As of 1988, the top-selling hip hop albums of all time were Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill, both released in 1987 and both selling millions without ruffling many feathers. In June 1988, Public Enemy released It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, an album that broke new ground both musically and lyrically with its richly layered, aggressive sound and its angry, politically conscious content. Yet even Public Enemy were dwarfed commercially by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, whose kid-friendly single “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and album He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper were both Top 5 pop hits that same summer. The group that would truly revolutionize hip hop was N.W.A—”Niggaz With Attitude”—whose debut album, Straight Outta Compton, was released on August 8, 1988.
The release of Straight Outta Compton marks a critical turning point in the history of hip hop, which was a booming global phenomenon in 1988 but still hadn’t strayed far from its roots as party music. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had established hip hop’s potential for social commentary with their epic single “The Message” in 1983, but Straight Outta Compton offered something far less measured and polite than one usually associates with the word “commentary.” The album’s first three tracks alone—“Straight Outta Compton,” “**** Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta”—may have contained more explicit language and incendiary subject matter than every previous hip hop record combined, and it contained nothing like a didactic “message.” It may not have been the first recorded example of Gangsta rap—Schooly D and Ice-T mined similar territory somewhat earlier—but Straight Outta Compton is the album that introduced it to the mainstream.
What is remarkable is that the album reached the mainstream at all. Far too controversial and explicit for commercial radio or MTV, Straight Outta Compton was shut out from the traditional route to commercial success. Yet it would eventually be certified triple Platinum, helped in part by a counterproductive effort at suppression in the form of an official letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation warning N.W.A and their label, Priority Records, that “Advocating violence and assault is wrong….Music plays a significant role in society and I wanted you to to be aware of the FBI’s position relative [“**** Tha Police”] and its message.”
N.W.A broke up in several stages between 1989 and 1992, releasing two more hit albums along the way: 100 Miles and Runnin’ (1990) and Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4Life) (1991). Former members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube would both go on to have hugely successful careers in popular music, while founding member Easy E would die of AIDS in 1995, by which time Gangsta rap—the sub-genre he’d helped to create—was the dominant style in the world of hip hop.