Photo by Debra DiPaolo
There is a moment, an August morning in 1988, a specific moment on a sunny, smoggy day in central Hollywood among the reek of stale office coffee and a scattering of battered chairs. A water cooler. Gold records on the walls. California Raisins action figures twisted into an unlikely raisin Kamasutra. Fifteen bored men slumped in those chairs: pluggers, jocks, marketers, flacks — record men.
The world, or at least that large part of the world circumscribed by African-American pop music, is a certain way at this moment. There are small companies that sell small amounts of records and large companies that sell large amounts of records. The relationship between artist and entrepreneur is understood. Hip-hop is very much an East Coast phenomenon. The terminal letter of plural nouns is still generally “s,” even in rap songs. The dichotomy of “bitches” and “ho’s” is still an abstract concept to much of America. It is possible to read a profile of a performer without coming across the phrase “surrendered to police.”
The record men wait for something to happen, wait for Eazy to acknowledge their presence or at least the several pagers that have been vibrating in the pockets of his jeans. Ren, who will later turn out to be a major artist in his own right but here acts very much like a well-trained bodyguard, deflects the men’s anxious glances with a cold, practiced glare. Eazy-E reaches up to adjust his black Raiders cap but otherwise does not move.
A tall, thick-set young man walks into the room carrying a cassette tape, which he fumbles as he tries to pop it into a machine. Dr. Dre, as he calls himself, is even then fairly well-known to anybody who has followed Los Angeles hip-hop. He spun records at Crenshaw nightclubs back when he was still a blotchy-skinned teenager at Centennial High, and he deejayed for the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. He is among the regulars on KDAY’s mix shows. He can often be heard at Skateland, a Compton roller rink that is home to the rougher side of the Los Angeles hip-hop scene, a venue where the security guards in the parking lot brandish Uzis, where prospective customers are required to pass through not one but two metal detectors before being granted admission. He produced “Boyz-N-the Hood” as well as “Dopeman,’’ the first single from N.W.A — Niggaz With Attitude — a Compton supergroup that includes Eazy, Ren, Dre, Yella and Ice Cube, a rapper just returned from technical school in Arizona. The singles Dre produces are notorious for their trademark tinkle, a sort of one-fingered hunt-and-peck keyboard obbligato that can be heard from cars passing as far as a half-mile away. In the summer of 1988, Dre’s ice-cream-truck counterpoint lingers over the Crenshaw Strip most evenings like a jittery, high-pitched haze.
Dre presses play.
In retrospect, I see the moment as if it were infinitely suspended in time, Dre’s extended finger, the company president’s folded hands, the boredom written across the faces of record men who would rather be home with a Marvin Gaye album and a snifter of Courvoisier. Eazy’s eyes still invisible behind his locs. Blue cigarette smoke hanging in the air. An empty foam cup beaded with yesterday’s coffee. A stack of 12-inch singles from Bobby Jimmy and the Critters.
A funky guitar riff floats through the office, something lifted from Steve Arrington, then the whomp of the maxed-out E-mu 1200 Dre is known to favor for his beats, then Ice Cube’s angry voice . . . “Out the door, but we don’t quit./Ren said, ‘Let’s start some shit.’/Got a shotgun, and here’s the plot/Taking niggaz out with a flurry of buckshots.”
The music ends. Jaws gape. N.W.A’s manager, Jerry Heller, who is used to working with more sedate artists such as Elton John, rubs his temples so hard that they show crimson against his pale skin. The white record men avoid looking at the black record men; the black record men look as if they’d rather be anywhere else. The radio man, who is in no small way responsible for the success of N.W.A up to this point, lifts himself out of his chair as if weighing his chances of escape. Eazy-E, betraying emotion for the first time this morning, cannot help but smirk, amused contempt spreading across his pinched face, his long, greasy curls trembling with laughter just barely suppressed.
The hooks are tight, the rhymes tough, the rapping right on key: tropes on the word motherfucker, and riffs jacked up on pure, 12-gauge adrenaline. It is a perfect hardcore track. And the sentiment expressed, breathtakingly violent, awesomely self-obsessed and exponentially more vulgar than anything that has come before, is unthinkable.
“Gangsta Gangsta” has just been played for the first time outside the studio in which it was recorded. Gangsta rap, that seductive blurring of the boundary between streetwise fantasy and funky cold experience, between the distorted stereotype of what white America feared most about young black kids and what the African-American community feared most about itself, came into existence. And like the first A-test at Alamogordo, it could not be stuffed back into the bottle.
In 1988, Los Angeles was in the middle of a decade-long spasm of gang violence, but its hip-hop scene was tame, at least compared with how the music had come together in New York and Philadelphia. Here we had a poppy, dancy, DJ-centered form of the beast meant more for the dance floor than for the street corner, a hybrid that barely seemed to admit rapping, much less the kind of raw, deconstructed beats associated with Run-DMC or even Schoolly D. Live venues were rare, especially after the 1986 riot that broke out at the Run-DMC show at the Long Beach Arena. KDAY, blasting from the Crenshaw Strip, was almost a force of nature, a 24-hour megamix of the Gap Band, Anita Baker, and more hip-hop than any radio station in America at the time, blasting the newest hits from Hollis and the South Bronx long before they made it onto the mix shows in New York City, but the local acts they featured (including early N.W.A) performed mostly novelty songs.
“Gangsta Gangsta” changed everything. The unwritten rules of hip-hop basically stated that a rapper promotes his own invincibility. When a Public Enemy rhyme puts Chuck D in a prison cell, it’s only so that he can break out of it; when a policeman stumbles into an L.L. Cool J song, he is only there for L.L. Cool J to outwit. A rapper, whose implicit statement is always, “You want to be like me,” is a role model whether he wants to be one or not. The moment an audience stops wanting to be M.C. Hammer is the moment that they stop buying M.C. Hammer’s records.
N.W.A replaced the model of verbal battle, of the well-timed boast, with its sheer, shrieking violence, with its presence — nobody could tell whether they were gangbangers or merely clever musicians exploiting the stories of the gangbangers who were their friends. When a policeman appears in an N.W.A song, he’s got Ren face-down on the pavement in front of his friends, is groping Ice Cube during a search, is frisking Eazy for narcotics. In the course of an N.W.A song, crimes are punished, women are faithless, and violence leads to more violence, jail or death, and the merry, vivid first-person narrative of the lyric, so different from the mere boasting of, say, Slick Rick or Ice-T, is as immediate as a billy club across your skull. Instead of living out the omnipotence that rap used to be about, N.W.A’s expression is of ‰49 weakness in the face of power, the faceless drive-by shooting, the snarling anti-cop curses left unsaid until the black-and-white is around the corner. They called themselves street reporters. New York hip-hop suddenly seemed very old-fashioned.
I can fuck you up, therefore I am.
By the middle of 1989, gangsta style had replaced slick danceability as the hallmark of Los Angeles hip-hop, and gangsta rap was an industry of its own. The center of hip-hop gravity moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, where it would stay. The FBI hounded N.W.A as if it were al Qaeda.
Every third kid in South Los Angeles formed a gangsta rap posse, it seemed, and dozens of them sold millions of records. With the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department a couple of
years later, N.W.A seemed more prescient than sensational for the first time, and Straight Outta Compton, on which “Gangsta Gangsta” appears, gave shape to the ’92 Los Angeles riots.
Ice Cube left the group and became the voice of his generation as both a musician and a screenwriter. Dre developed a stable of platinum rappers for Eazy’s label, invented what would be called New Jack Swing, then left to form another label, where he developed a second stable of platinum rappers, including Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and left again to form yet a third company that brought us 50 Cent and Eminem. Eazy, before he became arguably the first major rapper to die of AIDS, nurtured a gangsta–cum–corporate wax war with his former colleagues that was almost operatic in its complexity. Without N.W.A’s gangstafication of popular music, the reflexive self-identification of urban musicians and gangbangers, it is difficult to imagine the turf wars that left Tupac and Biggie Smalls dead, the thuggery that led Suge Knight to prison, or even (it is believed in some circles) the baroque machinations of the Rampart Division scandal that almost brought down the LAPD.
Without “Gangsta Gangsta,” Los Angeles would be a different kind of city.
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