It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
If you go back and watch the video for N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," you will notice that not one of member of the group is carrying a weapon. It is the cops who wield the clubs and firearms. The Compton quintet, who don't appear to be guilty of anything other than possessing attitude, spend most of the video on the run. This may run against the grain of memory, which preserves N.W.A. as violent scourges to the genteel America of 1988. But for all their menacing glares and outlaw tales ("Gangsta Gangsta," "Dopeman"), threats to the police ("Fuck the Police") and neglect of social mores, they were merely playing a part — this was a revenge fantasy, posture as dignity, attitude as self-defense. Their 1988 debut is still bracing, thanks largely to the abrasive, raw funk of Dr. Dre's beats and the uniqueness of their personas. There is an unhinged glee to Eazy-E's barely-kempt boasts and Ren's cruel, heartless, intricate verses, while few rappers have cast as foreboding an air as Cube in his prime. It's a testament to the strength of their performance and the enduring power of their iconography that N.W.A. still epitomizes hip-hop at its most dangerous, even if we now know better.
The Skeleton in the Closet
Nobody is born wearing Raiders gear, and for Dr. Dre (and, to a lesser extent, Yella), this album sleeve was the skeleton in the closet. Before their days as ruthless outlaws with N.W.A., Dre and Yella were members of the glove and sequined jacket-wearing World Class Wreckin' Cru, an L.A. electro all-star team masterminded by local impresario Alonzo "Lonzo" Williams. We now recognize the Cru's aesthetic as prescient, from the soaring, cosmic synths of "Planet" to the crushing acid raindrops and shout-raps of "World Class." Where Dre and Yella's later work would traffic in a steely macho, these classics of L.A. electro remind us of a different kind of braggadocio one that could be spooky and erotic ("Surgery") or piped through a chilling vocoder ("Juice").
The Soulful Samples
Singer and guitarist Charles Wright was born in Mississippi, but like many African Americans in the postwar years, his family relocated to Los Angeles in the mid '50s. Wright founded the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band in the early '60s, toying with various lineups before settling on the one which would record Express Yourself, their best album, in 1971. It's most famous for the limber, uplifting title cut, sampled to great effect by fellow L.A.-cheerleaders N.W.A., but the rest is just as good. "I Got Love" and "I'm Aware" are joyful, ascendant soul gems, while the two-part "High as Apple Pie" proffered Wright and his ambitious, multidisciplinary band the chance to explore their more expansive, chaotic instincts.
The Crude L.A. Comedian
An heir to Richard Pryor's crude, profane style a sensibility that courses through Straight Outta Compton comedian Robin Harris was one of the Los Angeles comedy scene's best-kept secrets, counting stars like Magic Johnson and Mike Tyson among his fans. Blessed with a quick-fire delivery and a knack for the well-timed, properly enunciated cussword, Harris's career was cut short by a heart attack in 1990. During this set, recorded the year before, Harris tears into the Lakers, his friend Tiny's haircut ("shaved monkey nuts"), New York's African immigrant population, "dumb-ass police" and the neighborhood of Compton. "Fuck Compton!" he blurts, only for someone in the audience to claim, unconvincingly, that he is a member of N.W.A.
The Neighbors to the South
N.W.A.'s influence was powerfully felt throughout Los Angeles, with artists like Above the Law, Compton's Most Wanted, the D.O.C. and DJ Quik among the immediate beneficiaries of hip-hop's sudden interest in the West Coast. But further afield and a seeming million miles away from hip-hop's then-capitol, New York the unapologetic, fiercely regional Straight Outta Compton offered an inspirational blueprint for success. Houston's Geto Boys followed their tepid 1988 debut, Making Trouble, with a reshuffled lineup and a gruesomely hardcore classic, 1989's Grip It! On That Other Level. Like N.W.A., Scarface, Willie D. and Bushwick Bill and DJ Ready Red had no problem touting their sociopathic tendencies and relying on attitude over skills. But it was in tracks like "Trigga Happy Nigga" and "Mind of a Lunatic" that the Geto Boys displayed a taste for shock value that would make even Eazy-E wince.
The Solo Album
When Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he connected with the Bomb Squad, the production team responsible for Public Enemy's dense, nation-of-millions sound. It was a natural fit: Few acts terrorized genteel America as vigorously as N.W.A. and Public Enemy, albeit for different reasons. On his bracing debut, Cube splits the difference, offering disarmingly blithe reports of ghetto nihilism alongside quasi-black nationalist protests and couched provocations. One could trace lines around a map and contain violence within a few city blocks, but political consciousness borne of ghetto frustration was a far more potent contagion.