence is stymied time and time again. Unfavorable contracts hinder his time at the label, and when he leaves to join Death Row Records, his freedom there is hurt by the label’s unbridled anarchy. Although his musical output never suffers, eventually Dre realizes that what he really needs is independence. He founds his own boutique label emphasizing quality over quantity. The result? An astonishing string of platinum records.

3. Originality is great, but there are many ways to be original

Straight Outta Compton comes out at a time when a controversy about lyrics is sweeping the rap world. Do rappers need to write their own rhymes to be considered original? Straight Outta Compton answers with a resounding “no.” In the early meetings for what would become N.W.A, Ice Cube is the group’s sole writer. Eazy-E is at first reluctant to perform his friend’s songs, but it soon becomes clear that he is able to embody Ice Cube’s lyrics even better than Ice Cube, who was writing about things he had seen but never experienced firsthand.

The two of them are able to merge voice and word in amazing songs like “Boyz-N-The-Hood” filled with emotion and violence. Eazy-E’s voice, sly and searching, works with the song better than Ice Cube’s more intense and direct style. Even when the group falls into bitter disarray, nobody brings up the fact that Eazy didn’t write most of his own rhymes. It simply doesn’t factor into who he is as an artist.

4. Find the opportunity in a crisis

During the group’s first tour, manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) comes to the group with what he deems bad news: the FBI has sent them a letter condemning one of their songs. Heller considers this letter to be a threat, and asks the group to consider temporarily retiring the song. Eazy-E comes up with the perfect counterproposal: why not just release the letter to the public? He understood that public opinion would be on their side. By releasing the letter, N.W.A opened itself up to a world of support among fans, music lovers, and advocates of freedom of speech.

5. Loyalty trumps everything else

Straight Outta Compton argues what eventually tore N.W.A apart was the same thing that kept it together: loyalty. Not everyone in the group knew each other growing up, but they all quickly realized that their shared experiences trumped any minor differences. They came to realize that they could make more of an impact standing together than splitting off on their own. After Dre’s younger brother died while the group was on tour, Eazy-E promised that the five of them would become brothers, and it shows in the electricity of their live performances.

Once Ice Cube sees Heller and Eazy-E eating lobster together, he becomes deeply suspicious about their motivations. The trust is broken, and it can’t be regained. The group splinters, with all the members going in different directions. Some of them are more successful than others, but the film makes clear the group truly wanted to work together, and that their unity stood for something bigger than each of their careers as individual artists.

Straight Outta Compton posits that there probably would have been an N.W.A reunion if Eazy-E had not died from AIDS-related complications, and that the music would have blown everybody’s mind. If only the people surrounding the group hadn’t been so distracting, the world would have gotten another album, and presumably a Straight Outta Compton sequel.

Photo credit: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal

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