By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The vibe, when it’s not hardcore pissed-off, is easy, merry, casual, fun, as if the guys were just cutting loose in the studio in front of a live mike, the sort of carefully scripted heavy-bottom street-corner jive Parliament-Funkadelic did so well in the ’70s. (Songs are punctuated with staticky comments from the engineer’s booth, the thwee of rewinding tape, expressions of pleasure at the unexpected in-studio appearance of Eazy-E — on Eazy’s own record. It sounds like a bunch of guys sitting around listening to a record, not making one.) A song might take its form from a call-in radio show or an interview with a probation officer.
There are precedents for this sort of thing — Starsky and Hutch, Iceberg Slim’s novels Pimp and Trick Baby, Leroy and Skillet, over-the-top blaxploitation pictures like The Mack and Dolomite — although nobody ever assumed that Redd Foxx or Rudy Ray Moore had any moral authority over the nation’s youth. Take out the cussing and it turns out the gangster crime-spree narrative of “Gangsta Gangsta” is nothing the network censors would blue-pencil from an average episode of Wiseguy. The lyrics of Satan-metal bands like Slayer are unquestionably more violent.
N.W.A’s canny self-identification as a ruthless Compton street gang, though, is close enough to blur the knife’s edge between streetwise fantasy and funky cold experience. Excruciatingly detailed accounts of a burglary, a liquor store holdup, a bank robbery or a drive-by shooting make equally uncomfortable both the people who think N.W.A might not be fronting and the people who’re sure that they are.
A prominent Crip hung up on a journalist friend when she asked him about N.W.A; he thought they were just talkers (giving gangbanging a bad name, perhaps). A local rap promoter who’s been active in L.A. hip-hop as long as it’s existed swears N.W.A are currently active gangsters, gun-crazy, slinging ’caine. (He’s almost certainly wrong, by the way.) To celebrate the Eazy E and N.W.A albums last fall, Priority threw a pre-release bash at the World, a not-very-swanky disco in the Beverly Center. The doorman, thinking N.W.A were a bunch of thugs, refused to let them into the club for their own party. Eazy, at least a foot shorter than the doorman, threw a punch. N.W.A never made it inside.
N.W.A themselves, although they insist they know gangbangers but are not themselves gangbangers, are remarkably cagy about all sorts of basic facts: age, school, girlfriends, where they live, what they did before N.W.A.
It says something about who they are that what they’re trying to hide could either be criminal records or solid B averages and high-school diplomas. “You’re not bringing up our skeletons,” Eazy says, cocking a finger. “That’s dead.”
March ’89: The day MTV banned their “Straight Outta Compton” video, N.W.A is hanging out at the Torrance recording studio that’s the seat of the Ruthless empire. They are all surly — they were counting on the video, a brutal verite gang-sweep scenario directed by Australian Rupert Wainwright, to put them over the way that Tone-Loc’s did — and upset about a Compton flare-up between the Piru Bloods and the Atlantic Drive Crips: They’ve lost friends over the weekend. Concert-volume beatbox riffs whump from specially built 18-inch playback woofers in the engineers’ booth where Dre is recording the B-side for the next single, a stripped-down jam called “Give It to Dre.” He hunches over a record on a turntable like a studio guitarist over his ax and grimly scratches in the break time and again over the beat. “Give it to Dre .?.?. G-G-Give it to Dre. G-Give it to Dre and the boy is done.” He makes a mistake and Yella rewinds the tape. “Fuck the image!” somebody yells from the next room.
A slight blonde from PBS takes notes for a possible five-minute segment on the band; Ice Cube, Eazy and Ren sprawl over easy chairs in the lobby, zombielike, doing phone interview after phone interview. “Kids want to hear about reality,” Ice Cube says again and again. “White kids don’t live in the ghetto, but they want to know what’s going on.” Ren cuts in on cue: “If you’re watching the news and Tritia Toyota says three people got killed in McDonald’s, it’s not like she’s telling you to kill them — she’s just telling you what happened.” Ice Cube stands up, stretches: “But y’all have mwa-ral authawrity,” he says, imitating the last interviewer.
“If they don’t buy our records, fuck that shit.”
He pulls a scrawled-on sheet of three-ring paper out of his pocket and walks into the studio. Yella rolls the tape, and Ice Cube starts to rap. His staccato drawl is devastating, playful, spontaneous yet on; he knows exactly which syllables to punch and which to roll; he’s comfortable and in control, although he seems to have written the rhyme only minutes before. It’s like hearing Clifford Jordan try out a new standard on tenor. It’s clear that Ice Cube would be a star rapper with any producer in the country.