‘Straight outta Compton… A crazy mutherf***** named Ice Cube, from a gang called N**** Wit Attitude!’ Blam!
When I first thought about writing this post, I questioned why my 11-year-old self was so excited to hear these opening lyrics blasting out of the speakers of my older brother’s record player for the first time. It could have been hearing a couple of ‘rude’ words so blatantly on record that made my ears perk up ? Maybe that was part of it, but truth be told I wasn’t getting hyped over swearing at that stage… After all similar language was being shouted out in my school playground near enough everyday.
Nope, from what I can recall, it was more a combination of that hardcore pulsating beat and the pure passion and sense of urgency in the voice of the speaker. It all made my head spin – but in a good way… Nah, scratch that, in a great way! At the time I didn’t know that said voice belonged to O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson, who at the age of 17, was not much older than me. We even shared a hairstyle in the much-popular 80s do the ‘Jheri Curl’, neither of our finest moments I’m now thinking. But unlike me, Cube can be forgiven because of what came with it.
NWA, N****z with Attitude, everything from their name to their lyrics came with a ‘I don’t give a fuck’ swag firmly attached! YESSSS! *light bulb moment* That’s what it was – I heard that from the very first time! I was a young girl growing up in north west London, Kensal Green by way of Harlesden, while NWA, a group which also consisted of Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young, Eric ‘Eazy E’ Wright, MC Ren and DJ Yella were, as the song unapologetically, announced ‘Straight Outta Compton…
NWA’s official debut album of the same name (1988) hit hard! How could it not with lyrics like that? They weren’t pretty, that’s for sure – a lot of it was damn right wrong. When someone is proclaiming… ‘So what about the bitch who got shot? Fuck her! You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker!’ as Eazy did on the track, you gotta know that isn’t something you actually want to agree with. And of course I didn’t. But it was still music to me, ‘my music’ and I couldn’t help LOVING it, not the meaning of every lyric that was spat, often with more venom than a truck filled with poisonous snakes, but how it made me feel, which wasn’t violent or angry, just kinda free.
Of course it wasn’t my world or my story. I’d never even heard of Compton (in Los Angeles, USA) up until that point, but I could certainly relate to being strong, being passionate and being black and proud. That was what was inspiring to me.
Interwoven between the obscenities, there was a clear message of empowerment and standing up for yourself against those who try and bring you down. In the case of NWA, the police were a huge focus for their anger. Album cuts such as F*** Tha Police blasting police brutality and racial profiling, made NWA extremely significant in giving a large chunk of young African American men, namely those living in US ghettos across the country, a voice. They could relate. Heck a young black kid from Nottingham who had been stopped and searched by the police for no reason other than the colour of his skin could relate. I had an older brother, uncles, cousins and a dad who could directly relate.
Like a lot of hip hop music in the 80s and today, NWA also appealed to white male teens (many of them from middle-class homes). It was anthemic, the beats were addictive, the lyrics were charged and everybody wanted to be in NWA. They wore bomber jacket, shell-toe Adidas, baseball caps, neck-breaking gold rope chains and walked around like they owned the world! Well, everybody apart from moral group, politicians and the of course parents who didn’t want their kids listening to ‘that mess’. The FBI even tried to shut them down, and they were labelled ‘the world’s most dangerous group’!
NWA also spoke to young middle class females, judging by the appearance of actress Gwyneth Paltrow on the Graham Norton Show earlier this year (below).
The group’s audience was strong and this was reflective in the sales of Straight Outta Compton, which went platinum, as did their follow-up EP, Five Miles and Runnin’, which didn’t feature Ice Cube, after he left to go solo, following contract disputes.
Speaking of contracts, the one Cube refused to sign was drawn up by Eazy E, who owned Ruthless Records (co-founding it with Jerry Heller, who went on to become NWA’s manager), NWA’s label. Not many give Eazy, who passed away from complications from AIDS in 1995, props for his business acumen regarding NWA. Whether you share the view that he was shady or not, that doesn’t take away from him being one of the first hip hop players to own their own label, albeit one initially funded from money he made in his former ‘career’ as a drug dealer. The likes of Diddy and Jay-Z made that factor very cool in the 90s. But before them, following on from Russell Simmons, Eazy was also flexing as a label boss and signed acts such as D.O.C, Bones Thugs and Harmony and both Dr Dre and Ice Cube before they became NWA.
I remember having a recent debate about NWA and Public Enemy, over which was the most important group. I guess that totally depends on who you are asking. Most people I know would kiss their teeth at the mere mention of NWA being any sort of comparison to Public Enemy, and maybe for the majority they are not. But for me as much as I respect Public Enemy and wholly cherish a lot of the songs that are now stone-cold classics, NWA is a totally different monster for me, and that is all based on how I connected with them in my formative years. I guess I never had that experience with Public Enemy. Maybe as an 11-year-old who had posters of New Kids On The Block on her wall (Yes, I am a very eclectic, and WHAT???) I was looking for somewhere to channel another side of me and I found it in the music of NWA.
Whiel in the group, Dre and DJ Yella handled production, while Ice Cube and MC Ren wrote the majority of the lyrics. After they broke up in 1992, Dr Dre went on to become one of world’s most respected producers, discoverer of the world’s biggest rapper Eminem and someone who also introduced us to Snoop Dogg and made history with Death Row Records.
Ice Cube, who went on to have a handful of notable solo albums and became one of 90s rap’s most prolific voices with a solo career that will no doubt be etched in hip hop history. He then surprised a lot of people by carving out an uber successful Hollywood career as a bankable actor, producer, writer and director in both film and TV.
DJ Yella also released a solo album in 1996, called One Mo Nigga Ta Go. But these days he is best known for his successful career directing porno films, and has a whopping 150 under his belt.
Mc Ren has released five solo albums since NWA disbanded, including Kizz My Black Azz, which went platinum in 1992.
Yesterday would have been Eazy’s 47th birthday, his 20-year-old daughter, Erin ‘EB’ Wright, is now taking up the baton by releasing her own single, What I Wanna Do. Check out her story and a snippet of the single below!