Rap music, already widely linked in the public mind to gang violence, came within a heartbeat of another bad mark Thursday night when a fight broke out near the stage during N.W.A's concert at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim.
It was an especially delicate moment because N.W.A is the hot new Los Angeles-area rap group whose sometimes X-rated tales about gang violence are already being criticized by those who believe the records glorify gang behavior.
To complicate matters, N.W.A has refused in recent months to join New York rap groups in speaking out against such social diseases as gang violence and drugs.
The group maintains its records are documentaries that reflect the reality of the street world in places like Compton, where they grew up. Kids, N.W.A spokesmen maintain, know the difference between right and wrong--and it's naive to think that musicians are going to make them change their thinking.
Because of the group's hard-boiled image, there was tension in the audience Thursday. Several teen-agers joked about how their parents would "freak out" if they knew they had come to the show. "My mom would tell me, 'Don't you go near that show. . . . There could be a riot . . . maybe even people with machine guns,' " said a 15-year-old from Tustin, who asked not to be identified.
As part of the regular precaution for rap shows at the 2,500-seat Celebrity, security guards pressed hand-held metal detectors against everyone who entered the building and checked purses for weapons. The security force numbered about 50--twice the number for most rock shows at the theater.
To work against any show of gang colors, fans were also warned at the door that hats, bandannas, colors or rags were also prohibited inside the building.
Inside, the atmosphere was calm as the neatly dressed crowd--about 40% black, 40% Latino and 20% white--listened with increasing enthusiasm as opening acts Everlast, Doc and King Tee followed one another to the microphone.
But the intensity level increased dramatically when N.W.A walked on stage shortly after 9:30 and soon went into "Gangsta Gangsta" and "---- tha Police," two of the most provocative numbers on the quintet's "Straight Outta Compton" album, which has sold nearly 500,000 copies in just six weeks despite scant radio air play. Typical of the group's incendiary language, the latter includes such lines as "A young nigger on the warpath / And When I finish, it's gonna be a blood bath."
Midway through the equally graphic "Dopeman," the fight broke out and a chill of tension swept the hall. Ice Cube, one of the principal N.W.A writers and rappers, saw the flurry of activity and was faced with a challenge. Would he maintain the group's neutrality stance or simply ignore what was going on to appear cool?
In a revealing moment, Ice Cube, 19, stopped the song to combat the flare-up. Speaking in the same angry tone as his songs, he shouted, "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."
With the help of security guards, order was quickly restored. A few moments later, however, things started getting rowdy in the lobby and about 40 males spilled outside. Anaheim police, who had been nearby monitoring the concert, dispatched a dozen squad cars, but the youths raced away and no arrests were made.
The concert, meanwhile, continued without further incident. Ice-T, who helped popularize the L.A. gangster rap image, was the evening's headliner and he is a more polished performer and writer than the members of N.W.A.
Yet N.W.A --making its first local appearance since the release of its album and the best-selling solo album by group leader Eazy-E--was the more galvanizing force.
The group--which also includes M.C. Ren, Dr. Dre and D.J. Yella--has only been doing live shows since September, so it is still figuring out its game plan on stage. But there is something undeniably powerful in the album's best moments. For all its crudeness, there is a strong sense of artistic spirit and vision.
If the group keeps progressing, it may well turn out to be the most raw and compelling chart arrival from Los Angeles since Guns N' Roses. (N.W.A, which played the Celebrity Theatre again Friday night as part of the same bill, is No. 41 this week on Billboard magazine's list of the nation's best-selling albums).
Before Thursday's concert, fans repeatedly used the word reality in praising N.W.A's music.
"They tell it the way it really is," said Hugo Lara, 15, of El Sereno. Agreed Jason Crouch, 15, of Tustin: "They talk about real life . . . not that fantasy stuff like Debbie Gibson or someone."
St. Clare Marciano, 19, of San Bernardino saw N.W.A as positive role models even if the band members reject that concept. "I think it's good they talk about gang problems the way they do because it forces people to think about the problems. A lot of adults want to pretend it doesn't exist, and (N.W.A's music) wakes them up."
On the role-model issue, he added, "Kids also see someone like Eazy-E walking around the street in their neighborhood one day and then they see his picture in the magazine, and they think maybe they could do something like that with their lives, too."
For the band's part, Ice Cube, whose real name is O'Shay Jackson, said he writes in gang imagery because that is the world he saw growing up in Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.
"It's not like I'm sitting back and making these things up," he said before Thursday's concert. "If I grew up in Beverly Hills, I'd be writing about different things. Our music's not shocking to people who know that world. It's reality. It's shocking to people (outsiders). Sometimes the truth hurts.
"Take a song like 'Tha Police.' There is a lot of resentment of police because if you're black, you get picked on a lot. They see you in a car or 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."