Two seminal hip-hop albums are now 30 years old.
"It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" by Public Enemy and "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A. ushered in a new direction for the genre with lyrics that exposed conditions in black communities to white audiences.
The St. Louis region has a long history with hip-hop. An East St. Louis radio station was one of the first to broadcast the first mainstream hip-hop song, “Rapper’s Delight.” And of course, the city has its own stars, Nelly and Chingy. But the death of Michael Brown, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and incidents of police misconduct have brought the lyrics and themes of the two albums back to the forefront.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis, spoke with three hip-hop enthusiasts. Rosalind “Roz” Norman, a hip-hop professor at Webster University, Franchot Cunningham, who has assisted Norman in her course and James Biko, formerly DJ Needles. The three reflected on the cultural significance of the albums and what they mean today.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Chad Davis: I wanted to know, if everyone here was born at the time, I want to know, where were you all?
Franchot Cunningham: I was a senior in high school so I remember this very vividly. It was a movement. Both rap groups were just amazing at the time. So, yeah, it was a great time for me.
Rosalind Norman: I remember what it was like when N.W.A. and Public Enemy came out. At that time, they were the voice for the voiceless. They were the ones who were like the journalists of what was happening in their neighborhood, or the 'hood, and they were real about it. So if you want to look at semantics, some people get upset because they say, “Oh, they used a lot of profanity and all this. But you have to go back to the time, give it context, understand the background.
Davis: How were they received at the time and are they still perceived the same way now?
Cunningham: N.W.A., they didn’t care, they just came out and was like, “This is who we are, like us or forget about us. But we’re here and this is what is going on in our community and we want to express that.” Public Enemy were more mature, more strategic in their movement.
Davis: Before those albums came out, what was the landscape like?
James Biko: It was definitely more lighter. That’s the late '80s, and not saying that the early '80s was without its share of “reality rap,” because you had “The Message,” which kind of was the turning point. Before that, most of it was party rap over breaks and disco breaks — which is lovely, which is awesome — but there really wasn’t anything to reflect the darker side of the streets.
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Davis: Last year, Billboard reported that hip-hop and R&B are the most popular genres in the world. Can the rise of hip-hop as the number one genre be attributed to those two artists or those two groups?
Norman: Well they’re definitely a part of the foundation.
Biko: It’s not just them, obviously, But, yes, definitely those two albums are critical in the conversation about the ascension of hip-hop. '88 alone, that was such a pivotal year. A lot of people consider that the beginning of the golden age.
Davis: Do we have artists right now who you could trace back to those two albums?
Cunningham: As far as artists after N.W.A., man, that’s kind of hard. Maybe Snoop [Dogg] because he’s from that area, some west coast guys, but I don’t think too many got to that level with those guys. They were kind of on their own.
Norman: Even though you’re dealing with what’s going on in South Central, around Compton and all of that, dating back to the time when I was out there. It’s still here. I’m looking at the fact that the cycle still continues to repeat itself. It's still here because, that’s Ferguson. That’s Ferguson when you sit there and think about that.
Biko: Without "Straight Outta Compton," without "It Takes a Nation of Millions," you wouldn’t have "The Chronic," and then we wouldn’t have "Doggystyle," and then we wouldn’t have Tupac’s catalog, and then we wouldn’t have Kendrick. Without "It Takes a Nation of Millions," pretty much the same thing but also we wouldn’t have Brand Nubian, we might not even have Tribe. These definitely helped with the trajectory of more people, like we said, descendants.
Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis