By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
N.W.A. (or, if you prefer, Niggaz With Attitude) was a group of high school dropouts (save lyricist Ice Cube) who pretended to be racist gangsters, dope dealers, cop killers, rapists and murderous thugs. To the uninitiated first-time listener, their music was a vivid how-to manual for bombings and drive-by shootings.
How, then, did The Dallas Morning News determine that the long-defunct gangsta-rap group was appropriate subject matter for almost two full pages of copy in the September 1 edition of the ArtsSunday section? It was almost like seeing John Battaglia on the High Profile page. Not that The Dallas Morning News should feel obligated to skew its content toward the tepid or mundane, but it's pretty safe to say that N.W.A.'s music did absolutely nothing to encourage or positively empower African-American youths. For those willing to admit it, it could be said that the ongoing popularity of gangsta rap has probably set race relations in this country back at least 10 years. And N.W.A. was more or less responsible, drawing a line on the sidewalk and telling its audience, "You're either down for whatever, or you're a punk-ass bitch."
Talk about profiling.
The clear message in N.W.A.'s music was, "The world owes us a comfortable living because we're black--get your money any way that you can." Music videos depicted the group members as slaves picking cotton, their "master" portrayed as a Los Angeles policeman riding a horse and carrying a shotgun. As writer Rob Clark says in his "Original Gangstas" article, "For better or worse, a new genre was created."
How much better, Rob?
Fifteen years later, it should come as no surprise that there are now more African-American men in prison or on parole than there are enrolled in college. As recent videotape examples have shown, N.W.A.'s words ("Fuck Tha Police," among many, many others) have done little to minimize police brutality in the Los Angeles area, so the publicity-department-driven idea that the group "had" to make this music as a public service is just straight bozo. Black-on-black crime continues to be an ongoing problem. For music critics and newspaper editors to defend N.W.A.'s style of music as necessary evidence in an ongoing race war is/was not only irresponsible, it's just lazy and stupid.
Frederick Douglass once said, "The white man's happiness cannot be purchased by the black man's misery." Jesus, was he ever wrong. Jerry Heller, N.W.A.'s white manager, ripped off millions of dollars from the group, and it's safe to say that the majority of N.W.A.'s product was sold to and enjoyed by white suburban teen-agers like myself.
I have to admit that at the time, their stuff just sounded totally out-of-this-world to me. In fact, the first radio station in the country to play N.W.A. on the air was our own KNON-FM back in late 1986. I know, because I got fired for dropping an unedited homemade cassette version of Eazy-E's "Boyz-N-The-Hood" one late Wednesday night when a local African-American minister happened to be listening in. N.W.A. had me convinced they were the real thing. They were worth getting fired for. In terms of sheer rebellion, they made the Sex Pistols look like the Backstreet Boys.
I'm not so convinced anymore. Judging by the lyric sheet, Straight Outta Compton may as well have been the vinyl manifesto of a black KKK. Ever wonder why there has never been an African-American president? Or why there are so few African-Americans in important leadership positions at this time? Maybe it's because every time a Roots, Common, Nina Simone, Erykah Badu or D'Angelo gifts us with an important and artistic message of inspiration, hope, preservation or love, another African-American recording artist (or 10) immediately steps up and reinforces the hideous negative "gangsta" stereotype, packaging racial/urban distress as "entertainment," then selling it back to an eager, predominantly white audience.
One step forward, two steps back.
Since that stereotype was brought into living color by N.W.A., for Clark to describe N.W.A.'s music as "militant" is preposterous. Public Enemy was militant and educated; the members of N.W.A. were merely anti-social role players. And their music was prostitution on a number of different levels. It sold out the urban African-American public as a people who justified violent crime as a reasonable means to an end. At the same time, they (along with Ice-T and, later, Tupac Shakur) allowed white entertainment executives to pimp them out as ideological spokesmen for their fractured and desperate community.
The fact is, they didn't really know what to say. So they put on a gang costume, painted all white people as oppressive jerks and told their black fans to go out and get whatever they thought was rightfully theirs--even if it meant using a Glock, Mac 10 or pipe bomb. Not exactly the kind of thing you learn in school. Straight Outta Compton was the soundtrack of the L.A. riots. And to this day, the owner of a local record store (wishing to remain anonymous) verifies that he catches more people trying to shoplift gangsta-rap CDs than any other type of popular music. It's been that way ever since N.W.A. and Geto Boys first visited the store in the early '90s.
Now they have something else to nab. On the surface, it appears the rationale behind the DMN story is directly attributed merely to the release of a new boxed set of old material. But does that mean they are still relevant? Clark should know that rap music has a very short shelf life anyway, that repackaged collections of old hip-hop tracks just won't sell to a kid gettin' his Nelly freak on. Without question, Dr. Dre is obviously a gifted record producer (he remixed a song by my band DDT for the Colors soundtrack), and Ice Cube certainly had a gift of twisting the English language in a manner that was quite appealing to angry young people.
But the real talent in N.W.A. ended right there. Eazy-E was in the group because the money he made selling drugs paid for their initial recordings. Recording his vocal parts in the studio was a total nightmare: one line at a time--pause, record, pause, record, with his Sky Pager going off every 30 seconds. (He was also the one who brought parasitic Heller into the fold--a horrible business decision that quickly alienated him from the other members of the group.)
Interestingly, Clark's article neglected to mention that Eazy-E contributed $1,000 to George Bush's presidential campaign in 1992, that Dre once severely beat up a female reporter in public or that Ice Cube gave up an academic scholarship to Arizona State to remain a part of N.W.A. For Cube, the price paid included subjecting his mother's house to a number of drive-by shootings by real gang members. Also neglected in the article was mention of the fact that when Eazy-E died from complications of the HIV virus in 1995, he left behind seven children by six different women--none of whom had medical insurance at the time. Nor did it mention Dre's rocky affiliation with Suge Knight, the man who reportedly hung Vanilla Ice out an eighth-floor hotel window in an extortion attempt.
It's amusing that Clark's article was found in the Arts section. Fellini once said, "All art is autobiographical." The members of N.W.A. often said that their music wasn't manufactured, but merely a slice of their normal everyday lives. This, of course, was a lie. Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Ice Cube and DJ Yella were never L.A. gang bangers. They never killed a policeman during a drive-by shooting. Only Eazy-E ever actually stood on a Compton street corner and sold crack cocaine.
While, in retrospect, it may now stand as "art" to the passing listener, the only motivation for any member of N.W.A. during that time period was the accumulation of money. (If their music is real art, then so are snuff films, bumper stickers, street graffiti and pornographic playing cards.) The last thing on any of their minds at the time was creating art as a representation of their everyday lives. N.W.A. and Heller were capitalist businessmen whose product was a depiction of the degradation and isolation of the collective African-American community. A problem they actually contributed to, rather than helped to rectify.