They weren’t the first musical group to express the sentiment, but when N.W.A. released “Straight Outta Compton,” unappreciative police activated in a big way to censor the group, in particular its track ‘F–k tha police.’
Police officers around the country set up a “fax” network designed to coordinate efforts to stop N.W.A. from performing live. In Detroit, police rushed the stage when the group performed the song and followed them to their hotel room to interrogate them.
Bizarrely, Assistant Director Milt Ahlerich of the FBI also weighed in, sending a strongly-worded letter to N.W.A.’s record label, making it maybe the first and only time the FBI has taken such a position. Though he did not overtly call for the group to be banned, Ahlerich made his feelings clear: that the song “encouraged violence and disrespect of the law enforcement officer” and that police “took exception” to that.
Ice-T tried to explain that, contrary to the assumptions of many white listeners, their lyrics had meaning beyond the surface narratives about drive-bys and gang shootings. He called rappers “underground street reporters.” N.W.A.’s songs weren’t only telling a story that was not often told in mainstream popular culture, they were about ending oppression and “murdering ignorance.”
As a 2013 Variety piece on the history and place of gangster rap points out: “In the early ’90s, few of rap’s core critics seemed to have taken the time to really grapple with the music. Despite undercurrents of menace, the vast majority of hit rap songs have always concerned the same topics as hit rock or pop songs: dancing, getting wasted and getting laid.” And yet, the violence described in gangsta rap was seen by law enforcement as more dangerous, more in need of policing, not entirely unlike black urban communities in the 1980s themselves.
To learn more about the history of hip-hop censorship, check out this post’s sources: Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music by George Lipsitz and the work of scholar Leola Johnson. To learn more about censorship throughout history visit Censorpedia!