the unapologetically violent and sexist pioneers of gangsta
rap, is in many ways the most notorious group in the history
of rap. Emerging in the late '80s, when Public Enemy had rewritten
the rules of hardcore rap by proving that it could be intelligent,
revolutionary and socially aware, N.W.A. capitalized on PE's
sonic breakthroughs while ignoring their message. Instead,
the five-piece crew celebrated the violence and hedonism of
the criminal life, capturing it all in blunt, harsh language.
Initially, the group's relentless attack appeared to be serious,
vital commentary, and it even provoked the FBI to caution
N.W.A.'s record company, but following Ice Cube's departure
late 1989, the group began to turn to self-parody. With his
high-pitched whine, Eazy-E's urban nightmares now seemed like
comic book fantasies, but that fulfilled the fantasies of
the teenage, White suburbanites that had become their core
audience, and the group became more popular than ever. Nevertheless,
clashing egos prevented the band from recording a third album,
and they fell apart once producer Dr. Dre left for a solo
career in 1992. Although the group was no longer active, their
influence — from their funky, bass-driven beats to their exaggerated
lyrics — was evident throughout the '90s.
Ironically, in its original incarnation NWA was hardly revolutionary.
Eazy-E (b. Eric Wright), a former drug dealer who started
Ruthless Records with money he earned by pushing, was attempting
to start a rap empire, by building a roster of successful
rap artists. However, he wasn't having much success until
Dr. Dre — a member of the World Class Wreckin' Cru — and Ice
Cube (b. O'Shea Jackson) began writing songs for Ruthless.
Eazy tried to give one of the duo's songs, "Boyz N The
Hood," to Ruthless signees HBO and when the group refused,
Eazy formed NWA — an acronym for Niggaz With Attitude — with
Dre and Cube, adding World Class Wreckin' Cru member DJ Yella
(b. Antoine Carraby), the Arabian Prince and the D.O.C. to
N.W.A.'s first album, N.W.A. and the Posse, was a party-oriented
jam record that largely went ignored upon its 1987 release.
In the following year, the group added MC Ren and revamped
their sound, bringing in many of the noisy, extreme sonic
innovations of Public Enemy and adopting a self-consciously
violent and dangerous lyrical stance. Late in 1988, N.W.A.
delivered Straight Outta Compton, a vicious hardcore record
that became an underground hit with virtually no support
from radio, the press or MTV. N.W.A. became notorious for
their hardcore lyrics, especially those of "Fuck Tha
Police," which resulted in the FBI sending a warning
letter to Ruthless and its parent company Priority, suggesting
that the group should watch their step.
Most of the group's political threat left with Ice Cube
when he departed in late 1989 amidst many financial disagreements.
A nasty feud between N.W.A. and Cube began that would culminate
with Cube's "No Vaseline," an attack on the group's
management released on his 1991 Death Certificate album.
By the time the song was released, N.W.A., for all intents
and purposes, was finished.
In the two years between Ice Cube's departure and the group's
dissolution, N.W.A. was dominated by Eazy-E's near-parodic
lyrics and Dr. Dre's increasingly subtle and complex productions.
The group quickly released an EP, 100 Miles and Runnin',
in 1990 before following it up early the next year with
Efil4zaggin ("Niggaz 4 Life" spelled backward).
Efil4zaggin was teeming with dense, funky soundscapes and
ridiculously violent and misogynist lyrics. Naturally, the
lyrics provoked outrage from many critics and conservative
watchdogs, but that only increased the group's predominately
male, White suburban audience. Even though the group was
at the peak of their popularity, Dre began to make efforts
to leave the crew, due to conflicting egos and what he perceived
as an unfair record deal.
Dre left the group to form Death Row Records with Suge
Knight in early 1992. According to legend, Knight threatened
to kill NWA's manager Jerry Hibbler if he refused to let
Dre out of his contract. Over the next few years, Dre and
Eazy engaged in a highly-publicized feud, which included
both of the rappers attacking each other on their respective
solo albums. MC Ren and Yella both released solo albums,
which were largely ignored, and Eazy-E continued to record
albums that turned him into a complete self-parody until
his tragic death from AIDS in March 1995. Before he died,
Dre and Cube both made amends with Eazy. With his first
solo album, 1992's The Chronic, Dr. Dre established himself
as the premier hip-hop producer of the mid-'90s, setting
the pace for much of hardcore rap with its elastic bass
and deep, rolling grooves. Gangsta rap established itself
as the most popular form of hip-hop during the '90s — in
other words, N.W.A.'s amoralistic, hedonistic stance temporarily
triumphed over the socially conscious, self-award hip-hop
of Public Enemy, and it completely rewrote the rules of
hip-hop for the '90s. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine