The summer blockbuster Straight Outta Compton dramatizes the emergence of 1980s Southern California rap group N.W.A. In 1988, the album Straight Outta Compton popularized gangsta rap music with graphic, scary lyrics about street life in South Central, Los Angeles.
What you may not know is that one of their songs, "Fuck the Police," was at the center of a First Amendment fight between N.W.A. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In 1989, N.W.A.'s record label received a warning letter from the FBI saying the lyrics to "Fuck tha Police" encouraged "violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer." N.W.A. went public with the letter and their status as outlaw music artists only increased.
Even though Straight Outta Compton went on to be heralded as one of the best albums of all time by Rolling Stone, and N.W.A. members Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson) and Dr. Dre (Andre Romelle Young) went on to become rap superstars, law enforcement misunderstands rap music. Aspiring gangsta rappers from poor neighborhoods across the United States have tried to mimic the success of N.W.A. but find their lyrics used against them in criminal proceedings.
Just ask San Diego rapper, Tiny Doo (Brandon Duncan). San Diego district attorneys said that Duncan conspired to commit a series of gang-related shootings but didn't present any physical evidience that he had anything to do with the violent crimes. Instead, they said he benefited from the shootings through his gangsta rap album, No Safety.
"We're not just talking about a CD of anything, of love songs," said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Campagna in court. "We're talking about a CD [cover] … There is a revolver with bullets."
"It's not real life, it's just entertainment," Duncan told Reason TV. He says gansta rap is no different than violent action movies: "The more shooting you talk about in your raps, the more people…want to go grab that album."
According to research from Charis Kubrin, a sociologist at the University of California-Irvine and Erik Nielson at the University of Richmond, prosecutors present rap in criminal proceedings because they know the scary effect it has on jurors who aren't familiar with rap's artistic conventions.
"Jurors [tend to be] older, higher socioeconomic status, [and] typically white," Kubrin told Reason TV. "They often don't have the proper context for understanding rap music."
For more of Reason TV's interview with Tiny Doo, watch, "Jailed for Rap Lyrics: Is Rapper Tiny Doo a Murderer or a Musician?"
Written and produced by Paul Detrick.
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