Location is an integral part of all great music. It provides a context to the stories and the perspectives of the lyrics, a reference point for the sounds and musical influences and in return contributes to the narrative of the place itself. Viceland’s Noisey documentary series seeks to better understand the artists by investigating the locations, culture and history relating to different music scenes around the world.
Hip Hop prides itself on its musical location, and while the Bronx in New York is the undisputed birthplace of the musical form itself, the southern Los Angeles city of Compton has been the cultural cousin of the music’s East Coast birthplace since the seminal release from NWA Straight Outta Compton in 1988.
The lineage of that city has been preserved throughout the years with many successful post-NWA artists but the arrival of Compton’s born and raised Kendrick Lamar has once again turned the world’s focus on the city in a very meaningful way. Lamar has crossed boundaries, combining first hand anecdotal accounts of his own upbringing in the city with greater political observations and even trying to turn life around for his friends and crew who are still entrenched in the gang life.
Host Zach Goldbaum begins with a one on one with Lamar in Bompton (Bloods start all their words with a ‘B’ Snoop Dogg informs us in the episode’s opener) retracing the beginnings of his friendship with Lil L, a schoolmate who drifted into the world of the Westside Pirus – using it as juxtaposition against Lamar’s pursuit of success in the rap game.
Lamar’s extended crew including L, J3 and Kalifornia King Special become the focus of the documentary really, as well as the preachers, teachers and social activists who are trying make Compton a better place. It’s through their different perspectives that the image of the city really takes shape.
Tiny studios holed away in the back of barber shops with minimal equipment producing potentially world-beating tracks that may never be heard beyond the neighbourhood offer a glimpse into the grass roots DIY attitude that gives the artists room to flourish. That entrepreneurialism born out of a want for a better life extends further than the music – Bloods and Crips joining forces to create restaurants and catering businesses, even Kalifornia King Special’s recounting the turning point he experienced in prison where he decided he would get out and become a pimp to make ends meet seems logical and inevitable considering his personal experience and environment.
It’s impossible to ignore the white lens which Goldbaum inevitably tells the story through, but delving deeper beyond the usual music anecdotes and interviewing those working in Compton to make the City a better place adds an extra level of depth to the documentary. He plays up his whiteness as well, yelling in faux terror while doing donuts in a carpark and apologising for spilling the weed, adding a level of humour and light heartedness to counter the bleak reality and also exposing the difference in his own personal experience.
Bompton does a great job of examining the cultural, social and economic factors that still exist in Compton, that have led to Kendrick’s language and informed his music and catapulted him into the mainstream as one of the most important rappers, or more accurately, most important musicians on the planet today.
Chris Yates is a musician, music writer and music fan who once talked to RZA from Wu-Tang Clan about chess for an hour and wrote a set list for Guided By Voices. As well as indulging in electronic music creation under a variety of pseudonyms and performing regularly as part of the band Shrapnel, Chris has produced sound design and soundtracking for contemporary theatre productions in Sydney and Melbourne productions.
Noisey airs at 9:20pm on Tuesday's on SBS VICELAND. Or stream the show on SBS On Demand: