Gangsta-Lite Compton Ready for Its Close-Up

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Straight Outta Compton
The movie "Straight Outta Compton" will be released in mid-August. Source: Universal Pictures via Bloomberg

It can be a letdown for LA Hood Life & Hip Hop Tours customers, passing the Welcome to Compton sign and seeing 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,” said 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 mellowed in the decades after 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-ck tha police.”

Mayor Aja Brown’s attitude is, bring it on. “It’s a great opportunity to have a second look,” she said, predicting moviegoers will reconsider her 10 square miles and 100,000 constituents. The mayor, whose grandmother was murdered in Compton four decades ago, said it’s “almost never been safer.”

Stephanie Chavez, working behind thick glass at a KFC about a mile from the public skatepark a donation from Tony Hawk helped build, agreed. “A lot of people are scared of Compton, they hear Compton and freak out,” she said. But “it’s not even bad anymore.”

Tam’s Burgers

For Sababu’s clients, it’s bygone Compton that sells, the days of warring between Bloods and Crips, the crack cocaine epidemic, the Rodney King riots. “Straight Outta Compton” chronicles that era, when N.W.A -- for 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 gang members 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 said, “still is Compton.”

N.W.A broke up in the early ’90s. 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’s an actor whose films include “Ride Along” and “21 Jump Street.”

Murder-Rate Drop

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 L.A.; Ice Cube was born in L.A. in 1969, the year Compton elected its first black city councilman. The city’s now about two-thirds Latino.

The poverty rate is around 26 percent, compared with the California average of 16 percent. Still, Compton’s 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.

A selling point is its location, just south of downtown L.A., east of Los Angeles International Airport and north of the two biggest U.S. ports. Draw a circle around Compton, said Greg Ames, managing director of Trammell Crow’s local office, and “you can touch about 10 million people within a 45-minute to a one-hour drive.”

L.A.’s Brooklyn

Housing’s relatively reasonable too, with 50 homes selling for a median $274,000 in May, compared with the Los Angeles County median of $485,000. That’s part of the mayor’s pitch, framing Compton as the affordable alternative to Los Angeles that Brooklyn used to be to Manhattan.

“We have new companies investing in the city. We have new housing that’s under development,” said Brown, who grew up in Altadena, about 21 miles to the north. “It’s a much better place to live.”

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 said. “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’s still famous. Big Boy, an L.A. hip-hop radio host with a syndicated show, was reminded when his Japanese business partners visited.

Mexican Rapper

“I’ve had to get them all in my mini-coach and take them to Compton,” he said. “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?” said 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, said 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 said. “They weren’t there to save the world.”

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