The cover to NWA’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ helped set the tone for the most important, blistering and downright essential gangster rap album of all time. Featuring all six members of the “the world’s most dangerous group” as towering figures, with scowls etched across their faces as leader Eazy-E points a pistol directly at the camera, it summarised an angry, rebellious record the rang loudly through South Central Los Angeles’ African-American communities, bottling a disenchantment that would boil over a few years later with the LA Riots.
For almost three decades, photographer Eric Poppleton has enjoyed a successful career working for clients in advertising, architecture and television. But the Angelino’s place in music history is assured thanks to the one and only group to pose in front of his lens. Just out of college, Poppleton scored a freelance gig shooting NWA, and his work would appear on the cover of a number of their releases, none more notable than ‘Straight Outta Compton’. We caught up with Poppleton to find out how the famous picture came to be, and whether or not Eazy’s gun was really loaded.
“I had just graduated from the California Institute of the Arts and a friend of mine, Kevin Hosmann, was an art director. At the time he was at Capitol Records but was doing some freelance work on the side and got the opportunity to work with NWA. We were all basically at the same level – just starting out. We were just creating on the fly, not knowing where it was going to go.
Prior to ‘Straight Outta Compton’, I shot the cover to Eazy-E’s ‘Eazy Does It’, but I didn’t know much about rap and this is the only music photography that I’ve done in my entire career. I was totally unaware of who NWA were, but they were nice guys. To me, they weren’t like their music in person at all. They had their friends there and some of the set ups, they were quite involved, but I didn’t get too close to them. We had a very professional relationship and it wasn’t until years later that I found out the impact of the album cover.
The shoot itself was a combination of Kevin and my ideas, the two of us just making stuff up on the fly. We were in downtown Los Angeles, we didn’t have money for locations and most of our shots were just really simple set ups. There was no artificial lighting or anything, I just lay on the ground and they pointed what hopefully was an unloaded gun down at the camera. I couldn’t say for sure whether it was ready to fire, but it was definitely a real gun. There wasn’t anything fake back then.
I worked with NWA a few more times, like shooting the cover for the single ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, but after that I went straight into working as a photographer for corporate and annual reports and advertising for a lot of TV and news station around Los Angeles. That later morphed into architectural and doing panoramic photography for 12 years, and now I’m starting to shoot video for action sports and documentaries. But I’ve mentioned my role in ‘Straight Outta Compton’ a few times to people in the music industry and they’re like, “Wow!”. Completely blown away.
With the Straight Outta Compton movie coming out and the recent NWA reunion, there’s definitely been a renewed interest in the album. If they were to record another one, I’d definitely be on board to shoot the cover. That would really complete the circle, 27 years on.”