The first time I met the rapper
N.W.A's canny self-identification as a ruthless Compton street gang was close enough to blur the line between fantasy and experience. The detailed first-person accounts of robberies, sexual assaults and drive-by shootings made equally uncomfortable both the people who thought N.W.A might be putting them on and the people who were pretty sure that they weren't.
The formula was the stuff of hits. If you were driving around Los Angeles in 1987, "Boyz-N-the-Hood'' may have been the soundtrack to your summer whether you wanted it to be or not; merry vignettes from the life of an urban gangster, written by Ice Cube and drawled in the high, cartoonish voice of rapper Eazy-E. If the car booming the song drove too fast for you to catch the rhyme, the song's tinny, elemental backbeat cut through the air like a tracer bullet. If you were around the corner, the tinkly two-note keyboard riff was designed by its producer, Dr. Dre, to be audible for several blocks. (What Dre wanted to do, he once confessed, was to create a signature, a sound so distinctive that he'd always know when people were bumping one of his tracks in their cars.) If you didn't have your own copy of "Boyz-N-the-Hood" on a cassingle or a mix tape, you could always find it on the radio station KDAY, where it probably only seemed to be on permanent repeat. "Boyz-N-the-Hood" was the first legitimate hip-hop hit to come out of L.A. Did you know what a "six-four,'' the 1964 Chevy Impala favored by South L.A. car clubs, was before that summer? You probably did not.
How short a time N.W.A was together in its classic configuration, the one with Dre, Eazy, Cube, Ren and Yella. How brightly it burned. How quickly it consumed itself.
But the appeal of N.W.A's streetwise nihilism never quite went away. If you have been paying attention over the last month or two, you know that N.W.A is back. Planes have been tracing the word "Compton'' in the skies, in honor of the birthplace of the sound. Dr. Dre, the first hip-hop billionaire, co-endowed a school at USC. A video-intensive run-through of N.W.A songs during Ice Cube's set at the recent
Twenty-seven years later, N.W.A — the actual band, not the abstract idea of the band — is still polarizing. The raw spot in American culture that N.W.A rubbed up against remains oozing and sore.
Take the group's full name, which derives its power from its use of an epithet that a huge percentage of its audience is simply not permitted to say. In early interviews, MC Ren took full advantage of the disparity, goading reporters, including me, into repeating a word many of them simply were incapable of even stammering. If you rose to the bait, you were a racist. If you didn't (I didn't), you were a wuss. There was no middle ground. From that very first interview, Dre stuck me with a nickname, "Nervous Cuzz,'' that he would continue to use for the next half-dozen years.
Generations of type-A white males have confused their response to the N.W.A conundrum with actual bravery. There's nothing brave about it. They just took the bait.
If you tried to separate N.W.A from the context of the Compton streets, you were a fool, but if you treated them as actual gangbangers, you were a rube. If you objected to the breathtakingly violent sexism in the lyrics, you were a prude. If you didn't, you were a monster. As a chronicler of N.W.A, I was frequently invited to debate anti-rap activists like C. Delores Tucker, but even then I knew there was no way to come out ahead. Even the group's official acronym, which includes periods after the N and the W but not the A, seemed engineered to make newsroom copy editors scream.
It must be conceded: This is an awkward time to be celebrating N.W.A's fairly specific legacy, even if the revival does coincide with #BlackLivesMatter and the aftermath of Ferguson.
The complex issues of racial and gender politics raised when the band was a going concern have become only more complex in the last 25 years — nobody has ever quite forgotten about Dre's 1990 assault on TV host Dee Barnes, which has been brought up constantly in the days since the movie's release.
N.W.A's survival strategy was to stand above the fray, calling themselves "street reporters." As with the journalists writing about them, the morality of their narratives was not their problem.
"We don't tell no fiction," Ice Cube told me in 1989, "so N.W.A can't get any harder unless the streets get harder, know what I'm saying? If somebody blows up a house and we see it, we'll tell you about it. … [You] wouldn't run a picture of a baby getting its head cut off; N.W.A wouldn't do a pop song."
"We'd look stupid trying to be political," added Ren.
This was pure, uncut nihilism set to Dre's funky beats. N.W.A's aesthetic of total rebellion, its insistence on offending everyone and flipping its middle finger at everything, took the barbaric yawp of punk rock and raised it by orders of magnitude. It was a brilliant performance. The Sex Pistols never did this half so well.
The big-bank-take-little-bank shenanigans that made up so much of the N.W.A legend — Ice Cube once called them ghetto LBOs — came to seem less amusing when they began to involve actual body counts. (As many of the financial games as the movie includes, sometimes at the expense of plot or actual character development, it left out quite a few.)
As a young journalist infatuated with the possibilities that lay within Cube's hyperarticulated tenor and Dre's minimalist funk, I had to stop covering gangsta rap for a while. I still loved the music, but my job had begun to involve more time in courtrooms than in recording studios, and I got tired of writing music stories that included the phrase "surrendered to police.''
Because you never knew what direction a particular story was going to take you. A casual Ice Cube quip in a Times profile I wrote of the Dre-produced group Above the Law provoked a brawl at a music convention. Dre's house half burned down during a story I was reporting, but he barely thought it was worth mentioning. A boat cruise in the marina ended up as something like a floating brawl, and a squadron of police copters accompanied us back to the docks.
Snoop Dogg's bodyguard shot an armed man who pulled a gun on the rapper just a few hours after I'd talked to him. There were rumors of beatings, robberies and people being hung out of high windows, and general misbehavior shocking even to somebody who had spent the better part of a decade reporting from backstages and tour buses.
But N.W.A's unambiguous message, summed up in Ice Cube's memorable phrase "F— all y'all,'' has never been more pertinent. It is what Southerners are saying when they stick Confederate battle flags on their trucks in 2015. It is the essence of Internet culture. It may as well be the motto of the surging Donald Trump campaign.
And it is probably why, a quarter-century later, I am compelled to write about N.W.A again.