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.