“The strength of street knowledge”:
hip hop and frontier economics

None of the above is surprising. It’s not that Hollywood movies are, categorically, unable to engage social events qualitatively. But it’s no secret that Hollywood is soothed by quantitative thinking. Studio heads keep their jobs when they show profit. In recent months, for instance, Warner Bros. executives have tried to fend off the qualitative rejection of the DC comics movies by citing their early box-office embrace. This defense works until the qualitative response catches up with the quantitative, as it did with Batman v Superman (Snyder, Warner Bros., 2016).[19] [open notes in new window] In the recent Money Monster (Foster, TriStar, 2016), in fact, when a hedge fund publicist must frantically search for the firm’s “quant,” it’s easy to imagine it as the movie’s own desperate bid to produce a quantitative proof to Hollywood that movies such as itself, from the near-extinct “midbudget” sector, should still be made. Indeed, Relativity Media staked its existence on a claim to having such data—an algorithm, they said, that could predict a movie’s performance—but CEO Ryan Kavanaugh lost credibility when his company filed for Chapter 11 last year. Thomas Tull, though, a “quant” of a different kind, bet rather that the $100 million tentpole was the more stable market. A premise of his bet, however, is that a production needs to come from “presold” property, such as a comic book or a video game; it can’t be original material. “It’s very hard to build a new thing,” Tull admitted.[20]

Thus when forming Legendary Pictures in 2000, he began with Batman, moved on to Superman, and mixed it up with Frank Miller’s 300 (Snyder, Warner Bros., 2007). What is surprising about Straight Outta Compton, then, is that Tull would produce it among the first of his Universal projects despite it being a midbudget biopic seemingly outside his bailiwick of comics and gaming. He had supplemented his tentpole productions with midbudget movies, it’s worth noting, but they had been based in his other passion, sports (cf. We Are Marshall [McG, Warner Bros., 2006] and 42 [Helgeland, Warner Bros., 2013]). But one can imagine Straight Outta Compton fitting perfectly within the Legendary canon, defined as it is by comic-book heroes and sports legends, because Tull is known as a “fanboy” and he believes the like is his target market. “This is my group,” he has said, “They like stuff I like.”[21] Hip hop is on the same Venn diagram, and Straight Outta Compton is presented in fanboy tones (hence it omits Dr. Dre’s assault of female journalist Dee Barnes). More than this, for a self-styled entrepreneur such as Tull whose mission was to bring private equity markets to Hollywood, Straight Outta Compton is a bildungsroman of the entrepreneur, following Eazy, Dre, and Cube as they grow into businessmen, and their business is the sort that turns childhood passions into a specialized product over which only the adult child has mastery.

What is so surprising about Straight Outta Compton, finally, is that it seems to urge the renewal of capitalism in the moment that The Big Short sought to remind us how near it recently was to collapse. It seemed the least likely movie—had we taken bets—for such boosterism. But in the wake of the credit crisis, free-market ideologues have pushed back against proclamations that “We Are All Socialist Now” and instead doubled down on “‘entrepreneurial’ capitalism with robust competition and incessant ‘creative destruction’,” as Cato Institute fellow Brink Lindsey puts it, as a bulwark against “heavy-handed industrial policy, cronyism, and corporatism.”[22] In this defense, the figure of the black entrepreneur has been an alibi. Fortune, for instance, singles out black female-owned businesses as the largest growing demographic, having increased 322% since 1997. And Steve Forbes would say that Jay-Z, first a rapper and then the Def Jam CEO, “epitomizes the essence of the American entrepreneurial system,” and his success only attests to the “wonders of free enterprise,” defined, for Forbes, by its “openness to newcomers.”[23]

It can look like “openness,” today, but no record labels would distribute hip hop when it came out, which is why in 1983 Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons began Def Jam and made millions (they released LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy). They were entrepreneurs of necessity. The same can be said of the spike in black female-owned businesses. “We attribute the growth in women-owned firms to the lack of fair pay, fair promotions, and family-friendly policies in corporate America,” says Margot Dorfman, CEO of the US Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves.”[24] The “openness,” here, is part of the rhetorical armature that would re-describe necessity as liberty.

Blurring that line (between economic necessity and liberty) has let the powerful speak in the language of the powerless. “I view myself as a person,” Donald Trump has recently said, “that—like everybody else—is fighting for survival.”[25] When Brink Lindsey argues for “creative destruction,” indeed, he makes his appeal to a “frontier economics.”[26] It’s not a matter of the geopolitical frontiers of capitalism (i.e. China’s opening economy, India’s, or the “tiger economies”), which are sites of “catch-up growth,” Lindsey says, but a matter of internal frontiers. Rich economies can’t keep doing what they’re doing, can’t simply extend the processes already in place, but must open new frontiers within by way of innovation. But some forms of innovation, Thomas Frank says of “financial engineering,” give a bad name to the innovation-dependent “creative economy”; they wear out these once valorized concepts.[27]

Consider a scene in The Big Short. In an English pub Ben Rickert trades a credit default swap by phone, when the bartender overhears him quoting figures on the order of a hundred million dollars. “What are you, a drug dealer or a banker,” the bartender asks, “because if you’re a banker, you can fuck right off.” Though Lindsey considers the “frontier” a matter of technology as much as anything else, like the Kennedy administration did when it invoked Manifest Destiny in its New Frontier, for the metaphor to work, to stir the imagination, it needed a frontiersman to embody it. The New Frontier had the astronaut, but the economic frontier had only the banker making esoteric deals on Blackberry, laptop, or Bluetooth.

Next to this Eazy-E strikes quite a figure. He could sound plausibly like a contemporary outlaw in the Wild West of Compton when, on N.W.A.’s first album, he rapped, “I got a six-shooter, yo I’m mean and brave.” The tropes were in place already, from the swaggering country blues of “John Hardy” and the folk tradition before it, and in Eazy’s case he was riffing on more recent entries such as the Beastie Boys’ story about “a little horsey named Paul Revere” and the “sheriff’s posse on my tail” (the song, “8 Ball,” most prominently sampled from the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” “Girls,” and others). But when the Beasties called themselves outlaws, their imagery was cartoonish, whereas when Eazy-E did, it fit with narratives of rising gang violence on the West Coast: his imagery, thus, seemed naturalistic. The most deregulated space in the national imaginary became Compton, thanks in no small part to N.W.A., and its entrepreneurs were called hustlers, and there are two reasons you can’t knock the hustle: it’s a matter of necessity, and it’s a force of class rise.

What makes Straight Outta Compton so curious, then, is its commitment to telling stories that on their face are systemic (economic necessity, social class) but in individualist terms. In an early scene, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is so wrapped up in his music that he misses a job interview that his mom had arranged for him . They argue. “I already know what I want to do with my life,” Dre tells her, “and it definitely ain’t sitting in some cubicle takin’ orders on a bullshit-ass job.”

Growing up in Compton, this suggests, the options are not appreciably different than in any other suburb in America: it’s the stability of a desk job, or the self-fulfillment (and risk) of creative endeavor. Today, Dre’s remark might resonate with college kids launching start-ups for the same reason. In this perspective, the system looks virtuous, and hip hop is not a critique but an affirmation of it. Success in hip hop, like any enterprise, means betting on oneself. In this sensibility the movie joins others such as Dope and Creed in placing black experience either here or there on a trajectory into the elite class. The latter two movies must contort their genres in imagining this: in Dope Malcolm (Shameik Moore) makes it out of his Inglewood high school and into Harvard by pulling off an improbable drug deal, and in Creed the son of Apollo Creed, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), belongs in the elite class by birth but nonetheless rejects the jobs offered him to pursue instead an option typically left to the poverty class: boxing.[28]

Consider in this light the scene from Straight Outta Compton in which Dre leads police on a high-speed chase. After zig-zagging through traffic, Dre is stopped at a police barricade with a helicopter circling overhead, but his arrest is peaceful, his civil rights left intact. Compare this to an early scene of Ice Cube being harassed for no reason (“I ain’t explaining shit to you,” the cop tells him), and his parents being intimidated for trying to help him (“I will ruin your fucking night,” the cop tells his mom), and it seems clear that what is being narrated are the privileges of Dre's new class position. He’s no longer in Compton, where no rights apply; he’s on an affluent police-beat. But the movie doesn’t exactly address this: it makes it seem he’s racing through downtown L.A. when in fact arrest records show it to have been Beverly Hills. In selecting this mise-en-scene the movie invests in a kind of L.A. noir—multiple lanes of traffic, the glare of streetlights overhead, skyscrapers illuminated from bottom story to top—but at the expense of a systemic critique of the policing patterns throughout the city: How are police disposed differently, it might have demonstrated, in a Beverly Hills arrest and a Compton arrest?

The only thing curious about Straight Outta Compton swerving from issues of a systemic kind is that its makers would have expected it to be understood within the horizon of the #Black Lives Matter movement. Principal photography began in August 2014, and a few days later Michael Brown was shot down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Themovie's shooting script was in place already, true, but it would now resonate more deeply with a conversation then unfolding. In the opening scene, for instance, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) goes into a dope house which has been under surveillance and is shortly demolished by an armored police vehicle. The scene would cross-reference debates about the militarization of the police force. So it was inevitable that the movie become vehicle for these issues, inevitable because N.W.A. is still most famous for its anthem, “Fuck tha Police.”

And while the movie does deal with police violence and racial profiling, those issues get reduced to a stage in a process both aesthetic and commercial. In the midst of recording their debut album in Torrance, California, the members of N.W.A. step outside the studio for lunch break. Outside Compton, it’s implied, their uniform of black Raiders and Yankees gear is alarming. Police pull up, shouting for the group to drop to the ground, before their manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), comes to their defense. “What are you crazy,” he objects, “That’s police harassment. You can’t come down here and harass these guys because they’re black—people have rights.” Though angry, the members of N.W.A. are well-behaved, and if Ice Cube in particular seems anxious to say his piece, he instead remains silent and returns to the studio where he sublimates his anger in song: “Fuck tha Police” roars forth, an aesthetic correction to a social problem.

From there the group tours the country and the police run-in is put to canny use not only as the raw material in their aesthetic production, but as a marketing lever for it. When the FBI sends them a strongly-worded warning to desist from playing their song, it’s Eazy-E that senses opportunity. “This right here is a gift,” he tells the others,

“This is free publicity for N.W.A. We take this to the press and we show them what type of intimidation, discrimination, and harassment that we dealing with from our government.”

What we see in this is how their outsider status, their oppression and persecution, puts them in a privileged position to open new markets. Craig Watkins notes the “paradox” that an “intensification of racial and economic polarization in the United States produces space for the emergence of cultural practices that derive much of their symbolic efficacy from locations of marginality.”[29] Producing space, here, is making a market that wasn’t intelligible as such. Watkins’s paradox is that their proprietary relation to it comes from being marginalized. Branded by state officials, Eazy accepts the brand and monetizes it.

This is what is meant by “the strength of street knowledge,” the brash declaration which opens N.W.A.’s debut album. Street knowledge is the authority to command a market. But if the movie is only half interested in police violence in itself, or in the LA Riots in themselves, it is fully interested in how street knowledge is formalized as corporate strategy. Eazy is the figure of street knowledge, and the agent of its conversion into something else. The movie’s opening image communicates this much: fade into Eazy opening his car trunk, he unscrews the stereo speaker from its case, and within the cabinet lies a bag of dope—behind the music, we’re told, is the economy of the streets.

In a subsequent scene, Dre tells Eazy, “You can sling dope, you can sling records.” Part of the drama stems from Eazy needing to make his illicit gains legitimate. He can only do this, Jerry Heller tells him, with the latter’s help. “I can make you legit,” Jerry promises, “I can get you into that building.” Jerry has access to the establishment, in other words, but the point of the movie will be that in this moment of industrial transformation N.W.A. represents an establishment vanguard while Jerry represents its old guard. Jerry expects to cherrypick the star, Eazy-E, and nurture his career at the expense of the others; his error is to believe that N.W.A. is the vehicle of Eazy-E as the Supremes was for Diana Ross. In turn, he needs but one signature: Eazy-E’s.

The drama of the movie, therefore, becomes a drama of contract. Ice Cube, the group lyricist, thinks he’s undercompensated for his part, and he leaves before Jerry and Eazy can put him under contract. When Cube’s solo record Amerikkka’s Most Wanted charts higher than N.W.A. has, Jerry assures Eazy, “The fact is, Ren is as good a writer as Cube, maybe even better.” This plays as a joke for a contemporary audience who will know full well the asymmetrical influence Ren and Cube have had on hip hop. The joke loops back to the original meeting between Jerry and Eazy when Jerry marshaled his credentials (“Elton John, War, Styx, REO Speedwagon”) and Eazy asked, “You manage anybody this decade?” The object of ridicule is not only Jerry’s ineptitude at identifying talent of this new kind, but his failure to imagine how to manage talent in this new regime. Seeing in N.W.A. only one act was a failure to see in it three acts. The group was ready to spin out careers for Eazy, Dre, and Cube, but because Jerry is committed to a superannuated model of stardom, he misses the big payout.

The payouts are frittered away, we see; so many record companies are begun that coining names for them (Ruthless, Death Row, Aftermath) is troped in the movie as a kind of corporate parlor game; money—and this is the final, affectionate message—is left on the table. What Eazy could not do is make a franchise out of N.W.A. and monopolize a market he was helping to open up. It’s the bildungsroman of Eazy’s incomplete formation as a businessman. One strain in hip hop, indeed, has been intent on fragmenting the market and controlling a niche rather than broadly operating it; the “beef” has been the technology of such market division. In the movie’s later scenes, Eazy makes amends with Cube and Dre because he knows now their centrality in realizing his project. “We shouldn’t have dissed each other in the first place,” Cube tells Eazy, “Making the fans choose between us? That wasn’t cool.” The movie was made in partnership between Ice Cube’s company, Cube Vision, Dre’s Crucial Films, and Broken Chair Flickz (once Eazy-E's company, now his widow’s) and in these final scenes the input Cube and Dre had into the movie is easy to detect. They grant Eazy his entrepreneurial vision in the line of dialogue “I’m the Berry Gordy of this shit” but there’s nonetheless the palpable regret that he might have been the Russell Simmons of this new form.

Embedded in this reflection on Eazy-E, that is, is a reflection on hip hop as a modular form whose logic, we must note, undergirds today’s franchise filmmaking. Consider how a hip-hop track is credited: the main act first, followed by all those “featured” on the track; the effect on an MP3 player, then, is that rather than list an album under one act it subspeciates into several acts. It’s a unitary form that calls attention to the integrity of its components. J. D. Connor has described franchise filmmaking in terms of componentry, a matter of “arrangement, exchange, and interaction.”[30] This can explain why the catchphrase from Friday, “Bye, Felicia,” is dropped somewhat gratuitously into Straight Outta Compton: the one must refer to the other in an enterprise of “world-building,” as Connor calls it, where each strengthens the integrity of the other. This is Ice Cube’s media world, we are reminded, with his preferred director F. Gary Gray once again stitching together its units. In the movie’s final sequence we are reminded, too, that Dre learned his lesson after recording albums for Eazy and Jerry, and then Suge Knight—“Just focusing on the music,” he tells Suge, not the contracts—to focus rather on deploying his brand across the market. The end credits document Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Dre’s Beats, a headphone company founded by the rapper and Jimmy Iovine. In these credits, Eminem is shown saying that Dre “taught me a lot, not just rap-wise but business-wise.” Hip-hop lessons and business lessons are structurally equivalent, so much so that when marketing the movie Universal executive Doug Neil had movie trailers customized for demographic segments on Facebook. Research told Neil that for a white audience Dre was “the face of Beats” and Cube was an actor; for this demographic the movie was pitched not as the biopic of a rap group but of media moguls.[31]

Get in-formation: new media and black visual culture

It seems only natural that as a biopic produced by its subjects, Straight Outta Compton would give them a hagiographic treatment, that lionized individuality, in the end, would be its upshot. If despite the events it depicts the movie only weakly resonates with today’s events, this might owe to the conditions of Hollywood art—its high capital outlay, production timetables, and the obstinacy of its forms are all paid for (potentially, anyway) in social irrelevance. Chris Rock is right. In a moment of crisis, the moment of #Black Lives Matter, Hollywood has nothing much to say.

Yet the #Black Lives Matter movement rests so much on imagery. Controlling the narrative of Trayvon Martin, for instance, meant controlling which picture of him circulated and whether this image would license calling him a “thug.” The moment was defined by surveillance footage and dash cams, by when the footage of Michael Brown’s shooting began and how much of Sandra Bland’s arrest was offscreen.[32] And moreover, what has emerged in response to the crisis has been an agonized, often defiant visual culture. Beyoncé’s “Formation” video dropped on the eve of the Super Bowl, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance, and so on. Beyoncé, in fact, has contributed to debates over the “death of the album” by suggesting in Lemonade that in its reimagined form it will be “visual.”

For all that Hollywood traffics in imagery, this seems to suggest that it’s been displaced from the center of visual culture. Critic Wesley Morris has recently attributed this to the way that Hollywood franchises have dimmed star power (stars such as Christian Bale and Ben Affleck get to play Batman, but Batman is ultimately the star) while stardom has migrated to the Internet where it can seem “unmediated” to its consumers.[33] The Internet does seem to have immediacy of various kinds: if Beyoncé wishes to prepare fans for her Super Bowl performance, she can do so on the Internet at any hour. Television, too, can establish a feedback loop with events in the offing in ways movies cannot. Hence Shonda Rhimes’s ABC show Scandal can make the episode “The Lawn Chair,” which deals with the shooting of a 17-year-old black man by a white cop, and it can be timed to coincide with the Department of Justice’s findings on the Ferguson Police Department; and Empire (a Fox show about a hip-hop mogul whose empire is built on an original investment of drug money) can take the same topic as does Straight Outta Compton—the industrialization of hip-hop culture—but let it open onto new-media transformation as the more relevant object of inquiry.

In a sense what is at stake is mediality itself, the moment when something becomes an image event and who behind the scenes can shape it. The power of the Internet, in this respect, is that it seems to denarrativize the image event. Consider the shots in Lemonade of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner holding pictures of their sons. They are not strictly nonnarrative; they are fitted, now, into another narrative Beyoncé is constructing. But they are now pried, these sons of theirs, from the national narrative formed around them. Beyoncé’s visual album plays in an idiom quite different from Hollywood’s classical narrative: it is impressionistic; its protagonist seems plural rather than singular, it is Black women, a generational protagonist cast in deep time; it is thus out of Julie Dash or Terrence Malick, not Hollywood. There are cynics who will question if Beyoncé helps #Black Lives Matter or if she uses it to help her brand, but a question such as this is made indeterminate by the culture industry. There is a basic wildness to the image, nevertheless, that gets tapped in both Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Azealia Banks’s “The Big Big Beat.” In the latter it’s the framing device of the narrow corridors of a correctional facility for Banks’s erotic dancing that makes it seem like so much contraband. When Banks dances on top a police car, it seems like a reference to Beyoncé’s “Formation,” as though there might now be a tradition of Black women astride police cars.

The Big Beat: Azealia Banks dances in a correctional facility. Azealia Banks dances on top a police car.

The image has been potent enough that police have organized boycotts of Beyoncé’s shows, in an act reminiscent of the Detroit police protests of N.W.A. in Straight Outta Compton. But it’s possible there is a more primal potency in the ambiguous line “Okay ladies now let’s get in formation,” which reads at once as a call to get in either dance or combat formation and as a call to get information.[34] That perhaps the goal is to get information in formation—that being witness to information as it is being given form is the political act—suggests how nearly synonymous controlling the media and political revolution are. This is a truth that Hollywood insulates itself against, and that the Oscars merely stage manages, but because the Internet rubs against it more regularly it’s fair to say it’s become the center of visual culture today.

Police gather in protest before N.W.A.’s Detroit concert. The Detroit concert ends early when police arrest the members of N.W.A.