West Coast gangsta rap icons N.W.A. formed in Compton in 1987, a West Los Angeles supergroup put together by ambitious drug dealer Eazy-E, production titan Dr. Dre, gifted writer Ice Cube and local club operator MC Ren. Debut twelve-inch “Dope Man / 8-Ball” appeared on Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records along with equally legendary single “The Boyz-N-The Hood”. N.W.A. and the Posse (1987-Ruthless) hinted at what was to come, and the group added DJ Yella and The D.O.C. setting the stage for the incendiary, triple platinum Straight Outta Compton (1988-Priority).
The FBI warned the band after singles like “Fuck Tha Police” ignited boycotts and a fierce cultural firestorm within and outside of Hip Hop. Ice Cube left the group over a contract dispute, followed by the “100 Miles and Runnin‘” EP in 1990 on Priority and final record Efil4Zaggin [Niggaz4Life] (1991-Priority). Dre left after, according to legend, his bodyguard and partner Suge Knight threatened to kill their label manager. Dre went on to a galactic solo career and a feud with Eazy. Ice Cube also launched an enormous music and film career while MC Ren and DJ Yella went solo to little effect. Eazy-E died in 1995 of AIDS. Despite a lack of radio airplay or mainstream accolades like Grammys, the group’s message penetrated the furtherest corners of the nation and changed Hip Hop forever. N.W.A and the Posse was certified gold, Straight Outta Compton went double platinum and hit thirty-seven on the U.S. Billboard 200. Comedian Chris Rock called it the number one Greatest Hip Hop Album of all time in Rolling Stone in 2005. Niggaz4Life, was a Billboard 200 number one, certified platinum with eighty percent of sales coming from the suburbs.
No N.W.A. member holds more importance than perhaps Andre Young born February 18, 1965 in Compton, a declining corner of Los Angeles. His parents divorced before he was born, and his mother re-married. His half-brother (rapper Warren G) would later introduce him to Snoop Dogg. Music played from dawn till dusk and at loud volume in the Young household. His parents were avid fans of soul and funk like James Brown, The Supremes, and the Temptations. Dre started DJing for living room parties by age ten, teaching himself the relationship between music and mood while critiquing the artists he played. In the late ’70s and early eighties, Young was coming of age with George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic and his “G-Funk” sound would be a variation of P-Funk’s use of guitar, synth, drum machine and samples. Sly and the Family Stone added a psychedelic and prog rock sensibility to his ears.
In 1980, West Coast rap was nascent, but after watching a fateful Run DMC show, Young knew he could compete in the arena. In 1982 amid the rise of the Crips, Bloods and the multi-billion dollar illicit cocaine trade, Young joined the World Class Wreckin’ Kru out of the pivotal Eve’s After Dark club, and took the name Dr. Dre. A variation on Dr. J, the nickname of the famous basketball player. Dre became a premier party DJ in Los Angeles, getting exposed to Kraftwerk and New Wave, as the ghetto didn’t have the kind of clubs that paid the bills. WCWK independent single “Surgery” in 1985 sold 50,000 on the basis of its electronic funk, fast drum machine, scratching and goofy lyrics. 1985 single “Juice” helped build WCWK’s rep, but despite a CBS call offering a $100,000 advance, Dre has said he left due to the lack of money.
Dre had been mentoring O’Shea Jackson who had grown up in South Central but went to high school in the suburbs where he was a jock and a scholar. Writing rhymes, he formed group C.I.A. with some friends and was recruited by Dre to rap at parties. Also hanging out at Eve’s was Eric Lynn Wright a short, Kelly Park Compton Crip who had dropped out of high school in the tenth grade to deal drugs and capitalizing on the flourishing cocaine industry to start Ruthless Records. In 1986, Dre produced, Cube wrote and Eazy tried to sell the thug narrative “Boyz-N-The Hood” to East Coast group HBO (Home Boys Only). HBO didn’t like it, but the trio did. They had Eazy rap it and sold it from the trunk of their cars. Eazy approached Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella individually about a Compton “supergroup” and the three agreed to an experimental side project. Also, Eazy-E’s manager Jerry Heller worked in the same office as Bryan Turner of Capitol Records. Turner met Wright and signed N.W.A. to new major label spinoff Priority Records’, selling over 300,000 copies of “Boyz-N-The-Hood”. Cube went to college in Arizona for a year and came back in 1988 with an architectural drafting degree, but he really wanted to write raps. Eazy had Cube write songs “8-Ball” and “Dope Man” which came out as a single with “Panic Zone” written by Arabian Prince. The singles appeared on debut LP N.W.A. and the Posse (1987-Macola) also featuring humorous “Fat Girl”, the Fila Fresh Crew’s “Drink It Up”. Part of the nexus of releases and combinations in the scene, MC Ren got The D.O.C. to write lyrics for Eazy-E’s Eazy Duz It (1988-Ruthless) which went gold.
It’s important to note that Cube and Dre were not gang bangers, rather gang-affiliated. Cube was a jock and a college graduate, Dre was a prodigious business man who looked at the trends and decided to push the profane, violent aspects of their approach to the maximum. “Niggaz with attitude” would give people an alternative to the political rap of Public Enemy. This would be faithless protest music. Anarchic. Cynical. Comic. Depraved and unrelenting. Made for $10,000, N.W.A.’s fated follow-up Straight Outta Compton (1989-Priority) came out January 27, 1989 with no publicity. Radio wouldn’t touch it, yet it went gold in six weeks, moving 600,000 units in the first week. Aided by major label distribution, the album went on to sell at least three million and earned Ice Cube and Eazy-E letters from the FBI asking them to desist making music. Other hip-hoppers like Northern California Davey D and Kevvy Kev also boycotted airplay, but the world loved it. Dre has stated that they were just trying to make music their friends would like, yet the material was oddly prescient. Second track “Fuck Tha Police” was inspired by Eazy E and Dre having a gun held to their heads by police for paintballing pedestrians in Torrance. Seventy-five percent of the album is live instruments even though the samples are iconic. It posited a world where the civil rights movement had stalled and traditional avenues to success were closed off to inner-city blacks. The characters in N.W.A. stories found the fabled American Dream in cars, guns, criminal enterprise, sex and chaos. Three years later, that artistic discontent would find its real-world corollary as Los Angeles rioted and burned. The band became a global sensation and their stories of money and hoes became reality. Dre bought a huge French colonial mansion loaded with girls, cars, and jewelry. Their notorious first tour ended for Dre when he found out brother Tyree was attacked outside a store and died of broken neck back home. Soon after, Ice Cube left over the terms of a recording contract.
The “100 Miles and Runnin’” EP of 1990 included numerous disses on Cube for leaving, and preceded the third and final N.W.A. album Efil4Zaggin (1991-Priority) which reads “Niggaz4life” in mirror. Dr. Dre and co-producer DJ Yella densely layer soul-funk and beats, best evinced on “Real Niggaz Don’t Die”. Ice Cube’s hefty voice is replaced with Eazy-E’s nasal rapping and lyrics by The D.O.C . It became one of the most unlikely Billboard 200 number one’s of all time, as evinced by its producer’s behavior. Dre assaulted a female television host at a Hollywood party that year, throwing her through a door and punching her twice in the back of the head. It was a response to the taunting of N.W.A. on television. Dre was fined $2,500, given two years’ probation and community service.
In 1992, Los Angles rioted after a local jury acquitted white Los Angeles Police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King – mass media-fueled proof of America’s latent institutional racism. The economy was in recession, costing George H.W. Bush the presidency. Crime was up nationwide as a result, generating a crack epidemic that was ripping apart urban cores nationwide. Dre and Eazy-E had a fallout over recording contract terms and Suge Knight, according to lore threatened to kill their Priority Records manager unless Dre was allowed to leave. Dre left in 1992 and began a feud with Eazy which Eazy on record sales alone. In 1992, Young released his first solo single, the title track to the film Deep Cover, on his new label Death Row Records, on vinyl 12-inch featuring Snoop Dogg. “Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang” began a whole new era.
Ice Cube released the succesful AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990-Priority) and Death Certificate (1991-Priority) and numerous other solo projects and films. N.W.A. The Legacy Volumes 1 and 2 (1999-Priority) (2002-Priority) featured Snoop Doggy Dog, Bone Thugz-N-Harmony songs like “California Love” and “Murder Was the Case”. In 1994, Dre and Cube made up with single “Natural Born Killaz”, mending ties with Eazy-E before he died in 1995 of complications from AIDS. In 1998, Dre, Cube, MC Ren created single “Hello” and “Chin Check”. DJ Yella went on to direct pornography. An N.W.A. reunion concert was held in 2000, and Cube and Dre still remains massive forces in music at large.
In closing, funk music, the drug war, America’s latent white supremacy, and a reaction to East Coast rap all contributed to the rise of N.W.A. Dre’s production and vision, Cube’s writing, and Eazy-E’s ambition fused at the dawn of West Coast rap to offer the world an alternative to the political positivism of Public Enemy. Where Chuck D demanded people “Fight The Power”, N.W.A. posited the politically oblivious, lurid “Boyz-N-The-Hood”, catalyzing the biggest invasion of a black art form into white homes since blues or jazz before it. N.W.A. was toxic, chaotic and evanescent, decaying like plutonium from the moment of its creation – leaving tell-tale markers across the globe and radiating for eons to come. (David Downs)