Dr. Dre’s ‘reality rap’ isn’t so real
Last week I saw the new movie “Straight Outta Compton,” about the rise, fall and rise of the members of the world’s most dangerous group, N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit’ Attitude.) It’s a compelling story of young African-American males forming a rap group to document the streets in songs they called “reality rap” which would later be called “gangsta rap.” Director F. Gary Gray does a great job pulling out spot-on performances by a mostly unknown group of actors. Being an N.W.A. fan from the start, I enjoyed this head-bobbing trip down memory lane.
But not everyone is happy about the movie. N.W.A. producer Dr. Dre’s ex-girlfriend R&B singer Michel’le has spoken about being beaten up by Dre during their tenure together. Dre assaulted Journalist Dee Barnes in a club restroom in 1991. Another young artist, Tairrie B, says Dre punched her in the face twice at a Grammy party in 1990. Many have asked, especially given the misogyny of the group’s lyrics, why the incidents weren’t included in the movie.
That’s easy. It’s because Dr. Dre (along with Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright) produced the movie. I’m not giving him a pass but when I heard Dre and Cube were producing the movie I knew we were going to get a biased, revisionist view of what went down.
NWA members MC Ren and DJ Yella weren’t producers so their parts in the movies appear almost as afterthoughts even though Ren wrote half of Eazy-E’s debut album and almost as many tracks on “Straight Outta Compton” as Ice Cube.
If you pick up Bill Clinton’s book, “My Life” expecting him to open up about the Monica Lewinsky affair, forget it. And why bother reading George W. Bush’s book “Decision Points” when in a news conference he famously couldn’t think of one thing he’d done wrong as president. Movies are poor delivery systems for history as demonstrated by the torture-supporting “Zero Dark Thirty,” the A to Z conspiracy theories of “JFK,” the shockingly bad imperial history of “Gladiator,” and the laughable inaccuracy of “Braveheart.”
When people write autobiographies or produce films on their lives, the cherry picking and revisionism is baked in. Psychologists say that people view their histories as extensions of themselves. It’s human nature to want to present a noble history and even if one doesn’t, to polish the turd of our past.
I’m not immune. In a newspaper column this past January I shocked some long time readers when I wrote about getting into a brawl at a house party nearly 25 years ago and admitted that I’d been armed at the time. The column told young people that the wrong decision could change the trajectory of your life. I wanted to show that even someone who was in the Gifted and Talented Program and came from a religious middle class family could screw up.
But even though I was honest about what happened I still wrote “…the heated words quickly turned into Chumly and me fighting all eight guys,” when I could’ve said that I started the fight. I started the argument and I threw that first punch. It’s hard straight up owning things we’ve done that we’re not proud of.
My point isn’t to sweep what Dr. Dre did under the rug. After all, the stories are getting press. Michel’le and Dee Barnes can be found on YouTube talking about Dre. For his part Dre has given interviews acknowledging the “mistakes” he made in his past. But if anyone thought he was going to dramatize those events in the movie, they were dreaming.
It’s a missed opportunity because the movie does a good job showing where the group’s antagonism towards police originated. It showed a group of young men barely getting by driving broken down cars so we could understand their desire to get paid. But it doesn’t explain the misogyny. Obviously, while the misogyny of much of urban street life existed long before N.W.A., there’s a missed chance to show how these young men developed that way.
But this is why I prefer reading a biography to an autobiography. While an autobiography can reveal what a person may have been thinking at a crucial time in their lives and give us their version of events, often we’re left with a sanitized version. Embarrassment, shame, regret and pride conspire to skew past events. People want to present their past in the best possible light, accuracy be damned.
With all that said, I still enjoyed “Straight Outta Compton.” But for a group that prided itself on “reality” and chided others for not having the balls to be so real, this was a missed chance to get real. While the performances are great, the direction is tight and the music will have fans nodding along, I’m fully aware I was watching a less dangerous version of the world’s most dangerous group.