N.W.A: A Hard Act to Follow | Music | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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N.W.A: A Hard Act to Follow 

Hip-hop and hype from the streets of Compton (reprint of May 5, 1989, Weekly cover story)

Tuesday, Dec 4 2007
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Page 4 of 6

Arabian left the group. The Priority pickup deal was signed, and Eazy recruited an old friend, Ren, to write three songs — “Radio,” “Eazy-Duz-It,” and a brilliantly funny bank-heist fantasy called “Ruthless Villain” — for a single. Covering his bets, Eazy hired KDAY DJ Greg Mack to do an intro to “Radio” a la Parliament-Funkadelic, and signed KDAY morning-jock Russ Parr’s comedy-rap act Bobby Jimmy & the Critters to Ruthless/Priority. (No ulterior motive is implied here, but the move probably didn’t hurt the record’s chances for a decent rotation.) The “Radio” 12-inch sold 140-odd thousand copies. Ren joined N.W.A, wrote much of Eazy’s album and, when Ice Cube returned last September, helped to write Straight Outta Compton.

Eazy Duz It went platinum, but was largely unremarked upon. N.W.A coined the phrase “reality rap,” which guilty white liberals find a convenient term when explaining why they like the album so much. Word of the N.W.A album was picked up by CNN and the city desk of the Herald — more as a news story (“L.A. Gangs Speak”) than as an entertainment story — and suddenly Eazy and the gang were promoted from amusing hoodlums to spokesmen for a generation. The L.A. Times found them progressive and put them on the cover of Sunday Calendar.

There were two triumphant sold-out shows at the Celebrity Theater in March; although they were sloppy, N.W.A outperformed Ice-T for the first time. The audience knew the words to the songs well enough to rap along. During “Dopeman,” Ice Cube brought a cute white girl on stage from the front row. A few seconds into the song, while band members humped against her, 2,000 people merrily pointed and chanted, “She might be your wife and it might make you sick/To come home and see her mouth on the dopeman’s dick.” Later, the mob shouted “F-Fuck the Police!” in unison. Ten minutes later, a melee broke out on center stage and the cops were called in even as Eazy strutted among the turmoil, grinning, finishing out the set. There were stabbings that night.

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Most rapping used to promote the rapper’s indomitability, his invincibility: “I create; I am.” When Public Enemy has Chuck D in a prison cell, it is only so that he can break out; when an L.L. Cool J rhyme includes a policeman, he is only there for L.L. to outwit. A rapper, whose implicit statement is always “You want to be like me,” is a role model whether he sets out to be one or not. If nobody wanted to be like him, nobody would buy the record.

Many whites and blacks find N.W.A frightening; mainstream black leaders hate them because of their distorted image of the black community. They celebrate the gangster life and reinforce racist iconography. Yet if you get past the language and violence — a line like “Fuck you, bitch” serves the same purpose here it does in an Eddie Murphy routine — you’re struck by the powerlessness the first-person lyrics project: “I can fuck you up; I am.”

When a policeman appears in an N.W.A song, he’s got Ren face-down on the pavement in front of his friends. In the course of an N.W.A song, crimes are punished, women are faithless, and somebody else’s stupidity inevitably leads to retribution, which leads straight to jail for keeps. N.W.A choose not to live out the omnipotence that rap is all about .?.?. their most controversial song, “Fuck tha Police,” is the ultimate expression of hip-hop weakness in the face of police power, the sort of snarling anti-cop rant left unsaid until the black-and-white is around the corner and safely out of earshot. “Fuck tha Police” isn’t a metaphor for anything.

N.W.A call themselves “street reporters,” another phrase parroted by journalists. “We don’t tell no fiction,” Ice Cube says, “so N.W.A can’t get any harder unless the streets get harder, know what I’m saying? If somebody blows up a house and we see it, we’ll tell you about it.

“If we were all for gangs, we’d be going, ‘Yo, go out and Crip.’ We’re just telling them what the gangbanger shit is like. And what would happen. At the end of the song, you might end up in jail or dead. If you get away every time, you’d be a super hero.”

“We’d look stupid trying to be political,” Ren adds. “The street’s political enough. We’d lose all our fans. I don’t really know about Mandela and Malcolm X and people like that. It would be like Public Enemy rapping about 8 Ball. You’ve got to stay what you are from the jump.”

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