LOS ANGELES – It can be a letdown when LA Hood Life & Hip Hop Tours customers pass the Welcome to Compton sign and see an ice cream truck, tidy bungalows and the lot where the new Wal-Mart Supercenter’s going up.
“The perception is that Compton is a very decadent, dangerous place where you got guys running around wearing red or blue, with guns and this or that. That’s what they kind of expect to see,” says Hodari Sababu, who runs the tour company, selling $75 tickets from a Hollywood Boulevard kiosk. “It was like that at one time. Now it is a much kinder, gentler place. You can walk through without being accosted, mostly.”
The violent Los Angeles suburb the tourists pay to see has mellowed in the decades since N.W.A put it on the map in 1988 as the birthplace of gangsta rap. Today, Compton is rebranding itself as a center for commerce and affordable housing, and bracing for the Aug. 14 release of “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie about the rise of N.W.A and its seminal album, whose famous lyrical salvos include “f—- tha police.”
Mayor Aja Brown’s attitude is, bring it on. “It’s a great opportunity to have a second look,” she says, predicting moviegoers will reconsider her more than 25 square kilometers and 100,000 constituents. The mayor, whose grandmother was murdered in Compton four decades ago, says it has “almost never been safer.”
For Sababu’s clients, it’s bygone Compton that sells: the days of warring Bloods and Crips, the crack-cocaine epidemic, the Rodney King riots. “Straight Outta Compton” chronicles that era, when N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude) popularized West Coast hip-hop with lyrics some denounced as disrespectful to women and the police, and exalting lawlessness.
Tour highlights include a drive-through funeral home, where gangsters could bid speedy salutes to avoid ambushes, and Tam’s Burgers, a favorite of Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar. Death Row Records co-founder Marion “Suge” Knight allegedly ran over and killed a man outside Tam’s in January when the movie crew was shooting an ad. Knight has been charged with murder.
“Compton,” Sababu says, “still is Compton.”
N.W.A broke up in the early 1990s. Eazy-E died of AIDS, MC Ren continued as a rapper and DJ Yella, after becoming a pornographic film director, is a music producer. Dr. Dre went on to a varied career capped by last year’s sale of Beats Music to Apple Inc. for $3 billion, and Ice Cube is an actor whose films include “Ride Along” and “21 Jump Street.”
The two share producer credits on the movie, some of it shot in their old stomping grounds. Dr. Dre was born in Compton in 1965, the year of the Watts riots in LA; Ice Cube was born in LA in 1969, the year Compton elected its first black city councilman. The city is now about two-thirds Latino.
The poverty rate is around 26 percent, compared with the California average of 16 percent. Still, Compton has been on an upswing. The murder rate dropped 46 percent between 2004 and 2014, and tax revenues have increased since the Gateway Towne Center shopping area opened in 2007. Trammell Crow Co. is about to break ground on 1 million square feet of industrial space.
For F. Gary Gray, the director of the Universal Pictures movie, there’s no question it’ll be a boost to the city.
“We don’t depict it in a negative manner. There are no murders, no shootings. We didn’t go there,” he says. “I think people will walk away feeling inspired.”
He called the time chronicled in the film “a great chapter in American history.” It still resonates, and Compton is still famous. Big Boy, an LA hip-hop radio host with a syndicated show, was reminded when his Japanese business partners visited.
“I’ve had to get them all in my mini-coach and take them to Compton,” he says. “They never asked about Disneyland and the Hollywood Wax Museum.”
Some locals complain that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube — born Andre Young and O’Shea Jackson — turned their backs on the city. They declined to be interviewed.
“What are these people that are millionaires doing other than getting more millions by using Compton as a prop?” says Benjamin Holifield, president of the Compton Business Chamber of Commerce. “They went straight out of Compton and didn’t do anything for us.”
But Kiki Smooth, an extra in “Straight Outta Compton” who describes himself as the city’s first Mexican rapper, says the famous former N.W.A members should be credited for leaving behind a flourishing rap culture. “They created a person like me, a person like YG, a person like Kendrick, a person like The Game,” he says, referring to other Compton rappers. “They weren’t there to save the world.”
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