Compton no longer the stuff of gangsta-rap lore

The film Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise of the rap group N.W.A. from the black urban ghetto, where gangs ruled the streets and life was cheap. These days, however, Compton bears little resemblance to the city N.W.A. described.

Once seen as the epitome of inner-city violence, the California city has gentrified

Straight Back to Compton

7 years ago
Duration 2:08
The city made famous by N.W.A.'s gangsta-rap classic 'Straight Outta Compton' has changed in 30 years

As we cross the boundary into one of the most notorious cities in America, Hodari Sababu is a little worried. His usual truck, the one the locals recognize, is in the shop. Instead, we're visiting his old neighbourhood in a nondescript black van.

"Hopefully we'll make it in and make it out of Compton today without any incident," Sababu says. "But nothing is guaranteed."

What Sababu is doing now – driving tourists through Compton, Calif. – might have been possible 30 years ago. But it would have been insane.

Before Sababu started Hood Life Tours, before he did 10 years for drug trafficking, he was a member of the South Side Crips gang.

Hodari Sababu shows off the City of Compton sign, a cultural touchstone for fans of West Coast hip-hop. (Kim Brunhuber)

"This is where I got my hustle on," Sababu says as we roll down the block that used to be his turf. "As a matter of fact, it was in this orange building right here."

The late 1980s was the peak of the crack cocaine era. Sababu says some blocks in Compton were worth $100,000 US a week in sales.

"You pay the consequences from making that money," Sababu says. "Nobody expected to live very long."

That's the environment depicted in the new film Straight Outta Compton, which chronicles the rise of the city's most notorious rap group, N.W.A. 

According to Subabu, shootouts happened weekly. One – the murder that ultimately prompted Sababu to leave Compton – happened right in front of his house.

"I had just enough time to go out and just fall on my daughter to cover her up just in case there was any stray gunfire," Sababu says.

Gangsta rap's Graceland

The drugs, the drive-by shootings – those became raw material for a new brand of hip-hop: gangsta rap. Artists such as N.W.A., Coolio and MC Eiht wrote about the drug trade and life on Compton's deadly streets.

"It was unfiltered, it was raw, and some of it was ugly, but it was the absolute truth," Sababu says.

Nowadays, Sababu takes his tourists to the Compton City sign, a cultural touchstone for fans of West Coast rap. Compton is gangsta rap's Graceland.

The Imperial Court housing projects in Compton were once almost all-black, but now many Latinos have moved in. (Kim Brunhuber)

"If you're a DJ, if you're an aspiring hip-hop artist and you come to Los Angeles, you gotta come and pay homage to the city that gave birth to so much dope, so much gangsta, so much incredible music. You gotta come and touch the sign... then you get a little bit of Compton in you, and now your music becomes something a little bit more edgy."

For Compton's new generation of rappers, such as Kendrick Lamar and Sababu's stepson, The Game, "CPT" is still code for the ultimate street cred. But The Game's Compton is very different from his stepdad's.

Take Lueder's Park. Back in Sababu's day, you couldn't roll past it without being eyed by a large crew of Bloods.

"A hundred, maybe 150" at a time, Sababu says. "Back in the day, there's no way I'd send my kids over here in the park to play." 

Now, the play structure's swarming with kids. The community centre swimming pool is full.

And today, a novel sighting.

"Whoa! White people!" Sababu says. "Yeah, that's a good thing. Families can come, kids can hang out, they don't have to worry about drive-bys and crazy shit like that. It's more of a family-friendly situation now."

Demographic changes

The end of the so-called crack epidemic in the early '90s meant fewer gang wars over turf, and the murder rate declined sharply. Even though gangs are still a problem, Compton no longer makes the Top 30 list of America's most violent cities. 

"But popular culture keeps representing Compton as the epicentre of black America and its problems," says historian Ryan Reft, who has written about the city.

He says that while the social changes are more pronounced now, the transition actually began decades ago. N.W.A dropped their classic album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988, but in some ways, they were rapping about the past.

  "The reality is it's been a lot different since even from the late '70s, early '80s," Reft says. For example, he says "there has always been a small Latino population. But it starts growing in the '70s to 14 per cent. And today, Compton is roughly 65 [per cent] Latino, mostly Mexican American, but also Guatemalan, Salvadorian and about 33 per cent black."

Drive through Compton's streets now, you notice that soul food is being replaced by taco stands. Compton's next hip-hop sensation, Kiki Smooth, is Latino.

Experts say it's part of a larger shift as African-Americans move further and further away from Los Angeles for areas where houses are cheaper.

This is one of many shuttered stores in Compton. (Kim Brunhuber)

"Some have decamped for the South [like Atlanta], which is part of a larger shift nationally among the nation's black population over the last decade or so," Reft says.

But Sababu sees new problems cropping up as the population changes.

"Because it's starting to shift, that's why you see the animosity that's going on between the remaining black residents and the incoming Hispanic residents," he says.

"Because black people have been in these neighbourhoods for two or three generations and now they're beginning to be supplanted and displaced, there's a certain amount of resentment that comes with that. But it's inevitable. It's going to happen. That's just all part of the progress that's going on in the neighbourhood."

'A Walmart-type of city'

The Compton Fashion Center, colloquially known as the Compton Swap Meet, is a legendary hangout that has closed and will soon be turned into a Walmart. (Kim Brunhuber)

The last stop on the tour is a massive old building with the words "Compton Fashion Center" in huge grey metal letters. It's better known as the Compton Swap Meet, a popular flea market that was once the busiest gathering place in the city.

"Back in the day," Sababu says, "if you were an up-and-coming artist, that's where people were, the hustle and bustle of people going out doing business, that's where you'd post up."

Now it's been shuttered. Soon, a Walmart will take its place.

"The city now has changed," Sababu says, looking up at the sign. "It's a Walmart-type of city now, as opposed to a Compton Swap Meet-type of city."

Sababu says he made a deal with the building's owners: When the swap meet sign comes down, he gets to keep the letter C – a souvenir of a Compton that no longer exists.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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