(to be published in the forthcoming book "The Strength of Street Knowledge: Deep Inside NWA's Straight Outta Compton")
Straight Outta Compton is like a car crash you pass on the road except instead of the curiosity and voyeurism of disaster drawing you in, MC Ren is screaming at you to pay attention to him but that if you pay the wrong kind of attention he’s going to shoot you. So you better just nod your head, wave your hands from side to side, and enjoy yourself. You don’t really have any other choice in the matter.
On “If It Ain’t Ruff” MC Ren is given his own shot at defining the image and aesthetics of the group. Rapping over alternating guitar samples from Average White Band’s “A Star in the Ghetto”, Ren asserts himself as a natural-born antagonist. He establishes an easy to loathe persona, that of a violent, fear-inducing, girlfriend-stealing hoodlum from Compton. The biographical truth behind this image is debatable, but it doesn’t really affect the appeal of the song. In fact, using authenticity as a criterion for enjoying despicably violent entertainment is arguably despicable in itself. Whether Ren is or isn’t a cold-hearted, shoot your mother for a dollar style killer, he’s in a position to report on that type of figure. If one isn’t blinded by the criminal nature of the content and chooses to accept N.W.A.’s lyrics as journalism and cultural commentary, the group’s underdog status and charismatic bravado in the face of dismal context makes their success worth rooting for.
The sample source for the song has surprisingly parallel themes to N.W.A.’s back-story. A collaboration between Ben E. King and Average White Band, the lyrics of “A Star in the Ghetto” dismiss the signifiers traditionally associated with success in the music industry. The song shows disdain for the Grammy awards and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as established institutions such as Hollywood, Broadway, and Carnegie Hall. Since the song’s creation Ben E. King and Average White Band have both been lauded with the very honors they refute in the song. Like N.W.A., these musicians step outside of their own personal experiences to convey sentiments that are easy to identify with. The message and attitude of the song applies more accurately to the then-ignored West Coast hip-hop scene that gave rise to N.W.A than the canonized blues musicians who wrote it.
Dr. Dre takes the introduction from “A Star in the Ghetto” and adds a few touches of his own. Average White Band’s opening guitar line stinks of G-funk, but in the original version it’s quickly overshadowed by string and horn countermelodies. Dre ditches everything but the hard-hitting drum line and picked guitar figure. He adds a shaker to create an ominous pulsing groove and pans reverbed scratches to give the beat a large sense of space. After a brief instrumental intro, Ren jumps on the track and delivers an opening two lines that are perhaps his strongest in the song.
Threatening assertions and their reciprocal depictions of fear are Ren’s lyrical bread and butter. In the song’s first line he declares himself a villain and the listener a hostage forcefully captivated but repulsed by Ren’s persona. His threatening nature is a source of control over the audience and they are unexpectedly hypnotized by his charisma. The hostage-taking scenario also explores the idea of surprise, one of N.W.A.’s primary themes. Nobody expected the west coast’s ascendant rise in popularity and the group takes every opportunity to remind listeners that they’re coming out of left field.
The second line extends the metaphor using the same cause and effect structure but integrates less traditionally antagonistic imagery. Ren continues the hostage-taking line of imagery by advising them to “cover their head” and hide on the ground like an ostrich. This is Ren at his sharpest lyrically, reappropriating otherwise tame images into extended metaphors declaring his powers of intimidation.
Other than frightening the listener, Ren’s secondary goal is to denounce critics that question his authenticity. This begins in the third and fourth lines of the song as he describes the dichotomy created by his personal history. He directly addresses commentators who question the reality behind his image. His success is jealousy inducing to people who came from the same upbringing and question why Ren and his crew take it upon themselves to speak out. These critics eventually realize that the reason N.W.A. rose up above their peers is simply because they were cool enough to pull it off.
It’s important that Ren establishes this idea of authenticity, despite the questionable foundation in fact, in order to give his message credibility. Part of the frustration that runs through the group’s lyrics is based on the lack of commentary regarding their cultural position, and if they don’t establish themselves as primary sources, the message loses its power because most listeners don’t want to identify with a blatantly fabricated image. Although most fans can’t relate to the Boyz in the Hood style violence that N.W.A. have famously become intertwined with, the listener can easily recognize the age-old theme of coming from nothing, a claim that the group defends throughout the album.
The song’s chorus is the most blatant argument for Ren’s authenticity, a simple reflexive boast that “if it ain’t ruff, it ain’t me.” His identity is intertwined with the idea of appearing tougher than rocks. He denounces even the idea of being soft, the possibility doesn’t exist. He isn’t refined, cultured, or sophisticated, he’s ruff. He takes the traditionally negative term and uses it as a stamp of pride, which is what N.W.A. is all about. Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good. Taking pride in this lack of refinement is another method by which listeners can relate to Ren’s image.
Not lyrically the strongest track on the album, Ren starts to sound like a bit of a broken record. He carries the same themes throughout, doing a passable job of depicting himself as someone you don’t want to mess with, but he doesn’t really break any new ground thematically. Several times throughout the song Ren awkwardly uses a reflexive lyrical conceit, essentially reusing the same phrase twice for no apparent reason but to complete a rhyme. It’s distracting and proof that at this point in his career Ren simply isn’t quite up to snuff lyrically with some of the other group members, but if you ignore the nonsensical repetition and occasionally disconnected statements, there are a few gems in the ruff.
The most interesting lyrics are Ren’s attempts to flip everyday imagery into signifiers of fear, intimidation, and charisma. “Get a cold rag and wipe your neck” is a simple line, but it’s a commanding way for Ren to once again illustrate a punchy cause and effect. He’s so in charge that he’s going to make you sweat then condescendingly tell you to go fix the problem. In the next line he says that you might as well clean your face while you’re at it to avoid acne, an awkwardly juvenile insult coming from a supposedly stone-cold killing machine and an indicator that he isn’t nearly as skilled at crafting longer more complicated chains of lyrics.
The third verse features another good example of flipping an ordinary image. Referencing the do not disturb sign often found hanging from the handles of hotel doors, Ren lets you know he doesn’t want to be bothered, and that usually when he doesn’t want to be bothered it’s because he’s deciding who he wants to fuck with next. His default state is that of the antagonist.
But despite all of MC Ren’s violent and aggressive tendencies, no one he directs his lyrics at can seem to deny his charisma. This love-hate relationship between Ren and his audience is representative of the whole idea behind gangsta rap and the reason an entire generation was genuinely dumbfounded by the genre’s appeal. As N.W.A. broke into the mainstream, the majority of their listeners weren’t urban youth who identified with the criminal personas created by the group, but rather suburban kids drawn in by familiar themes filtered through an inherently foreign cultural lens. Most fans may not be able to sympathize to the criminal elements of N.W.A., but they can no doubt relate to their greater myth of working towards one’s goals from a culturally, geographically, and economically disadvantaged position.