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'Straight Outta Compton's' music tracks sample culture's infancy

'Straight Outta Compton's' music tracks sample culture's infancy
N.W.A in 1989, clockwise from top left: DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Eazy-E, Ice Cube. (Los Angeles Times)

There's a shot early in the new film about rap group N.W.A, "Straight Outta Compton," that shows a teenaged Andre Young lying on his back at home, surrounded by records.

It's a quick moment. Albums encircle the artist now known as Dr. Dre, a selection of funk, soul and early rap by James Brown, Roy Ayers, Zapp, Parliament-Funkadelic and others that both inspired the platinum producer as he became a household name and helped soundtrack big chunks of "Straight Outta Compton."

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Dre's favorite songs propel the movie, one about the rise of gangsta rap, "the strength of street knowledge" and the power of music as messenger. It's the late 1980s, and he's shown lugging a milk-crate stuffed with vinyl to a DJ gig, scratching and beat-juggling with them on turntables, spinning jams that he'd later sample on platinum N.W.A tracks or rework for "G-funk" classics with Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 2Pac, 50 Cent and others. With his success, Dre moves into fancy studios where those tracks can boom more freely.

"Compton" director F. Gary Gray mixes these funk, electro and early hip hop tracks along with N.W.A's more incendiary work, and in doing so weaves in fascinating sonic context, a kind of subliminal storyline on sample culture in its infancy. Within edits that roam throughout Los Angeles, tracks from the '70s like Roy Ayers Ubiquity's "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and "(Not Just) Knee Deep" by Parliament-Funkadelic capture the sound of South L.A. of the era.

While much of the commentary on the film focuses on the politics and personalities that drive the action, rumbling below is a story of music, inspiration and the ways in which generations bridge the past with the present to form new creative ideas. The hiphop from Compton sprang from a rich tradition.

Novices in the studio, the rappers risked ridicule in service of their mission. The squirrelly-sounding Eazy-E overcomes laughter in front of the microphone, and soon he's rolling through verses. Dre's beats improve as he masters the mixing board. We witness Ice Cube turning anger into rhymes.

Verbal reports from South Central Los Angeles that ditched the media middlemen, N.W.A's early work traveled from the pressing plants to record stores and swap meets and into car stereos without any regard for then gatekeepers of commercial radio or MTV. The music in the movie offers a lesson in how that insurrection was fueled by the use of familiar grooves. Seeking to document the here and now, the quintet (which also included M.C. Ren and DJ Yella), like Public Enemy's Bomb Squad production team in New York and others, employed classic party samples, familiar bass-lines and identifiable rhythm loops as Trojan horses of a sort.

"Weak at the Knees" by Steve Arrington's Hall of Fame foreshadows its use on N.W.A's "Gangsta Gangsta." P-Funk's "(Not Just) Knee Deep" bumps through the movie, later to be quoted on Dr. Dre's "... wit Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')." Cherrelle's synth-funk classic "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" plays during another scene, an unspoken nod to how rap and pop were starting to intermingle at the time.

During a shot of a high school parking lot, Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" booms from a car stereo, hinting at British synth pop's influence. Electro-funk drivers Roger Troutman and Zapp offer "More Bounce to the Ounce" as lowriders roll through Compton. Later Dre borrowed another Zapp idea, from "Dance Floor," for the melody in 2Pac's now-classic jam "California Love." We watch Tupac Shakur and Dre in in the studio recording, a propellant loop helping to form a new work of art.

N.W.A.'s classic approach: Hook 'em with something they know, then shock 'em with the new. Once knee deep in funk on the dance floor, stun them with cussed messages about street life that burst out of the tracks like warriors on a rampage.

"I could care less whether the pop people think my music is too crazy," Dr. Dre told the Times in the mid-1990s. "I didn't get where I am by catering to mainstream tastes. I started out by making my art for the underground and I still subscribe to that theory today."

Dre's continued success has proven the theory. The album "Straight Outta Compton" and N.W.A's post-Ice Cube tracks remain powerful, even if their homophobic and misongynist messages taint them. For better and worse, not only did they set the stage for a transformative decade in Los Angeles, the 1992 riots included, but were the center of a crucial moment in pop music history.

The summer of 1988 saw the arrival of not only "Straight Outta Compton" but Public Enemy's explosive "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." That same year transformative records from Slick Rick, Boogie Down Productions and the Jungle Bros. came out. De La Soul's classic "3 Feet High and Rising" was less than a year away, soon to be followed by the Beastie Boys' sample-heavy rap collage, "Paul's Boutique."

Unlike the peaceful party vibe of De La Soul, the Beasties and the Jungle Bros., though, N.W.A looped old tracks by James Brown, Roy Ayers Ubiquity, Wilson Pickett and others as a way to document turf battles, drug violence and, most famously in "... the Police," the abuses of the Los Angeles Police Department.

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It didn't take long for lawyers to swoop in with infringement suits, claiming that rap producers were exploiting the vagaries of copyright law, and a new kind of battle erupted. The end result: a notable reduction in the use of profit-eating samples. N.W.A's (non-homophobic, non-misogynist) messages, though, still resonate where other sample-heavy albums of the era remain buried. For his part, as his success grew, Dr. Dre started relying less on samples, preferring to re-record melodies and rhythms as a way of making them his own.

"This is not just dance music," Ice Cube told the Times in 1990, addressing the grim messages of his album "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted." "It's about knowing yourself, knowing who you are and knowing who is against you and who is trying to bring you down. I want people to listen to the words."

Judging by record sales and the box office predictions, millions of people still are.

Twitter: @LilEdit

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