How The FBI Helped Turn N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Into A Hit

It’s hard to explain just how shocked stuck-up white people were when N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton was released on Aug. 9, 1988. But I’ll try. Imagine a room full of guys who look like Mr. Monopoly, and all their monocles pop at once. And from the next room, a thousand wealthy dowagers scream in unison, “Well, I never!” before collapsing on a fainting couch. Something like that. Lyrics like “a young n*gga on the warpath / and when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath” were considered so offensive that the FBI got involved.

And, ironically, turned Compton into a groundbreaking hit.

In a recent interview with Billboard, Ice Cube reminisced about the early days of N.W.A, saying, “We went from just being locals in L.A. to tangling with some of the biggest power entities out there.” Including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He continued, “It was all kinds of forces against us — it didn’t crack us, break us, turn us into punks. It didn’t make us bite our tongue. It just made us stand up even more — and that’s powerful.” Even if you weren’t alive or were too young to experience Compton when it dropped, the album still sounds like a revolution. The lyrics are ferocious and evocative (when the New York Times‘ Jon Pareles called them “vicious, sexist, and stupid,” he meant it as a compliment) and the beats pound; together, they command attention.

Which is exactly what N.W.A wanted. And got.

The FBI so wanted to extinguish the powerful flame that was “F*ck tha Police” that they sent a sternly worded letter to Priority Records and N.W.A, the first time they had ever done so for an album. It was written by Milt Ahlerich, the then-assistant director of the FBI office of public affairs, and read, “Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action…I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.”

(The cops weren’t fans of N.W.A, either. At an infamous 1989 show in Detroit, the group was allegedly warned to not perform “F*ck tha Police.” When they said f*ck that, and Ice Cube kicked off the song, straight from the underground, officers stormed the stage and they were escorted to their hotel, “only to be arrested later when they sneaked down to the lobby to meet girls.” The song’s lyrics were also faxed from one police department to another across the country.)

Not everyone was thrilled by the FBI’s letter.

Danny Goldberg, chairman of the Southern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and a recording industry executive, said the FBI letter overstepped the bounds between government and the arts.

“It is completely inappropriate for any government agency to try to influence what artists do,” said Goldberg. “It is completely against the American tradition of free speech and government non-interference for government agencies to criticize art, because such criticism carries with it an implied threat.” (Via)

That letter, which is now housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was the best thing that could have happened to N.W.A, though. The marketing geniuses at Priority sent the letter to the press, which stirred up a whole new level of interest in Compton. It also didn’t hurt that they were branded the World’s Most Dangerous Group after the Parents Music Resource Center, led by Al Gore’s wife Tipper, came after them, leading to the creation of the Parental Advisory Label.

The negative attention only gave N.W.A further fame and with it, album sales… By the summer of 1989, a right-wing backlash was in full force. A newsletter called Focus on the Family Citizen ran the headline, “Rap Group NWA says Kill Police.” (Via)

All the hate directed at N.W.A by the Helen Lovejoys of the world resulted in the Streisand effect, the phenomenon that stipulates the more you try to censor something, the more popular it’s going to be. Teens were told by their uptight, morally rigid parents that N.W.A were dangerous villains, which is exactly what they wanted to hear. If the FBI had left Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren alone, Straight Outta Compton might not have sold 3 million copies, a feat it impressively accomplished without the assistance of MTV or the radio.

I’m glad the FBI didn’t leave them alone.