Straight Outta Compton, one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer, drops this week, and Jeffrey Liles can't wait to see it. But Liles, the artistic director at The Kessler Theater, has special reason to want to see the N.W.A. biopic: He knew the group personally. Once upon a time, he was in a band that was on track to being label mates with N.W.A., was thanked in their first single and was the first person to play the group on the radio here in Dallas — he even got fired for playing them.
Back in 1986, an A&R woman from Island Records named Kimberly Buie came to Dallas and heard a bunch of bands in Deep Ellum. One of them was Liles’ band, Decadent Dub Team, a group using hip-hop beats that made early use of samplers, sequencers and a drum machine. She put together a compilation called The Sound of Deep Ellum, released on Island Records that year. It was the first record to feature the music of Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Reverend Horton Heat and Decadent Dub Team.
“It was the only song we had at the time,” recalls Liles. Island was interested in signing his band, but they didn’t have any material so the label paid for a demo to be recorded. Island discovered N.W.A. around the same time they were courting Decadent Dub Team. “They found N.W.A. performing in a roller rink in Compton,” says Liles. Island made a huge effort to sign the rap group, who were still in their teens.
“This was back in the era when major labels had expense accounts,” says Liles. Island was frequently flying Decadent Dub Team to Los Angeles and Liles had dinner with Dr. Dre and Eazy-E— who Liles remembers as “Eric" — several times. “We took Eric and Dre to eat Thai food,” he recalls. “They’d never had Thai food before. That was actually before they had Thai food restaurants in Dallas.” At this time, Ice Cube was in college and undecided about N.W.A.; he was not around as often.
For two or three months, Liles was either with N.W.A. or in close contact, but nobody knew who they were at the time. After Decadent Dub Team completed their demo, "Six Gun," Island hired Dr. Dre to remix it. Dr. Dre’s remix of the song appears in the soundtrack for a film about the L.A. gang dynamic called Colors, alongside other hip-hop artists like Big Daddy Kane and Salt-N-Pepa. It was the first remix Dr. Dre ever did, when he was in his late teens and still living with his parents. “I thought it was amazing,” Liles says. “He slowed it down a little bit. There was more space and more noise.”
“None of them, really, were gangsters,” adds Liles. “I think Eric was the only one who really sold dope.” Liles recalls being especially close with Eric, receiving calls from him every day. “He was the first person I ever knew who had a cell phone,” he says. “He literally would call me everyday and say, ‘Jeff, guess where I am, man?’ I said, 'Where?' It’s like, ‘I’m standing on a street corner, talking on a phone that ain’t got no wire!’” Liles thought Eazy-E was hilarious and has cassettes full of answering machine messages he left for him.
Island also paid for N.W.A. demos and Liles remembers hearing them. “The production values were radically different,” he says. The bass drum was turned up louder than any other hip-hop song. “It was just a signature sound Dre had.” Back then, rap music was like punk rock: underground and only on the radio in three cities. A station in New York City played rap on Fridays, L.A. had an AM station, and there was KNON here in Dallas, where Liles worked as a DJ. Liles remembers receiving a demo on a cassette in the mail from Eazy-E, listening to it for a few seconds, and taking it to the radio station to play it. It was “Boyz-N-the-Hood,” Eazy-E’s solo debut.
N.W.A. first made it to the airwaves in Dallas. Liles received demos from them and had been playing the music on the air for weeks. He remembers the phone lighting up with people wondering what they were hearing. “When you put the needle on an N.W.A. record that shit just jumped out of the speakers!” says Liles. “It just sounded huge with a real definitive, signature sound.” Without a face to match the voice, many initially thought Eazy-E sounded like an old man.
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Not everyone was excited. Someone recorded “Boyz-N-the-Hood” with a cassette from the radio, took it to the station the next day and complained about the profanity. With a show that started at midnight, Liles never censored what he played and had never been called on it. But after being on the radio for a couple years, Liles lost his job. Eazy-E read a headline about the incident and sent Liles a record with a note written on it. In the note, he seems to wonder why Liles didn’t censor it. “They had never been on the radio before,” says Liles. “They didn’t know how to deal with it or how to respond to it.”
Island did not sign Decadent Dub Team. N.W.A. went with Priority Records. After being in close contact for a few months, Liles and N.W.A. went off in different directions and quickly lost touch. He remembers seeing N.W.A. with 400 or 500 people at City Lights, an old movie theater in South Dallas on MLK here in Dallas. But after Straight Outta Compton came out he saw them at Reunion Arena with thousands of people. He remembers the stage being setup like a street in Compton and how it gave the crowd such a visual imprint of the environment.
Liles did cross paths with Dr. Dre again in 1996. He had a new band called Cottonmouth, Texas and was making money working with a company that made music videos in L.A., writing treatments for ideas that directors came up with. Dre did a video with the company for a song called “Puppet Master” with B-Real. “He was a millionaire,” Liles says. But Dre remembered him and the remix, gave him a hug and yelled, “Decadent Dub Team! That’s how I got my start in this shit.”