A fresh-faced, then-unknown breakdancer smiles proudly into the camera: “You might go to a park, and [find our crew] there . … There might be 100 dancers, and then there’s so many gang members, right? Well, even some of [them] might say, ‘Wow, I want to be over there because that’s actually where the party is … instead of me just standing around here, totally negative thoughts on my mind.’ They might break away and come over to us. And, you know, we’re very peaceful and we have a lot of fun.”
It was 1983 and L.A. was the place to be. In South-Central, Midcity, MacArthur Park and Venice Beach, at roller rinks, disco clubs, ballrooms and community halls, the city’s youth were turning out in droves, seized by a thing called electro. The proto-rap movement was the perfect synthesis of its progenitors P-Funk and Kraftwerk: flamboyant futurism, big bass and 8-bit effects, endless up-tempo energy and everybody’s-invited underground massives. The DJs were athletes on their turntables. The MCs freestyled about love and rocket ships. And Ice T — as he boasted (above) of his pop-locking crew’s positivity for the German documentary Breakin’ and Enterin’ — wore his hair in a striking bouffant. Only three years later, T recorded the West Coast’s first gangsta rap song, and the culture changed forever.
Arabian Prince, arguably, did not. The electro pioneer and founding member of N.W.A sits inside of the diner at the Rancho Park Golf Club, and though he’s a grown man now (his trademark Jheri curl shag long retired), he still carries the vibe of his old scene. Stylish and tech-obsessed, he talks with the same verve and pace found in his ’80s oeuvre, which, thanks to Stones Throw Records, has finally been compiled as Innovative Life, The Anthology, 1984-1989. Accompanied by a 23-page chronology, the compilation presents a keyhole view into California hip-hop before the hardcore boom, with Arabian Prince as that legacy’s heir apparent.
“L.A. was more free then,” Arabian says. “There wasn’t too much trouble with gangs or the police. The parties were just parties, and everyone was a part of it — the electro kids, the mods, the punks, the new wave kids. You had every race and every crew, and there were two to three inches of sweat on the floors, with a mist in the air. It was nasty, and it was all about dancing.” He pauses. “Wow. Having this anthology come out. … It makes me feel old. It makes me feel like a Beatle.”
But he says this with neither lament nor pompousness, which makes sense. The electro era was short-lived (’83 to ’88, roughly) and poorly documented. As such, the scene never actually burned out, and its heroes are largely unexcavated. Uncle Jamm’s Army, for instance, was a dozens-strong DJ collective that regularly rocked parties for up to 10,000 guests. Egyptian Lover, one of that crew’s stars, is better remembered but not for releasing Los Angeles’ inaugural rap recording (1984’s “Dial-A-Freak,” credited to UJA). And the significance of the era’s biggest act, World Class Wreckin’ Cru, has mainly been reduced to a trivia nugget as the group featuring the comically softcore early work of an eyeliner-wearing Dr. Dre.
Most of electro’s artists were teens when hip-hop first made its way west over the airwaves. Kim Nazel, the kid who would become Arabian Prince, had a leg up on his peers. His father was a journalist with a late-night talk show on Inglewood’s KACE radio station, and while Joseph Nazel Jr. was in the booth, 14-year-old Kim would make mixes, using the studio’s equipment and well-stocked library. He’d sell the tapes at school, and battle-rap others with the advantage of already knowing New York’s latest and greatest. He learned to pop-and-lock too, and when Kim got his first job out of high school, work was only a diversion from his obsession.
“I went to a party at this little hall attached to a pet and feed store in Lennox,” Arabian remembers, “and I was like, ‘I like this place. Maybe I can do something here.’ So I found the owner and was like, ‘Man, you could make a lot of money. See all these people? We can do this every week.’ He went right out and bought speakers and turntables, and I started working at the store so I could practice there every day. Two or three days a week I was on the back of a diesel truck, lugging 100-pound bags of chicken feed, and on the weekends I was deejaying at the Cave.”
Clubs like his popped up wherever nightly rent was cheap ($300 to 500, he says). Colorful cliques responding to fliers would line up early, often by 8 p.m., in outfits themed to their respective scenes or a specific icon (Nazel — surprise — used to dress up like Prince). Inside, they’d form a writhing, electric mass of synthetic fibers, wet bodies, weed smoke and malt liquor.
Innovative Life picks up around this time — Nazel having earned a name deejaying alongside Egyptian Lover — with Arabian Prince’s first recording, “Strange Life.” Like a lot of electro, the song is a minimal work of heavy beats, light rhymes and airy effects, but Arabian’s voice and ear were among the best of the time. Middle Eastern synth lines chase reversed vocals; live guitar and bass add spacey depth; and the effected drums demonstrate far more range than usually heard in those pre-sampler days. His approach is impressively off-kilter, as are his observations about life and ladies in the ’80s.
“I’m a nut,” Arabian says. “People tell me that Walt Disney probably threw up in my brain because I’m into cartoons and I’m never sad or mad. I had a sense of humor, and I wanted to put that in my music. I just wanted everybody to party. From then until now, that’s been my only goal. Even with N.W.A. When the scene started to change and the music got harder, I just stopped writing. I really didn’t have anything gangster in my head.”
Beyond his technical abilities and friendship with Dr. Dre, it’s hard to understand why Arabian was brought into Eazy E’s hyperviolent vision of rap’s future. To Arabian Prince, N.W.A was just another project (in addition to his solo work, he’d been producing and performing with rap parody group Bobby Jimmy & the Critters — remember “Roaches”?), but it was also electro’s death knell. By ’86, the year Ice T released “6 N The Mornin,” the peaceful parties were going to the gangs, and when N.W.A formed in ’87, Arabian’s high-energy tracks (see “Panic Zone” on Innovative Life) were sore thumbs jutting out of his new group’s clenched fist. Even so, to this day Arabian cites poor payout as his sole reason for quitting just a few weeks before Straight Outta Compton dropped.
“Dre had a Mazda RX-7 with no back window, and I had a ’76 Mercury Capri that overheated, and we’d drive out to Rialto to visit two of the girls from J.J. Fad,” says Arabian. He and Dre co-produced Fad’s Grammy-nominated classic “Supersonic.”
“We’d listen to the radio on the way out there, hearing our hits playing, and be like, ‘These are songs that we made, but we’re not getting the money.’ I figured I could go back to doing my own thing and make a lot more.”
He was right, sort of. After a fantastic final stab at reviving electro under his Professor X alias, Arabian released a couple of middling G-funk records, then turned his professional interests to the hobby that had consumed him while on tour: computer programming. His special effects company worked on Independence Day and Power Rangers among many others, and more recently, he’s lent his [voice and beats] to the Grand Theft Auto franchise (which he also play-tested) and designed cartoons for Korean television. Arabian has been plenty successful by way of staying innovative, and in a slightly ironic turn of events, 20 years later, the music movement that he helped to start is picking up steam again. He’s just returned from a [series of German dates] with Egyptian Lover, and before he gathers his golf clubs, he reveals that he’ll release two albums of new material before the year is out. Of course, if he makes it onto the PGA tour (a sincere hope of his), the man who still introduces himself as “Arabian” may have a different story to tell.