From the perspective of those who call Compton home, however, references to the city’s politics and folklore begin to blur the lines of ‘realness’ and myth.
As hip hop progressed in the past three decades, the intrigue and danger of the West Coast — particularly Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles — is constantly addressed in rap lyrics. Compton represents the notorious theme of ‘keeping it real,’ heavily evident in gangsta rap. From the perspective of those who call Compton home, however, references to the city’s politics and folklore begin to blur the lines of ‘realness’ and myth.
When searching “Compton” on Google, it doesn’t seem surprising to find two news stories regarding teens killed in Compton shootings on the first page of results. After all, this is the image of Compton painted by popular rappers: a deeply troubled city intoxicated with gangs, drugs, and murder, inescapable for its inhabitants. A main proponent of this view of Compton was the rap group N.W.A., often regarded highly for their journalistic lyrical content regarding dangerous impressions of the LA ‘ghetto.’ However, “the violent gang- and drug-filled world of [N.W.A.’s] music ignored more prosaic aspects of Compton, such as its single-family homes and history as a black, middle-class enclave” (Kajikawa). Although all fiction contains truth and this case is no different, the myth of Compton’s terror-stricken streets formulated by members of N.W.A. and carried through rap generations to come is rooted in the commercial success of Straight Outta Compton as it “played to [white communities’] shrill, pervasive fears about gang violence” (Kajikawa).
The lyrics of Dr. Dre, a founding member of N.W.A., exemplify the storytelling aspects of rap, with Dre continuing to frame Compton as the established ghetto of the eighties in his 2015 album Compton. From the get-go, Dre’s “Intro (Compton)” regards the mythical state of his hometown, creating many discrepancies along the way in this opening monologue. Dre speaks of Compton as the external “American dream,” but internally, crime has gone amuck with “47 homicides last year.” However, The Homicide Report of the Los Angeles Times reports that there were 28 homicides in Compton in 2014 and 37 in 2013 — in fact, the annual homicide total suggested by Dre hasn’t been that high since 2005.
Most recently, the legacy of Compton has been upheld by Pulitzer Prize winning rapper Kendrick Lamar. Lamar plays into the deadly impressions of his hometown in several of his most popular songs, such as “m.A.A.d. City.” However, one of his most poignant displays of lyricism is his piece “Hood Politics” from the 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar combines truth and fiction when describing his experiences growing up in the “Compton zoo,” a metaphorical prison of residents who have been politically deprived of basic resources and support from an ambivalent government both locally and nationally. Lamar cohesively raps over a sharp 808 drumbeat,
From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around
Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans
Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?
They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs.
This stanza, along with Lamar’s previous mention of “the project filled with cameras,” characterizes Compton as a political scene built for national onlookers who have never and will never step foot in the city themselves. The only reason Compton can be considered a ghetto is because of the government elites who have externally influenced gang wars and drug and weapon trades within the city, controlling the political image of Compton to their benefit. Compton artists have played into the political narrative of white audiences for generations, but whether the myth’s creation is hypocritical or empowering will never truly be known.
Dr. Dre. “Intro (Compton).” Compton, Interscope Records, 2015.
Kajikawa, Loren. “Compton commodified: NWA was always a blend of fiction and reality.” The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/compton-commodified-nwa-was-always-a-blend-of-fiction-and-reality-45355. Accessed 13 Nov 2018.
Lamar, Kendrick. “Hood Politics.” To Pimp a Butterfly, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015.
“The Homicide Report.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, homicide.latimes.com/neighborhood/compton/year/2014. Accessed 13 Nov 2018.