I DIDN'T know what to make of N.W.A the first time I heard the revolutionary rap group on KDAY, the radio home of rap in L.A. in the late 1980s. The music was a sonic marvel and the lyrics were more visceral than anything I had come across in rap or just about anywhere else short of pulp fiction.
N.W.A arrived at a time when rap was still very much on trial in Los Angeles -- just two years after 41 people were injured in a flare-up of gang violence at a Run-DMC concert at the Long Beach Arena. Lots of people, including some civic officials, branded the music irresponsible and dangerous, but Run-DMC defended its records as socially positive and insisted that the real problem in Los Angeles was the massive gang activity.
In that debate, I took Run-DMC's side, but there were aspects of N.W.A that were unsettling. Even some high-profile East Coast rappers thought the group had gone over the line in songs like "F--- Tha Police," which warned about a "blood bath" if law enforcement officers kept harassing young African Americans. So, I wanted to learn more about N.W.A before writing about the group.
I went to the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim for the quintet's first local show after the release of its landmark album, "Straight Outta Compton," but it wasn't easy interviewing them. Eazy-E, the leader, was surly, while M.C. Ren and D.J. Yella blew off the interview and went to search for food. Dr. Dre, the group's production wizard, said he had to check the sound system. The only one with any interest in talking was 19-year-old Ice Cube, the group's key wordsmith. He proved revealing and forthright.
Cube said he felt songs like "F--- Tha Police" were a positive force for young people because they provided an outlet for their frustration. "There's a lot of resentment, because if you are black, you get picked up a lot," he said. "They see you in a car with a beeper, and they assume you are a dope dealer. The song is a way to get out aggression. We're not really urging anyone to go out and attack police." I was impressed but thought the real test would be the way the group acted on stage. The theater staff and police were anxious. Security guards pressed hand-held metal detectors against everyone who entered the 2,500-seat theater. My heart skipped a beat when a fight broke out during one of the "Straight Outta Compton" songs.
This was the moment of truth for me. If the group was after sensational headlines, it would welcome an outburst. But if Cube was as responsible as he said he was, he would try to calm the crowd. Cube wasted no time in stopping the song and shouting to the audience, "If you want to fight, come up here on stage. . . . This ain't [the movie] 'Colors.' . . . You didn't come to see a fight; you came to see a concert."
Order was quickly restored, and I came away from Anaheim a believer.
Robert Hilburn was The Times' pop music critic from 1970 to 2007.