Life Ain’t Nothing But Biopics & Money: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ & the Eternal Conflict Between Art and Commerce

"Straight Outta Compton" is one of the best music biopics ever made. But it's an even better commercial for Beats.
By    August 21, 2015

straightoutta

Will Hagle got a fire score on his litmus test

Sunday was a good day. It was also a hot day. More Angelenos than expected chose Arclight as their air-conditioned refuge. The movie theater was packed, and so was the parking garage. The only open spots were on the top level, which surprisingly offers amazing panoramic views of the city. If you squint hard enough towards the southeast, you can almost see Compton.

Straight Outta Compton ends with Dr. Dre announcing his departure from Death Row. Someone asks what he’s going to call his new label. He pauses, looks into the camera and says: “Aftermath.” The music starts blaring and the credits start rolling.

If Straight Outta Compton were a superhero story a la the “Without Me” video, you might suspect the abrupt ending was just a setup for a sequel in which Dr. Dre teams up with B. Rabbit. But it is a movie based on real people, so the credit sequence uses the biopic trope of telling the audience what everyone depicted in the movie is up to now. Ice Cube is an actor. MC Ren and DJ Yella are glossed over. Dr. Dre is hip-hop’s first billionaire. Beats, not N.W.A., is the real success story.

“I can’t believe we just watched a two and a half hour ad for Beats,” my friend said as we climbed the parking garage stairs after the movie.

She was wrong. It was actually a nice, entertaining tribute to the meaningful work that N.W.A. and its individual members put out over the years, as well as timely social commentary about police brutality, gang violence, and the unfair stereotyping of hip hop. But she was also right. When we finally reached the garage’s top level, the first thing we saw was a massive Apple Music poster scaling the side of the building across the street.

The story in Straight Outta Compton is about the music business in the late 20th century, but the movie itself represents the way business is conducted now. It made $60 million this weekend. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were credited as producers, a sly exercise in self-mythology by two living men still actively engaged with new and old business endeavors. Dre’s new album, Straight Outta Compton, The Chronic, N.W.A. Greatest Hits, Eazy-Duz-It, 2001, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, The Best of N.W.A. and 2Pac’s Greatest Hits are all currently in the Top 50 most-streamed albums on Apple Music (in that order). It’s unsurprising that Dre gets in the last word of the film, both literally and as the clear winner of the credit sequence. In N.W.A.’s heyday, success was as simple as selling records. Dre has changed with the times; this truly is the millennium of Aftermath.

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Film, like music, is both a business and an art. When you’re born into the bottom of a rigged capitalist society, there is nothing wrong with using music and entertainment as a ticket to the top. The film does a great job of acknowledging that a combination of artistic talent and business savvy is what got N.W.A. out of Compton and into Hollywood.

No one succeeds on the strength of just one of those qualities. At a certain point in the career of any artist-turned-businessman, however, the balance between them has to be more carefully considered. Magna Carta Holy Grail wouldn’t have been so offensive if Jay-Z had prioritized recording good music over his Samsung contract. Dre’s business decisions have always been transparent and Compton is a good enough album, but from the fan’s perspective it just becomes difficult to find artistic value in something so obviously designed to turn a profit. All the album’s royalties will go towards the funding of a youth arts center in Compton, but true profit in the 21st century is derived from converting new subscribers.

N.W.A., like most undiscovered acts of the late 20th century, likely started out with a healthy balance between artistic talent and monetary aspirations. At least that’s how the film shows it. I don’t have the authority to speak on the group with historical context, because Ice Cube is old enough to be my father. I know this because his son, who plays him in the movie, was in my class at USC. Jimmy Iovine, also portrayed briefly in the film, delivered our commencement speech. His speech mentioned many of the talented artists he’s worked with over the years, but the focus was on how successful of a venture the Beats brand has been. Then Dr. Dre came onstage and, to the bewilderment of a sea of rich white assholes, announced the new $70 million business school he and Iovine were launching.

This seems to be the career trajectory of most successful, aging rappers. Money becomes the motivating factor, rather than the reward for great artistic output. Perhaps that’s the fault of the system, and artistic integrity is an impossibility in American society. We’d never have heard Straight Outta Compton or any other great debut if money wasn’t at least on the musicians’ minds in the recording booth. The best first projects aren’t made in a vacuum, but they tend to be devoid of expectation. “Fuck Tha Police” might not have been recorded immediately after N.W.A. was racially profiled by LAPD as the film shows it, but it did emerge from a general frustration in the daily lives of talented individuals. They had to say something, then they got lucky that so many people listened.

Once an artist has money and hits like that, every song that follows is evaluated by both the business and the public from an entirely new perspective. The industry is looking at record sales and streaming figures, the fans are scrutinizing relevance. It is not just the artist’s fault when the music or the meaning behind it changes. If Dre dropped an underground-seeming project rather than an obvious commercial lure for his own streaming service, we’d laugh at him like we do when politicians pretend to understand real people. Everyone is responsible.

As a fan, I want to believe that music isn’t all about the bottom line. But I can’t look at the credits of Straight Outta Compton, the Apple Music charts or the monstrous promotional posters outside the theater without feeling like my musical taste is being manipulated by businessmen (and not, as it used to be, the other way around). Corporate conspiracy aside, the most redeeming quality of Straight Outta Compton is that it’s re-exposing the world to an incredible catalog of music created by some of the greatest American artists of all time. You just need an Apple Music subscription to listen. Fuck the police.

 

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