Compton: A Musical History

A Musical History / News / Special Features / February 5, 2016

Editor’s Note 1

“We ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”
— Tupac Shakur, P3 Soul Interview | Nov. 1994
(Two weeks before the Quad Recording Studio Shooting)

I. Introduction

Compton, the small, notorious, Southern Californian city, has produced its share of iconic hip-hop over the last 25 years. Birthplace to the west coast gangster rap movement, Compton unleashed onto the world influential hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, MC Eiht, and DJ Quik, just to name a few.

One of the biggest movies of 2015 was the N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, and one of the biggest albums of last year was To Pimp A Butterfly, from Compton local Kendrick Lamar. From this alone, it’s hard to argue against Compton’s continued significance on music and culture as we know it today. Yet, despite the impact artists from this city have had on the musical narrative of today, Compton is so often overlooked when music historians and enthusiasts lecture about the “great music cities of America!,” cities that would change music and culture forever with the sound that was linked to them. These individuals will be quick to tell you about about Elvis Presley in Memphis, Bob Dylan and the folk movement in 1960s Greenwich Village, and what Motown did up in Detroit, but few will truly recognize N.W.A.,  a group cementing hip-hop and rap music as being more than just a fun, dance club, disco replacement, but rather as an important genre, giving voice to individuals routinely rendered voiceless by the mainstream.

This “A Musical History” hopes to trace some of the sprawling history of Compton-based hip-hop and rap, from Dr. Dre’s first project, World Class Wreckin’ Cru in 1985, through some artists born in and outside of Compton who had used, or had an effect on the Compton sound, to the moment Kendrick Lamar started making waves with his debut studio album in 2012. There will be familiar hits and hidden gems throughout this mix. So sit back, relax, grab a 40 (if you are of age, of course), hit play, and cruise though Compton’s rich hip-hop history.


II. The Origins of Compton Hip-Hop and the Gangster Rap Movement

“I think it’s bout time to hit these niggas up-side the head with some of that West Coast gangsta shit!”
– Snoopdogg, 2Pac and Snoopdogg Live at the House of Blues, July 4 1996

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World Class Wreckin’ Cru — World Class
Year: 1985
Album: World Class

It all started in a West Coast California club known as “Eve After Dark.” Sounds like Run-DMC don’t it? It’s tame, repetitive, and really does not sound anything like what you will hear throughout this mix, but make no mistake — despite the tame tone, this track was produced by DJ Yella and Dr. Dre (In some Michael Jackson Esq outfits if you Google it) — two of the founders of N.W.A. While it’s certainly not the best song on this mix, and it features virtually no stand out lyrics, it’s important to see where Yella and Dre were with music when they started to form their idea of creating N.W.A.

NWA

N.W.A — Gangsta Gangsta
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Year: 1988

Once N.W.A (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren) came onto the scene — things changed forever. With N.W.A came a new level of bravado and intensity to hip-hop. The language became vulgar and violence became a recurrent theme. No longer would hip-hop sound like The Sugar-Hill Gang (with respect). While many — including the United States Government — were angered and offended by songs like “Fuck the Police” — many critics and fans were able to see through to the social commentary N.W.A were trying to assert. As Ice Cube (Played by the real Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) says in the Straight Outta Compton biopic, “Our art is a reflection of our reality.”

This was the truth. Just as blues era musicians sang about chain gangs, murder and boxcar train riding, N.W.A and other rappers wrote about gang banging, police brutality and slinging dope to make ends meet. “Gangsta Gangsta” contains all of this through clever rhymes, written and performed by Ice Cube, over an excellently produced track by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. While Ice Cube was not born in Compton, he was an integral part to N.W.A’s success, writing most of Eazy-E and Dr. Dre’s lyrics on Straight Outta Compton.

Great Lyric:
Ice Cube: “Here’s a lil gangsta, short in size/A T-shirt and Levi’s is his only disguise/Built like a tank yet hard to hit/Ice Cube and Eazy E Cold runnin shit.”

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Eazy-E — No More ?’s
Album: Eazy-Duz-It
Year: 1988

While Eazy-E never really wrote any of his lyrics, he certainly had a big impact on N.W.A and had one of the best solo efforts of any member of the group. “Eazy-Duz-It” helped put N.W.A on the map, and helped assert Eazy-E as one of the biggest names in the group. This track sports an impressive beat, multiple flow changes, and a clever ending. Its intresting to wonder what Eazy-E’s place in hip-hop would be today had he not passed away.

Great Lyric:
Eazy-E: “Walked in, said: ‘This is a robbery’ Didn’t need the money, it’s just a hobby/Fill the bag, homeboy, don’t lag/I want money, beer, and a pack of zig-zags.”

Hi-C — Sitting In The Park
Album: Skanless
Year – 1991

Hi-C and DJ Qick are oft-forgotten hip hop artists from Compton, outside of old school hip-hop heads. In-fact Hi-C is rarely even mentioned at all. Yet each of them can certainly not be ignored when tracing Compton hip-hops roots. Hi-C’s 1991 album Skanless is a true underground gem of the west coast gangsta rap movement, perfectly produced by DJ Quik, who is easily one of the most talented producers to come out of Compton, and the West Coast in general. “Sitting In The Park” is a true standout on the album, and contains one of the best beats you’ll find on this mixtape. While the song as a whole is misogynistic as hell — it does it in a sorta-nice way compared to some other tracks to come out at the time. It’s also incredibly catchy, and is sure to be a replay for you. Its the kind of song that makes it feel like summer even in the cold winter months.

Great Lyric:
Hi-C: “Nine o’clock in the morning, yes, I got dressed/ Thought about my girl with the big fat breast/So I called her up and asked could I see her today/She said okay, so I said, ‘I’ll see ya Shante.’”

DJ Quik — Tonite
Album: Quik is the Name
Year: 1991

DJ Quik (who got his name from how quick he could lay down tracks) has produced songs for Hi-C, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and E-40, just to name a few. Quik is also an incredibly talented MC, offering up fast humorous rhymes, like you’ll find on the album this track hails from Quik is the Name. This track is a true standout from this man’s large discography, and tells the story of a guy who just can’t help but party every night, even when he wakes up hungover each day.

Great Lyric:
DJ Quik: “We’re bustin funky compositions as smooth as a prism/So check it while I kick it to this funky ass rhythm.”

CMW

Compton’s Most Wanted — Growin’ Up In The Hood
Album: Straight Checkn ‘Em
Year: 1991

You most likely know about MC Eiht, even if you don’t realize it just yet. MC Eiht was the leader of the Compton-based hip-hop group Compton’s Most Wanted, and was one of the few artists to be featured on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album Good kid, M.A.A.D City, an album that embodies Compton in every way. Everyone remembers the track “M.A.A.D. City,” as it features one of the most memorable hooks on the entire record, and every fan of old school hip-hop got excited when MC Eiht comes in on the track with his iconic “Wake yo punk ass up” — a line he used a number of times throughout his large discography.

If The Kinks were the underrated brit-pop answer to The Beatles, Compton’s Most Wanted was the same for N.W.A. This track was written for the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood, a film introducing the world to the “hood drama,” and bringing Compton even further into the mainstream. Joel Singleton was the youngest director, and the first ever African American director in history to be nominated for Best Director at the 1991 Academy Awards. “Growin’ Up In The Hood” is a narrative track about growing up on the streets of Compton in the ’80s. It’s the kind of narrative, raw track artists like Tupac and Warren G would become known for in the mid ’90s, and would eventually have an influence on the ultra-conscious hip-hop narrative we have today.

Great Lyric:
MC Chill: “5-O at my doo’ at 8 o’clock/ Rush to the toilet so I could flush the rock/Out the backdoor, freeze, I heard a shout/Am i sho’, yo I guess I got no clout/But it’s murder one, I’m the victim, damn, that ain’t good/Growin’ up in the hood”


III. Dis Tracks, Birth of the G-Funk Era, Death Row Records, and Tupac in Compton.

G-Funk: “A style of generally West Coast rap whose musical tracks tend to deploy live instrumentation, heavy on bass and keyboards, with minimal (sometimes no) sampling and often highly conventional harmonic progressions and harmonies,” — Krims, Adam (2000) Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity

The G-Funk Era is as important to West Coast hip-hop and Compton as crust is to a loaf of bread. This time period in Compton hip-hop also saw a variety of artists in neighboring LA communities like Long Beach, and others from all over the United States come into Compton to work with producers like Dr. Dre and DJ Quik. Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Nate Dogg — 3 artists tied deeply to the sound of Compton were actually not Compton locals. This time period also saw the dawn of Death Row Records, the notorious hip-hop label founded by Suge Knight and Dr. Dre. Death Row were known for their violent unconventional business practices and ties to gang activities. Stories from this time period surrounding Death Row still permeate the narrative of hip-hop today. This was a dark time for hip-hop, with the East Coast vs. West Coast beefs that culminated with the murder of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, but a time that also brought some of the genre’s greatest and most well-known albums like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Tupac Shakur’s  All Eyez On Me.

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Ice Cube — No Vaseline 
Album: Death Certificate
Year: 1991

Gotta have a dis track on this list — not just a dis track, THE dis track. Dis tracks were an integral part to hip-hop around this time and Ice Cube had one of the best of all-time. Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” — featured on the rapper’s second studio album — was a direct response to several lines his former band mates in N.W.A made directed at him on their rather lackluster EP, 100 Miles and Runnin, and their second studio album, Niggaz4Life. Ice Cube comes in with furious energy and anger directed at members of N.W.A, and his former manager Jerry Heller — all of which he had actually avoided calling out over the course of his entire first album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. His bars are so cleverly crafted, you can’t help but laugh over the course of the entire track at the jabs he makes at his former partners, for everything from the group moving out of Compton, to having dinner with the president.

Great Lyric:
Ice Cube: “I started off with too much cargo/Dropped four niggas now I’m making all the dough/White man just ruling/The Niggas With Attitudes? (Who ya fooling!)”

Snoop

Snoop Dogg — The Shiznit
Album: Doggystyle
Year: 1993

When Snoop Dogg came on the scene, he was kinda like the dirty inappropriate uncle of Compton hip-hop — despite his young age when he hit the mainstream with his debut album Doggystyle. Doggystyle was the first album since Straight Outta Compton that really brought west coast and Compton-based hip-hop to the masses. Doggystyle debuted at #1 on the Billboard top 200 chart, and was the fastest selling hip-hop album of all time until The Marshall Mathers LP came out in 2000.

Snoop Dog put sex and drugs first. It was dirty, vulgar, had one of the most iconic, yet inappropriate album covers of all time. It pissed people off to say the least — but it is still considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It also cemented G-Funk as a sound that would vibe with people over the next 5 years — with tracks like “Gin and Juice” becoming a folk-song of sorts. “The Shiznit” is a true standout track on the album, with Snoop at his lyrical best. It also features one of the best hip-hop skits ever, something everyone who knows the album has to perform when the track starts to play.

Great Lyric:
Snoop Dogg: “Is Dr. Drizzay, so lizzay, and plizzay/ With the D-O-double-Gizzay the fly human being seein’/No I’m not European being all I can/When I put the motherfuckin mic in my hand.”

Warren G (Ft. Nate Dogg) — Regulate
Album: Regulate… G Funk Era
Year: 1994

This track — originally written for the sports film Above the Rim, starring Leon Robinson and Tupac — epitomizes the G-Funk sound. This is no surprise, as Nate Dogg is widely considered to be the King of G-Funk, and his smooth vocals are featured predominantly on the track. Nate Dogg would later use this track on his debut album, Regulate… G Funk Era.

Great Lyric: 
Nate Dogg: “If you know like I know, you don’t wanna step to this/It’s the G-funk era, funked out with a gangsta twist/If you smoke like I smoke/Then you’re high, like, everyday/And if your ass is a buster, 213 will regulate.”

tupac

 2pac (Ft. Rappin’ 4-Tay) — Only God Can Judge Me
Album: All Eyez On Me
Year: 1996

Even though 2pac was not born in Compton, no other rapper is as connected to the city as much as he. 2pac brought something completely different to west coast hip-hop and the mainstream around this time — ultra-conscious rhymes that often referenced suicide, depression, substance abuse, and PTSD — similar to what Nas was doing on the East Coast.

While All Eyez On Me is not his best album (listen to “Me Against the World”), it is his most well known and his most “Compton.” The album features many artists who were big parts of the Compton/west-coast hip-hop movement, and is the only post-death record by the artist to be released on Death Row Records. Suge Knight has since pimped every last drop of recorded material Tupac had despite Pac leaving the label to pursue solo recording efforts under the name Makaveli. “Only God Can Judge Me” is not the biggest track from the album (that spot is reserved for the classic “California Love”), but it’s a track that embodies all the important lyrical themes Tupac was so well known for. The track also features that G-Funk sound and uses it in an very interesting way at the start of the second verse, creating a flat-line effect.

Great Lyric:
2Pac: “I’d rather die like a man than live like a coward/There’s a ghetto up in Heaven and it’s outs/‘Black Power!’, is what we scream as we dream/In a paranoid state/And our fate, is a lifetime of hate.”
(…man)


IV. The Old School Returns while G-Funk Falls Away

The death of 2pac on the west coast and Biggie Smalls on the east coast slowed hip hop way down. The national spotlight on the violence found within this music intensified, and all eyes were on the coasts. Things got heavy and hip-hop fans began to focus their attention on artists coming out of places like Detroit and Atlanta. Dr. Dre found himself leaving Death Row to start his own label, Aftermath, which had a fairly slow start. The narrative changed, and while Dre did eventually adapt and found success with Detroit rapper Eminem — the G-Funk and Compton sound died. Still, that’s not to say there were not some good tracks to come out at this time — most being from some of Compton hip-hop founders.

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MC Ren — I Don’t Give A Damn
Album: The Villain Is Back
Year: 1996

A relatively dark track, from N.W.A member MC Ren that warrants no further explanation.

DJ Quik — Pitch In OnA Party
Album: Balance & Options
Year: 2000

“Pitch In OnA Party” is easily one of the best tracks on this mix. Its a upbeat track that features an impressive hook, and relatively happy lyrics. It’s one of the few standouts from this era.

Great Lyric: 
DJ Quik: “Alright/Somebody bring the potato salad/Let’s take a ballot/On who’s gonna invite the hoes that make the party valid/Cuz we don’t need a whole crib full of dudes again/And here come the police with them big black boots again.”

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Dr. Dre (Ft. Eminem) — Forgot About Dre
Album: 2001
Year: 1999

Dre has a ridiculous protege-finding skill. Eminem might be the biggest of those finds, as he is routinely featured on “Top Rappers of All Time” lists. “Forgot About Dre” is a great retrospective track about Dre’s career, and what he had been working on during the long gap between his 1992 album, The Chronic, and the album this track is featured on, 2001. It also features a super catchy hook from Eminem, and the ferocious, fast lyrical stylings Em was known for.

Great Lyric:
Dr. Dre: “Now you wanna run around talkin’ bout guns like I ain’t got none/What you think I sold ‘em all, cause I stay well off/Now all I get is hate mail all day saying Dre fell off/What cause I been in the lab with a pen and a pad/Tryin’ to get this damn label off?/I ain’t havin’ that/This I the millennium of Aftermath/It ain’t gonna be nothin’ after that”


V: The New School, Watts, and the Future of Compton Hip-Hop
It took a long time for Compton hip-hop (and west coast hip-hop in general) to come back into the mainstream. While there were artists who released music between 1999 and 2009, there was not much notable to come out, and when it finally did Dr. Dre was still heavily involved.

The Game, who was born and raised in Compton, broke into the mainstream around the mid 2000s when he joined up with G-Unit under Aftermath. While The Game is certainly not the best rapper to come out of Compton, he lived and breathed the raw, guttural energy of the city, which had not had a star in some time. Following on the heels of The Game came the hip-hop collective, Black Hippy. Black Hippy — made up of Kendrick Lamar , whom was also born and raised in Compton, Jay Rock from Watts L.A, School Boy Q from South Central, and Ab-Soul from Carson (all  just outside of Compton) breathed some new life into the movement, and brought listeners back to the conscious, introspective and regional rhymes of 2pac.

Black Hippy built upon their forefathers, taking rap into an increasingly introspective place, and began to speak even more on the cultural narrative that faces individuals from these areas in the U.S.

gameNWA

The Game — Compton Story
Album: Black Wall Street (Volume 5)
Year: 2009

With Compton Story, The Game plays on the classic track “Children’s Story” by hip-hop Godfather Slick Rick. An uncle is telling a story to his nephews about “the wrong path.” Much like in “Children’s Story,” the wrong path includes gang-violence, stealing and murder. It’s a story driven track that gives its listener an example of what it’s like to live in Compton, and at the end advises them not to follow the path of the author. Love the final line of this track — great way to end the song.

Great Lyric:
The Game: “It was 7:15 on my rolex watch/And I can’t do the time that my rolex got/And like hands on the clock, I went this way, thatta way/Ran around the corner, and that’s when I threw my gat away.”

Glasses Malone (Ft. Jay Rock) — No Sympathy
Album: Beach Cruiser
Year: 2011

Watts is about 10 minutes from Compton, and both Jay Rock, and Glasses Malone hail from this city. One might say Compton and Watts are inseparable. The two cities mirror one another in the narratives that surround them, while shining light on these two artists is a must on this playlist. It’s your typical boast track, but it has a great beat, and Glasses Malone has the perfect voice for hip-hop. Jay Rock comes in hard on this track as well. It’s fun.

Great Lyric:
Glasses Malone: “Young Watts nigga/Strapped down with a Thompson/East side Watts/But my west sides Compton/Where gang banging is the only thing constant/Hood made a tough guy/Call me Charles Bronson.”

Jay Rock (Ft. Kendrick Lamar) — Hood Gone Love It
Album: Follow Me Home
Year: 2011

More than The Game, more than Kendrick Lamar, more than anyone else in Black Hippy — Jay Rock screams the West Coast. The real rebirth in the West Coast sound. I highly recommend everyone take a listen to his 2011 album, Follow Me Home, and his 2015 album, 90059. “Hood Gone Love It” is a perfect banger, and you will know all the words in no time. It’s easy to see why Kendrick keeps working with Jay Rock over every other artist in Black Hippy.

Great Lyric:
Jay Rock: “Coming down in the old school, so cool/Whip like a fire ball call it Goku/You don’t know the tribulations that we go through/Put your ears to the speakers I’mma show you.”

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Ab Soul (Ft. Black Hippy) — Black Lip Bastard (RMX)
Album: Control System
Year: 2012

An awesome Black Hippy group track that truly speaks for itself, everyone’s in sync in the same way N.W.A was when they first hit the scene. Each member of Black Hippy are represented by Top Dawg Entertainment — an independent California-based hip-hop label founded by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. This label is responsible for bringing Black Hippy together, and promoting them through online mixtapes and further networking.

Great Lyric:
Ab-Soul: Perpetrating, bitches popping Percocet and percolating/Freelance for God, but do the work of Satan.”


VI. Full Circle With Something New

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Kendrick Lamar (Ft. Dr. Dre) — Compton
Album: good Kid, m.A.A.d city
Year: 2012

We have finally come full circle. Dr. Dre, one of the forefathers of Compton and West Coast hip-hop coming together with the current king of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar, on a track named after the city we have spent so long exploring.

Kendrick Lamar would have been successful without Dre’s help — a fact Kendrick has made known repeatedly — but Dre did adopt him as another protege. What that did was help give Kendrick the freedom and resources to put out his 2012 masterpiece, good kid, m.A.A.d city, a sprawling concept album that tells the story of a young kid growing up on the streets of Compton, and trying to escape the negative influences the city has on him. Kendrick has stated a number of times the album is an introspective look at himself, and what he went through growing up in this city, trying to escape. “Compton” — the final track of the album — is an ode to the city from which he hails, even if the city caused him grief. This city, the people he knew, the people he lost, the sound that inspired him is an integral part to his life and to his career, and he lets it be known how important this city is to him with this track.

Thank you for reading — We hope you have an understanding of how important Compton was for music, and what artists who came out of the city or were heavily influenced by the city were trying to accomplish.

What is your favorite Compton track or rapper? Let us know in the comments!

  1. In order to respect the original work, all language remains.

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Zachary Behm
Zachary Behm is from Asheville, NC and has been a writer and illustrator for Modern Vinyl since August 2014. He currently works as a child therapist, and sometimes does freelance illustration. If you have a question or comment, don’t hesitate to tweet him or find him on Instagram: @zachbehm_illustration






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