Melody Maker | Feature | 5 August 1989
"Most of the rap groups I deal with are positive, anti-gang and anti-drugs. But NWA sound like they're using the record industry to glamorize crime and that's a hindrance. They've got a volatile situation and they're taking advantage of it."
Leon Watkins, head of the South Central Los Angeles Family Hotline, established to work with parents of youths involved with gangs and drugs, quoted from the Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1989
"They glorify gang violence and, to a young and impressionable child listening to this type of music, even legitimise it. These individuals are symbolic of gang members, they dress and look the part."
Lieutenant Harry Taylor, Compton District Police, interviewed on the Channel 4 TV South California News, 9 April 1989
"Here's a little something 'bout a nigga like me / Never should've been let out the penitentiary / Ice Cube would like to say that I'm a crazy motherfucker from around the way / Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out / Now I'm the motherfucker that you read about / Taking a life or two, that's what the hell I do / You don't like how I'm living? / Well, fuck you."
NWA – "Gangsta Gangsta"
In recent months, attention has been gradually switching away from the New York hip hop scene to a steadily growing number of innovative rappers based on the West Coast of America, particularly Los Angeles. First it was the Uzi-wielding Ice-T, then the bawdy devilry of Tone Loc and the different humours, some dark, some dazzling, of the other Delicious Vinyl crews. Now, most dramatically, it's the turn of Niggers With Attitude, more commonly known as NWA.
NWA – Ice Cube (real name O'Shay Jackson), Eazy-E (Eric Wright), MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson), Dr Dre (Andre Young) and Yella (Antoine Carraby) – have been described by the American press as the ultimate in hardcore hip hop and as the most controversial musical phenomenon of recent years. It's not only their name that has proved a bone of contention. Their song titles include "Fuck Tha Police", "Gangsta Gangsta" and "Tha Bitch Is A Bitch". The group's debut LP, "Straight Outta Compton", which has sold well over a million copies in the States and is one of the most sought after imports of recent months, will be released in Britain later this month. A single, "Express Yourself", will precede the album by a week or so. Be prepared.
The quirky and perky rhythms of "Express Yourself" are far from representative of much of "Straight Outta Compton", not only musically but also because it's the only track that doesn't require scores of alterations to stand a chance of passing the censors. The rest of the LP is a bold blend of rough dope beats and foul-mouthed raps, interspersed with the sound of gunshots and sirens. The rhymes feature dozens of references to drug dealing, car stealing and girl stalking, to store robberies and drive-by shootings, each a part of the daily routine for the gangs of Compton, a ghetto area of South Central LA and NWA's home town. Here, brutality and profanity are the norm.
"When most people think of LA, they think of palm trees and girls in bikinis, but there's another side to the city which is kept hidden from view," says Ice Cube. “That's where Compton comes in. I always describe Compton as being like a fox in sheep's clothing. By day, it looks like a nice enough neighbourhood, the buildings aren't weather-beaten as they are in some districts, but at night things get real crazy. That's when the gangs take over.
"Some of the things I've seen happening on the streets of Compton is like stuff straight out of a Vietnam war movie. I've seen people getting stabbed and getting robbed, people getting gunned down, people smoking all kinds of drugs. It's not an especially big area but every weekend there are killings, sometimes around half a dozen, sometimes a whole lot more. The violence just goes on and on."
NWA may be a new name in the UK, but most of the members of the group first appeared on "Boyz-N-The-Hood", a single released in April 1986. The song was written by Ice Cube, then a 16-year-old follower of LA's World Class Wreckin' Cru, for a now defunct New York posse called HBO. When the track – "A respectful tribute to the boys in the gangs" – was rejected as being too West Coast, Dr Dre, the Cru's DJ, together with his neighbour Yella, persuaded his homeboy Eazy-E to work the rhyme. Amazingly, it was the first time Eazy had ever picked up a microphone.
In order to release "Boyz-N-The-Hood", Eazy set up a production company and record label called Ruthless, investing a few thousand dollars, the source of which remains clouded with rumours. The most common story claims that the money was the result of youthful years involved in dope dealing, a lifestyle Eazy elected to leave behind him after his cousin had been blasted to death on the street. Eazy has refused to either confirm or deny the story.
Towards the end of 1987, now using the name Niggers With Attitude, the group appeared live as a support to Salt 'N' Pepa. Around the same time, "8 Ball" and "Dopeman" were issued as a double A-side single. Both songs were again written by Ice Cube, the former track a homage to his favourite drink, Olde English 800 malt liquor, the latter a grim tale of the effects of crack.
Despite a lack of radio play – not surprising with lines like "It might be your wife and it might make you sick / Come home and see her mouth on the dopeman's dick" – the single proved to be an enormous commercial success, giving Ruthless both money and credibility. In the light of this, Eazy threw his new-found entrepreneurial talents behind other acts, most notably JJ Fad, a local female rapper. Her "Supersonic" single, produced by sometime NWA associate Arabian Prince, sold half a million copies.
Ice Cube and Eazy next recruited MC Ren to act as a second songwriter and negotiated a licensing and distribution contract with Priority Records. Not only has this deal helped to push "Straight Outta Compton" towards platinum status, it's also been important to the success of Eazy's solo LP, "Eazy Duz It", which will be released over here in the autumn. The band are currently on a sell-out coast-to-coast tour of America and there’s every likelihood they’ll be playing a handful of shows in Britain before the year is out.
"NWA are reporting what's going on in our town and the things we're describing – the fighting, the poverty, the drug selling – aren't fairy tales or scenes from a movie," says Ice Cube. "This is our reality and that's why we're respected by the kids on the street. It doesn't matter if they're from the projects of Chicago or New Orleans, they can still relate to what we're talking about because our messages are clear and to the point – there are no big words, there's no tricky rapping.
"As far as Britain is concerned, I've gotta admit that I'm not too hip to what's going on over there, but I do know that they're into rugged hip hop and that they don't like no soft shit. People will understand that we're going against the grain and will relate to us because of that."
To describe "Fuck Tha Police" with its rhyme "A young nigga on the warpath / And when I'm finished, there's gonna be a bloodbath" as going against the grain is something of an understatement. But Ice Cube points out that the song is simply articulating a common feeling.
"'Fuck Tha Police' is something a lot of people have been wanting to say for a long time. It's just that, until now, everybody's been too scared. Now we've set a trend and other records are coming out which are asking the same questions – why pick on the blacks?
"I've met more bad cops than good and most of them abuse their authority. They don't give us any respect, they judge the black kids by the way they look. If I get stopped in the street, they'll ask me what gang I'm in, if I've got any dope, all kinds of stuff for no reason other than they don't like the way I'm dressed. If I was white, I wouldn't get that kind of treatment. A friend of mine got taken downtown three times in one weekend. And they never charged him with a damn thing.
"The problem is that we're telling the truth and that hurts. That's why MTV banned the video for 'Straight Outta Compton', which shows a gang sweep, an activity that proves the authorities don't honestly care about what's going on. When there's a gang sweep, the police basically have the right to pick someone up just because he's black and he happens to be walking down the street."
NWA's songs don't appear to support of the kind of separatism once advocated by Public Enemy.
"PE were on a political thing – we're more in tune with what's happening on the streets," says Ice Cube. "Most kids don't give a fuck who the mayor or the president is and they're not interested in voting. The police are the highest authority they recognise and apart from questioning their role, like asking why they don't put black cops into a community like Compton, we see no reason to deal with racial issues."
The number of expletives on "Straight Outta Compton" must be over 100 in around 40 minutes. Why the profanity?
"Aww, it's no big deal. There's more swearing on cable TV. We ain't teaching anybody nothing new."
So how about the accusation of sexism, the many references to women as "bitches"?
"Again, it's the language of the ghetto. But we're not saying that all women are bitches. Just the money hungry ones, the ones who want to get one over on you, the stupid ones. It's the way things come out when a bunch of guys get together, that's all."
How do you feel about the criticism that NWA are glorifying and exploiting the problems of serious drug abuse and gang violence?
"We're not glorifying anything. All we're doing is telling it straight, the way it is. People expect us to say, 'Don't do drugs', but the kids are smart enough to realise the dangers involved. They've got teachers, parents, the church and community leaders warning them the whole time anyway, so they don't wanna put on our records and get chastised some more. They can do bad or they can do good, but it's not our place to tell them what they're supposed to do.
"With 'Dopeman', we talked about the crack situation from all different kinds of angles. The song deals with the pusher himself, the way he looks and the way he acts, and also with a girl who's hooked and the things she has to go through to get her hit. The American public supposedly wants to know about crack, but they don't wanna hear the kind of detail we go into. Everybody blames the black guy on the corner, but they're right at the bottom of the totem pole. I don't know any brothers who use an aeroplane or a boat to get stuff into the country. What about looking to the people higher up?
"As for the gangs, we're not pro-gangs, we're just putting across opinions that others would rather ignore. 'Gangsta Gangsta' is like an answer to the movie 'Colours'. All that did was to show the gangbanging from the police point of view. We're trying to show how it is on the other side, what it's like to have to deal with that kind of asshole cop in the movie on a day-to-day basis.
"NWA aren't role models, we're not gonna be puppets, we're just rappers who are speaking from the heart. It's just a job, like being a mailman or a garbage collector. We're no better than anyone else, we're not stars, we're simply being ourselves and saying what we feel."
There are plenty of incidents and stories involving NWA that both illustrate the current state of gang warfare in Los Angeles and prove that the ruthless attitudes and savage scenes of "Straight Outta Compton" are an honest reflection of what's happening in their city rather than the result of a grim imagination. Some are plain tragic, others are tinged with humour.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Dr Dre's brother was jumped upon and beaten to death while walking along the street. There was no apparent motive for the murder. Some months before this, MC Ren was also the innocent victim of gang violence. He’d been invited over to a friend's house to watch a few videos and was standing in his friend's driveway when a group of Piru Bloods indiscriminately opened up from across the street. One or two of the people he was with happened to be Crips, sworn enemies of the Bloods, and Ren ended with a bullet in his leg simply because he'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There's also the story of when a prominent member of the Crips hung up on a journalist he knew who'd telephoned him to ask his opinion of NWA. Then there’s the time the group were refused entry to their own LP's pre-release party, organised by Priority at an LA nightclub. Apparently, the doorman took one look at NWA and decided that they were a bunch of gatecrashing thugs. Despite being a foot or more shorter than the bouncer, Eazy-E threw a punch. Suffice to say it didn't do much to help gain them access.
"The NWA attitude is we don't give a fuck," says Ice Cube. "We don't care about the media or the police, about parents or community leaders. We're doing what we're doing for the kids, the people who have experienced and seen and heard the same things that we have. Everybody dared us to make the ultimate record – and with 'Fuck Tha Police', that's exactly what we've done. But that's not all. Apart from the first three cuts, our LP was rushed. It's a good album, but it's not the best that NWA are gonna do. The next LP is gonna be a whole lot crazier."
You seriously believe you can crank the action up higher?
"Of course. Just you wait."