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Straight outta Compton: What mapping L.A. through its music history tells us about our city


Aboriginal Australians have a concept called “songlines” — in which they use songs as a map to navigate through a physical landscape. Songlines don’t just evoke a particular experience or moment, they connect those experiences to specific places. Los Angeles is a city that has been repeatedly mythologized in music. It too has its own urban songlines of sorts, and those songlines reflect the complicated relationships that Angelenos have with the city and its neighborhoods.

Through these songlines we can see how the city, and our perception of the city, has changed. We can see how the city’s creative center of gravity shifted over the years: from the beaches in the 1960s, to the Sunset Strip in the 1980s, to the explosion of rap from Compton in the late 1980s and '90s.

We can also examine the neighborhood conditions that gave rise to what urban planners call “creative clusters.” No, not a vegan breakfast snack from that place in Silver Lake, creative clusters are places where the concentration of people living near each other leads to a cross-pollination of ideas, and an outpouring of music. (In the case of the Sunset Strip in the '80s, an outpouring of Aquanet hairspray, too.)

Using the map, it becomes clear how creative clusters tend to pop up in reasonably priced neighborhoods, and typically dissolve when things get too expensive. Or to put it another way: almost all creative clusters are in affordable neighborhoods, but not all affordable neighborhoods give rise to creative clusters.

Compton is the perfect example of one of these creative-cluster neighborhoods.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to find a single lyrical reference to Compton before the 1980s. In 1982, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People name-checked Compton and Watts in “West Coast Poplock,” a tribute to the dance craze that emerged there. For those who lived through the '90s, hearing the song for the first time today sounds incongruously upbeat; we expect songs about Compton to be much darker and angrier.

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Compton’s musical style morphed into what we know it to be today soon after the LAPD began using military tanks and battering rams to enter houses — a scene memorialized in the 1985 song “Batterram,” by Toddy Tee, the first major rapper to emerge from Compton. This was the backdrop against which N.W.A. emerged, five young men channeling their anger about police brutality and race relations. They first performed “Gangsta, Gangsta” in 1986 at Doo-Tos, and “Dopeman” in 1988 at Skateland. What followed in the decades to come was a creative and blisteringly angry outpouring of music that continues to this day. From DJ Quik to Kendrick Lamar, this music is not just about Compton, but of Compton.

By the late 1980s, the neighborhood was featured in dozens of songs, and through these, it became more than a place; it became a symbol. Compton became shorthand for a universal experience of race relations and police brutality.

Like Compton, Beverly Hills is a symbol as much as it is a place. And while also mythologized in music, it is perhaps the opposite of a creative cluster. Songs about Beverly Hills tend to be not of the neighborhood, but merely about the neighborhood. These references — typically either aspirational or critical — are almost always written from an outsider’s perspective. Beverly Hills is a touchstone in a way that similar neighborhoods in other cities are not. No one in New York is singing aspirational songs about the Upper East Side or Brooklyn Heights.

Finally, the Sunset Strip has reflected the complicated relationship aspiring creatives have with the entertainment industry, ever since Al Dubin dubbed Sunset the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in 1933. The 1966 riots on the Sunset Strip inspired Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” although it is not referenced in the lyrics. In the 1980s, the Sunset Strip became the epicenter of the hair metal scene including Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot and Whitesnake—before virtually dropping off the map entirely in the '90s as the neighborhood grew more expensive.

Looking at the music map again, it’s clear that Los Angeles has not had another significant creative cluster since Compton. This is likely a result of the city’s rising real estate prices. Even the Silver Lake music scene of the mid to late aughts was perhaps too short-lived, given how rapidly housing prices appreciated in the neighborhood. The early adopters barely had time to record an EP extolling the virtues of the neighborhood before their cheap house-with-basement-home-studio found itself in the bulls-eye of real estate flippers.

This raises the question: which of Los Angeles’ currently affordable neighborhoods could give rise to the next creative cluster?

Constantine Valhouli is the co-founder of NeighborhoodX, a soon-to-launch real estate data start-up that explores cities at the neighborhood level. Follow NeighborhoodX on Facebook or Constantine on Twitter at @c_valhouli.

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