‘Straight Outta Compton’: Dr. Dre’s Assault on Dee Barnes and the Problem With Music Biopics
Why do we deify our musical heroes instead of offering honest, warts-and-all portrayals?
It’s amazing what a few decades can do.
The forthcoming N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton is one of the more buzzed-about films of the summer, as hip-hop fans look forward to F. Gary Gray’s dramatic retelling of the rise of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella—the quintet of rap rebels who took the genre by storm in the late ’80s as Niggaz With Attitude. N.W.A became notorious for their explicit tales of street life in Compton, California, and though the group only actively released music for less than five years, their legacy stretches far and wide throughout hip-hop. Great hip-hop artists ranging from Snoop Dogg to Del the Funkee Homosapien to Bone Thugs N Harmony to Eminem have a direct connection to the lineage of N.W.A. Even pop-rap superstar Coolio was once affiliated with Cube’s Lench Mob as a member of W.C.’s Maad Circle.
And Straight Outta Compton celebrates that obviously important legacy in masterful fashion. But along with infusing hip-hop with “the strength of street knowledge” via hardcore rhymes about bangin’, slangin’, and county bids, another important facet of N.W.A’s legacy is one of blatant and rampant misogyny. From Cube’s declaration that “A Bitch Iz A Bitch” on 1988’s landmark Straight Outta Compton to the Slim Shady-esque murder fantasies on the hateful “One Less Bitch” from their uber-controversial sophomore album Niggaz4Life, N.W.A presented a casual contempt for women that foreshadowed what would become a recurring theme in even the most mainstream stars of the genre.
And, most egregiously, Compton opts to completely ignore the more toxic elements of Dr. Dre’s history in regards to women. The legendary producer was the musical architect of N.W.A.’s sound, and in 1991, Dre physically attacked television host Dee Barnes at an industry party in Hollywood. The assault landed Barnes in an emergency room after she was brutally assaulted by a drunken Dre.
“He picked her up by her hair and ‘began slamming her head and the right side of her body repeatedly against a brick wall near the stairway’ as his bodyguard held off the crowd with a gun,” wrote Rolling Stone. “After Dre tried to throw her down the stairs and failed, he began kicking her in the ribs and hands. She escaped and ran into the women’s rest room. Dre followed her and ‘grabbed her from behind by the hair again and proceeded to punch her in the back of the head.’” A lawsuit was subsequently settled out of court, but Dre and N.W.A never even pretended to regret the incident—both Ren (“bitch deserved it”) and Eazy (“yeah, bitch had it coming”) mocked Barnes’s beating in an interview with MTV—and Dre would go on to even wider fame and commercial appeal in the following year. “People talk all this shit, but you know, somebody fuck with me, I’m gonna fuck with them. I just did it, you know. Ain’t nothing you can do now by talking about it. Besides, it ain’t no big thing—I just threw her through a door,” explained Dr. Dre.
The Barnes beating has become immortalized as a hip-hop punch line; it was most notably referenced by Eminem on his hit single “Guilty Conscience” (“You’re gonna take advice from somebody who slapped Dee Barnes?”) but it was something the filmmakers felt was too sore a subject to even acknowledge in this movie. Dre and Cube are executive producers on the film, so it can’t be a shock that no one would want to address the D.R.E.’s most disgusting public scandal. But for a group that was predicated on “reality raps” and for a film that doesn’t shy away from subtle moralizing regarding the departed Eazy-E’s AIDS diagnosis, it’s quite telling that they don’t believe anything can be learned from Dre’s brutal past.Culturally, we feel the need to sanitize those who achieve great things in order to force the world to fit into the moral box we’ve been conditioned to create. We don’t want to believe that our heroes can be bastards. But bad or damaged people can do great and brilliant things. And as it pertains to social ideals that have far-reaching ramifications—i.e. homophobia, racism, misogyny, etc.—we have to be willing to stare at the ugly aspects of our favorite artists’ personalities. It helps to temper our tendency to hero worship. But also, in facing the ignorance of those we admire, we’re forced to face the fact that that ignorance exists everywhere—not just “over there” in some undefined space where only the narrow-minded or extreme right-wing congregate.Eric Clapton is one of the most famous blues guitarists in the world—a Brit who discovered the music as a youth and who considers himself a disciple of Muddy Waters and a kindred spirit to more contemporaneous bluesmen like Buddy Guy. But despite having built his name on the music of black people, Clapton unleashed a horribly racist rant during an appearance at a festival in Birmingham, U.K., back in 1976.After complaining that “some fucking wog... Arab grabbed my wife’s bum,” the visibly intoxicated Clapton went on a tirade blasting non-white immigrants and endorsing racist right-winger Enoch Powell.“I don't want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell,” the drunk rocker said. “Enoch’s our man. I think Enoch’s right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking [indecipherable] don’t belong here, we don’t want them here.”The incident sparked a backlash amongst the U.K. music press and indirectly became the catalyst for the formation of Rock Against Racism, but Clapton has rarely been pressed about the incident over the years—despite having never really renounced Powell’s racist politics or his own xenophobic language.John Lennon was an admittedly violent man who’d been abusive to his girlfriends and his first wife, Cynthia, prior to meeting Yoko Ono in 1967. In art school, the symbol of ’60s “peace and love” idealism once allegedly struck a young woman in the face after she’d refused to have a quick sexual fling in an empty classroom after a dance, and Cynthia had once been warned to leave the famous Beatle after a cleaning woman saw him hit her in public. But these aspects of Lennon’s personality have been almost totally ignored in the years following his senseless murder in 1980. Ono’s famous documentary tribute Imagine: John Lennon doesn’t acknowledge his abusive history and merely alludes to his temper, and most film depictions of Lennon skate the issue entirely.When we celebrate Clapton or Lennon without acknowledging their most notorious and contradictory moments, what are we really celebrating? A deified symbol.The estates of legendary artists have a lot at stake when they proclaim to present the “real story” behind some of the biggest names in rock, rap, and R&B history. Families can oftentimes be compelled to soften the rough edges surrounding a superstar’s story (as in the lukewarm James Brown biopic Get On Up) or sensationalize it for the sake of heightened drama (as was often the case in 1991’s The Doors and its depiction of the band’s fallen frontman, Jim Morrison). But we shouldn’t encourage audiences to ignore the darkness in so many of our creative geniuses—especially when that darkness permeates so much of said artist’s musical output. F. Gary Gray and the producers of Straight Outta Compton didn’t have to pretend that side of Dr. Dre doesn’t exist—he’s let us know for decades that it’s there. It’s in his music and in his actions. And putting it in there has won Dre all kinds of critical and financial accolades. Once they were a threat, now everyone celebrates N.W.A for their in-your-face raw realness. They had no fear. It takes bravery to take on East Coast hip-hop bias, mainstream radio, the LAPD, Detroit P.D., FBI, and the media. All anyone could ask for is that, in showing who he and his legendary bandmates really were, Dre had been just as brave.