For me, this story starts at a bar on the island of Utila, Honduras. I was there for a travel piece, hanging out at a hostel, when a Swedish backpacker started holding court about her adventures in Latin America. She was nailing the “youthful-pixie-vagabond” thing and had our table completely charmed when the conversation turned to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. As she riffed on her time there, and the feelings she had of ever-looming danger, she said, “It was like Compton!” A line which drew nods of agreement from the gathered crowd of Europeans, Aussies, and Americans.
“Like Compton” — that was the kicker to her story, her paragon of a “bad” place. I couldn’t help but ask, “Have you been to Compton?”
She hadn’t. Nor had she been of rap-music-listening age when N.W.A. was making the city famous. Still, reputations stick and expand exponentially and Compton’s rep — one part rap-invention, one part media vilification, and one part painful truth — clearly spanned the globe. So much so that the mid-sized city just south of LA had become cultural shorthand among backpackers for gritty neighborhoods. The story turns ironic when you note that Tegucigalpa is currently ranked fifth amongst the most dangerous cities on the planet. Meaning the Swedish backpacker was using Compton to hyperbolically explain a place that, in 2015, is actually far more dangerous than Compton.
Still, it’s no mystery where she got this idea. As the movie Straight Outta Compton details, the crack epidemic, gang violence, and police brutality in the late ’80s plagued the city. The intersection and overlap of these factors spawned N.W.A. and other rap acts who got famous by reflecting their environment with “documentary rap.” Through the process of cultural transference, the city became a bogeyman.
For a kid like me in my Portland (Ore.) bedroom, the whole situation was viewed from a distant remove, just as it was for the Swedish backpacker speaking from a bar on a tropical island. But for people who lived through it, the Compton reflected in rap music (and the combination of factors that made it the way it was) was very real. As recently as 2005, the city was close to being the nation’s per-capita murder capital. Things looked better by 2010, and by 2014 there were only 17 murders (compared to 87 in 1991). Currently, the LA Times ranks Compton as the 23rd most deadly among LA County’s 270 neighborhoods, while also reporting a 5 percent drop in crime during the first six months of 2015 (as the rest of LA county saw a 12.7 percent increase).
In general, it’s fair to say that things are looking up, and while there are still major concerns (Compton’s unsolved murder rate far outpaces the rest of the country), the buoyant optimism and innovative approach of 33-year-old Mayor Aja Brown has been one unarguable bright spot. Another encouraging sign: Dr. Dre recently announced that he’d be donating his artist royalties from his movie tie-in album, Compton, to building a local performing arts and community center.
Meanwhile, Chef Kevin Bludso has been doing his own Compton-image-rehab, one rack of slow-cooked ribs at a time. The locally raised chef has single handedly put Compton’s food scene on the map and the development of a food-culture is an undeniable harbinger of positive change. So it was a natural fit, as I ventured to gain a more textured understanding of the city by talking with N.W.A. founding member Antoine Carraby, aka DJ Yella, that we arranged to meet at Bludso’s Barbecue on Long Beach Boulevard.