New NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton – co-produced by former members Dr Dre and Ice Cube – is an inevitably selective portrait of the pioneering gangsta rappers. Here, with the help of those who were there at the time, Angus Batey tells the true story of hip-hop’s most controversial group…
“The most important group, at least the most important American group, of the second half of the 20th century.” This is the assessment of NWA’s former manager, Jerry Heller – who also thinks the group’s debut ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is the most important album ever made. In terms of its impact and influence, if not its actual contents, he certainly has a point.
NWA were important, but not always for the right reasons. Before NWA, rap was controversial and confrontational, but usually political and substantive: after, though, the music and the industry surrounding it changed beyond all recognition. Those changes were huge, but rarely for the better.
Predictably, if disingenuously, F Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton biopic largely ignores the problematic parts of the band’s story and presents them as free-speech crusaders whose prescience on the topic of racist policing is as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1988. This was certainly a part of their impact and importance, and it was recognised throughout the music business.
“Dialogue about truth is important,” Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam and the mogul who did more to bring rap to global attention than any other industry figure, told me 11 years ago. “I always say it’s the rap music that people hate the most that’s God’s soundtrack. You need to hear ‘Fuck Tha Police’ if you live in Compton: at a certain time, a certain point, that dialogue creates a greater relationship. This kind of truth is necessary.”
NWA needed their own Russell Simmons, and found him in the unlikely form of Jerry Heller. He met NWA right at the start of their career, and did more than anyone outside the group to bring their music to the world.
“It’s 1985,” he recalled, “nobody’s making any money, there’s nothing new happening in the world, and I hear about this scene that’s happening at this little pressing plant on Santa Monica Boulevard called Macola. For $1,000 you got 500 records and the artwork. I go down there, and who’ve you got pressing records, but Ice-T, MC Hammer, JJ Fad, Bobby Jimmy And The Critters, and a little group called the World Class Wreckin’ Cru and their friends, CIA.”
The World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s DJ was Andre Young, while CIA included a teenager called O’Shea Jackson. Jackson and Young became Ice Cube and Dr Dre, and, alongside a former drug dealer called Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright, Lorenzo ‘MC Ren’ Patterson, another Wreckin’ Cru member, Antoine ‘DJ Yella’ Carraby (and, for a short while, Kim ‘Arabian Prince’ Nazel), they formed NWA, standing for Niggaz Wit Attitude.
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Eazy-E set up the label, Ruthless, that went on to release their records, and those by a slew of associated artists. Heller – who had years of experience in the music industry, promoting gigs on the west coast by ’70s superstars such as Elton John and Van Morrison – became their manager.
“I thought what was happening at Macola was where rock’n’roll was in 1964 and ’65,” Heller told me during our 2006 interview. “It was where the music business should be. If you sold 10,000 records you got $30,000 dollars, and Jerry Heller went over to cash the cheque because he had the only bank account, and you split it up on the corner and everybody got money.”
Following the release of attention-grabbing debut album ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in 1988, NWA were quickly dubbed “the world’s most dangerous group”. It transpired that the FBI were investigating their lyrics, in particular, ‘Fuck Tha Police’ (or, as the surprisingly coy album sleeve titled it: ‘—- Tha Police (Fill In The Blanks)’). Crazily, there were attempts to ban the group from playing the song, which only fanned the flames.
The album’s most focused and political statement became a free-speech issue in the United States, where the right to say what you think is enshrined in the laws of the land. As the countrywide tour to promote the album attracted more and more publicity, the cogent and largely principled ‘Fuck Tha Police’ became conflated with an album that elsewhere mixed sociopathy, misogyny and misanthropy with a production that took Public Enemy’s scorching sonic template and ran (off) with it.
The attentions of the police – culminating in the group’s arrest after they predictably ignored an instruction not to perform ‘Fuck Tha Police’ in Detroit – probably helped build a siege mentality within the NWA camp, and may have kept these combustible personalities together for longer than would otherwise have been the case. Inevitably, though, arguments over money proved their undoing.
Royalties, which typically take months to work their way from shops to distributors to record labels and on to artists, weren’t arriving fast enough to keep tempers from boiling over. At a gig in Phoenix, Arizona, each member was given a cheque, but only if they signed a contract.
“I refused to take my cheque, because I felt that I would be admitting that I agreed with what I was bein’ paid,” Cube told me in 2006. “They [the other group members] thought I was crazy! I heard comments like, ‘For $75,000, I don’t care what that contract say. I would sign that shit two times’. They were like, ‘What’s wrong with you? This is more money than we’ve ever seen, and you wanna be the dark cloud in the shit?'”
The picture was complicated by ‘Eazy-Duz-It’, released within weeks of ‘Straight Outta Compton’. Though nominally an Eazy-E solo album, the record was pretty much another NWA LP. “The cheque was just for ‘Straight Outta Compton’, but we’d worked on both records equally,” Cube said. “I felt like we deserved more of both pies. We put as much time and effort into ‘Eazy-Duz-It’ as into ‘Straight Outta Compton’ – all of us. But Eazy wanted to keep all the ‘Eazy-Duz-It’ money and just pay us the NWA money, and take his share out of the NWA money! I’m like, man! Come on, dude – you’re double-dippin’ here!”
The legend of the $75,000 cheque has passed in to NWA lore, and Cube’s refusal to accept it from Heller is shown in the film. Less well known is Heller’s view on why the sum was correct, and why Cube’s decision to leave the band was unnecessary.
“First of all, Eazy owned the company,” says Heller. “He always got that 25% off the top. But say Eazy didn’t own it: somebody would have got that 25%, it just so happened that Eazy owned the company. There were five members of the group, and I got 20% as manager. So that leaves 80% split five ways. If he wasn’t happy with the splits, he should have gone with a group like Metallica, where there’s only four members.”
Cube jumped ship, going solo while NWA thundered ahead as a four-piece. More controversy was to follow with their second album, ‘Efil4Zaggin’. In June 1991, NWA’s UK label Island Records was charged under the Obscene Publications Act, with police raiding the distribution warehouse to seize copies of the album. The ensuing landmark court case was lost by the Crown Prosecution Service, who failed to prove the album’s ability to “deprave and corrupt”, and ‘Efil4zaggin’ went back on sale. The record tends to be overshadowed today by ‘Straight Outta Compton’s legacy, but its influence was also considerable.
“The production was better than ‘Straight Outta Compton’,” Busta Rhymes – who gives ‘Efil4zaggin’ a place in his 10 favourite albums of all time – told me in 2008. “The special effects, the skits, the shit they was talkin’ about… You heard fuckin’ Eazy-E do a country and western song! I just could not believe the mentality, the audacity, the creative genius that they had in the process of making that album. And then when I looked at the album cover and they were all dead, and their fuckin’ spirits was flyin’ out their fuckin’ bodies, and then the ‘Niggaz4Life’ was backwards, so that when you put it in the mirror you could read it the right way…? I was like, ‘These motherfuckers is CRAZY!!!’ This shit is crazy! This is the most craziest shit in existence to me. In a nutshell.”
Much more troubling, though, was how an abhorrent attitude towards women took centre stage, both on record and, horrifically, in real life. Cube had written most of the group’s lyrics, and when he left, so it appeared did the last element of control over the sexist excesses of their worldview. (Far from an innocent when it came to misogynist lyrics, Cube did at least have a post-NWA line of defence he could turn to – he had hired NWA’s former PR, Pat Charbonnet, to be his manager. As he rapped in a 1992 solo song, “A black woman is my manager, not in the kitchen/So could you please stop bitchin’?“)
From already deeply offensive references to “bitches” and “hos” on the records with Cube, the objectification of women on ‘Efil4Zaggin’ (and the ‘100 Miles and Runnin” EP that preceded it) became increasingly ugly. Then Dre was involved in the incident that removed at a stroke any chance of the group credibly being able to claim the sexism was some form of social commentary, or was them acting out a part in an audio movie.
In January 1991, Dre was at a party also attended by Dee Barnes, the presenter of the TV show Pump It Up, and – up to that point – a friend of the band. The show had recently screened a piece about NWA, but had intercut it with footage of an Ice Cube interview. This, apparently, so aggrieved Dre that he attacked her.
Accounts of the unprovoked assault are chilling. With an armed bodyguard keeping other people away, Dre grabbed Barnes by the hair and slammed her head repeatedly against a wall. After attempting to throw her down a flight of stairs, he followed her into a ladies’ toilet and continued to beat her while she was lying on the floor, pinning her to the ground with his knee and holding the door shut with his foot. When the case eventually came to court, Dre pleaded no contest, was fined $4,500 and sentenced to 240 hours’ community service.
This was not the only time the producer used violence against women. Even before the Barnes assault, Tairrie B, who was signed to a Ruthless subsidiary label, was assaulted by Dre at a Grammys event in front of numerous well-heeled, well-known witnesses. She was encouraged to drop charges as Dre’s enablers and their cover-up machinery kicked into gear. She alludes to the incident on her new, name-your-price download LP, ‘Vintage Curses‘, and with her autobiography currently in preparation, a definitive account will surely emerge.
Michel’le, whose debut album was also released by Ruthless and sold several million copies, would later tell interviewers that Dre – with whom she had a child – had once beaten her so badly that she needed plastic surgery.
Funnily enough, none of this appears in the film. But we do get to see Dre being hit by a woman – his mother – in a scene that appears to serve no purpose other than to try to “explain” his subsequent behaviour. He finally spoke – albeit cursorily – about these incidents after a quarter of a century in a recent Rolling Stone interview. After appearing to claim that some of the allegations were not true – but not saying which ones – he said he wishes he could erase these episodes from reality. He cannot do that, but he has done the next best thing: he, F Gary Gray, and the film’s writers have removed them from what will now be seen as the authorised, official story.
Dre subsequently issued a further statement, apologising to “the women I’ve hurt”. Although many still viewed this apology as cynically-timed and unsatisfactory, Dee Barnes has cautiously acknowledged his “humility“.
NWA ended, suitably, amid further violence and controversy. Dre, belatedly agreeing with Cube that he should have been paid more, enlisted the help of former footballer-turned-burgeoning record mogul, Marion “Suge” Knight, to extricate himself from his Ruthless contract. According to Heller’s autobiography, Ruthless: A Memoir, Dre called Eazy to a meeting but when Eazy showed up, Dre was nowhere to be found. Instead, Knight pointed to a van parked nearby and said Heller was in the back of it being tortured, suggesting Eazy’s mum would be next. Eazy signed the release papers, and Heller had to talk him out of killing Knight.
The end of the group was by no means the end of NWA’s influence. Eazy and Heller continued to make millions as Ruthless hit paydirt again with the Cleveland group, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, whose combination of sung hooks and hyperspeed rapping anticipated elements of today’s hip-hop sound. Dre and Cube embarked on the solo music and film careers they remain involved with today. An NWA reunion had been discussed, but plans were barely starting to coalesce by the time Eazy died from Aids-related illness in 1995.
The ripples, though, continued to spread. The Game, a native of the same South Central LA streets NWA rapped about, was inspired enough to get a portrait of Eazy-E tattooed on his right forearm and the NWA logo tattooed on his chest. He managed to realise his dream when his debut LP ‘The Documentary’ was executive-produced by Dre.
“NWA, for Compton, was just big,” he said in a 2006 interview. “That’s our claim to fame right there. We own the right to rep NWA, man – that’s pretty much our shit. People from all round the world love NWA, but who has more right to rep NWA than somebody from Compton? Especially a kid who was around when those things were going on. I seen Eazy in passin’ around Compton. Some days he’d be givin’ out turkey. Any chance I had, I’d get my uncle or my moms to take me to see when he was doin’ video shoots or little concerts, and I met him once. As a kid, NWA was just my life.”
For his second album, Game found an unlikely ally in another artist touched by the NWA’s guiding hand. In the early ’90s, Will 1X was a member of a band called Atban Klann who were signed to Ruthless. When Eazy died the group disbanded, and the record was never released. Will changed his stage name to will.i.am and his new group, Black Eyed Peas, went on to become huge pop stars. For him to make a track that looked back on the NWA era through a gangsta lens was difficult.
“There’s a lot o’ gangsta rappers out there that’s been influenced by Eazy-E, but I had the pleasures of actually working with him – writing for him, and bein’ on two songs with him,” will told me during a visit to his home studio in 2007. “I’m the furthest from a gangsta rapper ever on the planet. I come from the projects, but I chose to go this route. I don’t wanna remember the shit I saw, I don’t wanna talk about my friends that got shot, I wanna do music that makes me happy. I don’t wanna do no dark shit. But I know what dark shit feels like. I seen it.”
If you want to find an NWA legacy worth celebrating, it’s there in the emotive, evocative track called ‘Compton’ that The Game and will.i.am made together. The surviving members of NWA are also keen for you to also hear their after-echoes in the work of Kendrick Lamar, the latest in a string of Compton-native rappers to make a mark on the mainstream, and who paid due homage when brought together with Dre, Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren for a Billboard magazine article last month.
Lamar couldn’t help but have his musical worldview informed by the neighbourhood’s biggest pop icons. But the music he makes seems to exist as much despite NWA as because of them. Lamar’s albums have managed to unite hip-hop’s disparate tribes because he works hard at making his music an inclusive and involving experience; NWA spent most of their time trying to piss off as many people as possible. Sketch NWA into a wider history of musicians from South Central LA – Charles Wright; Coolio; Charles Mingus; The Watts Prophets; Ras Kass; Barry White – and they start to look like the exception rather than the rule.
In making Straight Outta Compton, Dre and Cube clearly hoped to cement NWA’s legacy as truth-speaking renegades, positive role models for disaffected black youth. But we should also bear in mind NWA’s negative impact, on rappers who aim abusive language towards women because they think it’ll help sell albums, or the online commenters who say the women abused by Dre should shut up and be supportive of a black man making money in a racist world. Sadly, the ultimate message of Straight Outta Compton is that if you make enough money, you can rewrite your own history.