Way Back Wednesday: N.W.A.

A look at artists and groups that came up pre-'00s, with lots of video included.

Hello fellow music lovers, and welcome to Way Back Wednesday, where I shed some light on select artists and jams from way back in the day. This week, I've put together a very special edition of WBW in honor of the controversial biopic Straight Outta Compton that hits theaters this Friday. N.W.A. proved an easy choice.

I was never allowed to listen to gangsta rap when I was young, and I don't think my parents were too thrilled about my older brother choosing gangsta rap as his go-to, My first experience with the genre was via N.W.A.'s sophomore LP, Niggaz4Life, after finding the cassette tape in my brother's room, slightly out of reach. If it was hidden, it had to be good, right? I remember sneaking off to listen to the controversial album, feeling like I was breaking the law. But it gave me a slight rush because I knew I'd get into trouble if caught, although I was also intrigued by its content and the way it was delivered. I'd never heard anything quite like it, nor had the country. I can't think of many groups that released a mere two studio records and managed to drum up so much hype, both negative and positive. 

Background: Eric 'Eazy-E' Wright had a big 1986. Not only did he start N.W.A., but he also co-founded Ruthless Records along with soon-to-be group manager, Jerry Heller. The first person Eazy tapped for the group was Andre 'Dr. Dre' Young, who'd just left his post as DJ and producer for World Class Wreckin' Cru. Dre brought fellow Cru member Yella into the fold. Arabian Prince and Ice Cube joined shortly after Dre and Yella. Arguably the most underrated member, MC Ren, was added in 1988.

Notable Albums: First single "Panic Zone" was released in 1987 under 'N.W.A. and the Posse' on a compilation that also featured Mexican rapper and "Panic Zone" co-writer Krazy-Dee. The comp was eventually marketed, re-sold as an N.W.A. album via Ruthless Records, and certified gold. The group's first official studio LP, Straight Outta Compton, saw light in 1988 and included three major cuts. The title track was the first to drop, and introduced N.W.A. to the nation. It was raw, it was hardcore, it was real. The other two singles were "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." But the politically-charged "Fuck Tha Police," with its vehement outcry against police brutality and racial profiling — both huge issues in Southern California at the time — remains the most notorious song the group recorded, despite never being released as a proper single. It even provoked the FBI to reach out to N.W.A's record company, expressing disapproval about the lyrics and arguing that the song misrepresented police. The FBI would go on to officially dub them "The Worlds Most Dangerous Group." If N.W.A. didn't have your attention before, they certainly did now.

A month after Straight Outta Compton dropped, Eazy-E issued his solo debut Eazy-Duz-It, another hit record for Ruthless. The album was monopolized by Eazy's persona, but behind the scenes it was a group effort. Music was handled by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella; the lyrics were largely written by MC Ren. 

Just a year later, Ice Cube left the group, citing financial conflicts over royalties; he claimed to feel cheated, as he'd written half the lyrics off the successful debut and hadn't received his fair share of profits. It wasn't a peaceful exit and the remaining members made sure of that. Once Cube was out of the equation, the crew quickly released a 1990 EP, 100 Miles And Runnin', its title track featuring a dis aimed directly at Ice Cube. It was also the first N.W.A. track to get radio play. Meanwhile, Cube dropped his debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, that same year, and avoided hating on his former groupmates in favor of social and political commentary as backed by the production skills of Sir Jinx, Dr. Dre's cousin.

The following year brought more fresh material from N.W.A. — 1991'S Niggaz4Life, their most successful record to date — along with more problems. Ice Cube's absence meant the lyrical content was handled by Eazy, MC Ren and Dr. Dre, although Dre was more focused on production this LP around. Many critics laud Niggaz4Life as Dre's best; it certainly marked the beginning of the G-Funk sound that became his signature for years to come. The production was mid-tempo and fueled by synthesizer-based sounds, and the topics N.W.A. rapped about were more focused on sex and women, and less on aggression. Eazy even sings on "I'd Rather Fuck You," a slow jam that borrowed a sample from Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be With You." The album had plenty of funny moments with tracks like "Automobile" and "She Swallowed It," including several hilarious interludes. Unfortunately, it was the final recording from the infamous group. Eazy-E was allegedly coerced into signing away the rest of the group members' contracts (while retaining a portion of their publishing rights), causing a bitter and harsh rivalry between Eazy and Dr. Dre. Both directed lyrical jabs at each other for years to come. Eazy even released a hate album directed solely at Dr. Dre and his crew. Dre fled the group to pursue Death Row Records in 1992, and started a solo career that would soon make him legendary. MC Ren went on to release a few solo albums, but he never proved as successful as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

Other notable facts & tidbits about N.W.A. (1986-1991):
—Early member Arabian Prince didn’t quite fit in with the group as they embraced a harder-edged, gangsta sound. He appears on Straight Outta Compton's closing track, "Something 2 Dance 2," but left N.W.A. in 1988 just a few weeks before the LP dropped because he didn’t feel like he was being paid enough for his efforts.

—N.W.A. were ranked No. 83 on Rolling Stone's list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."

—N.W.A. were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time in 2012, then again the following year in 2013.

—Not a single member of the group had a criminal record.

Straight Outta Compton wasn’t recorded with drug money, like many thought – and it only cost $12k to make.

—Back in 1989, Australia's Triple J was the only station in the world to play "Fuck Tha Police," and somehow they managed to do so for an unbelievable six whole months before politicians and police demanded it be yanked off air.

—Priority Records estimate that 80 percent of the sales of Straight Outta Compton came from the suburbs, far from the black neighborhoods that were considered its target market, a figure that sent shivers down the spine of conservative America. Ice Cube, however, didn’t see it as an issue, noting, “Rap has brought black kids and white kids closer together. Thanks to rap, white kids are gaining a better understanding and a new respect for black culture. Rap has done nothing but bring people together. So, what’s the problem?”

—Ice Cube was ranked No. 8 on MTV's list of the "10 Greatest MC's of All Time." He has over 30 movie credits to his name, a handful of TV shows and even a couple video games.

Straight Outta Compton was one of the first albums to feature a Parental Advisory sticker.

—In 2014, Dr. Dre was ranked as the second richest figure in American hip hop by Forbes with a net worth of $550 million; he was at the top of the Forbes list in 2015 with an estimated pre-tax take of $620 million in 2014. In May 2014, technology giant Apple Inc. made a bid for the Beats by Dre brand for a reported $3 billion. He's also won six Grammys, including Producer of the Year, acted in movies such as Set It Off, The Wash and Training Day and was ranked No. 56 by Rolling Stone on its list of "100 Greatest Artists of All-Time." 

—Dr. Dre didn’t start smoking weed until he met Snoop. So when he claimed “I don’t smoke weed or cess” in Straight Outta Compton, he wasn’t lying. At the time, he really didn’t.

—Eazy-E, "The Godfather of Gangsta Rap," died due to complications from AIDS only one month after his diagnosis, on March 26, 1995, at 31 years of age.

"Straight Outta Compton"

"Fuck The Police"
"Express Yourself"
"100 Miles And Runnin"
"Appetite For Destruction"
"Alwayz Into Somethin"
"Approach To Danger"
"Chin Check"

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How do you view N.W.A.? Are you heading to the theater to see the movie this Friday? Who's your favorite artist that emerged from N.W.A.? I would love to hear some of your opinions below,; leave a comment. 

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