With the arrival of the N.W.A movie “Straight Outta Compton” comes a renewed interest in Los Angeles hip-hop of the late 1980s and ‘90s.
As the underground crew ascended into the mainstream, The Times helped spread the news about N.W.A’s rise, reviewing for the masses the group’s records during a time when commercial radio refused to air their music.
How were the group’s recordings received at the time? As was the case across mainstream media, praise was tempered with hesitation, as though attempting to come to terms not only with the aggressive new music but working to convey the music’s importance to a wary readership.
Below, a few highlights on N.W.A coverage from The Times’ archives.
The Times gave N.W.A’s debut album “Straight Outta Compton” three-and-a-half stars out of five in the paper’s March 19, 1989, issue. Below is The Times’ review, written by Dennis Hunt and republished in full, replete with a now-tone-deaf bit about women and “the ghetto subculture.”
Underground rap -- angry and full of the coarsest street language -- is slithering into the mainstream, dragging the reality of the black ghetto with it. On this album, N.W.A jams reality down our throats.
This Compton crew, an all-star group featuring Eazy-E, Ice Cube and M.C. Ren, presents a searing, un-compromising view of ghetto life. Many will find parts of the two angriest, most explosive songs -- " ... Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” downright shocking.
What’s unusual about this album is that N.W.A doesn’t dilute its hard-edged material with any prissy moralizing. That’s the aspect that many will find most offensive -- even more so than the searing street language.
One of N.W.A’s points is that the black ghetto is a subculture that operates on different rules. Through rap, they want to tell it like it is. By mainstream rules, for instance, this material would be condemned as brutally sexist. But in the ghetto subculture, this approach to women is a fact of life. N.W.A would no doubt argue: This isn’t sexism, it’s reality.
Much of this material is funny, but unsettling -- like Richard Pryor’s best and darkest humor about the black community. To appreciate this remarkable, disturbing album you have to approach it for what it is -- a no-holds-barred, audio-documentary of ghetto life.
A week later, then-Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn reviewed N.W.A’s legendary 1989 show at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim. They opened for Ice-T.
Describing the group as “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,” Hilburn captured a moment when hip-hop lyrics and their role in gang violence was bubbling to the surface.
Wrote Hilburn of the concert: “Because of the group’s hard-boiled image, there was tension in the audience Thursday. Several teenagers 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.”
Describing increased security measures at the 2,500-seat Celebrity, the writer documented the tension on that night. “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 airplay. Typical of the group’s incendiary language, the latter includes such lines as ‘A young ... on the warpath / And when I finish, it’s gonna be a blood bath.’”
Midway through the show during a performance of “Dopeman,” Hilburn documented a fight in the crowd and N.W.A’s response. “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.”
Hilburn predicted that 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.” Turns out that was an understatement.
Hilburn profiled Ice Cube in 1990 as his solo debut, “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted,” was coming out. A 2,000-word feature, the piece explored the rise of N.W.A and America’s response, but also addressed Ice Cube’s departure from the group.
Wrote Hilburn: “But there were also tensions developing within N.W.A. Ice Cube, who wrote most of the group’s key raps and was emerging in interviews as the main spokesman, felt he wasn’t being fairly compensated.”
Ice Cube confirmed this in the article. “At the end of the day, after everybody stops screaming N.W.A, I had to look at my bank account and I was still putting up gold and platinum records at home . . . living with my parents.”
Hilburn also reviewed “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted,” giving it three-and-a half stars out of five. “There is much on the album that is disturbing, yet there is also the encouraging feel of an artist struggling to understand himself and his community. In the end, there is even a glimmer of hope -- distant and faint, but alive.”
Then a music writer, Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold gave Eazy-E’s “It’s On ...” two stars in 1993. Describing the late Ruthless Records head and N.W.A co-founder as the “corporate sponsor of the Compton gangsta rap sound,” the writer criticized Eazy for being unable “to rhyme as well as former N.W.A member Ice Cube, nor mold a beat as persuasively as former N.W.A member Dr. Dre, nor rap with the easy grace of Dre associate Snoop Doggy Dogg.”
Gold, who wrote a major early profile of N.W.A when he was at L.A. Weekly, tackled Dr. Dre’s multi-platinum album “The Chronic” in late ’92 while lashing against one-dimensional depictions of the producer as little more than a gangster.
In a piece headlined “The Rap’s Flat, But Ya Can’t Beat the Beat,” Gold called Dre the “N.W.A apostate and architect of the Compton sound,” and dubbed him “an enigma: a creator of an entire school of rock ‘n’ roll whose criminal record is better known than his platinum records. Plenty of news-print has been devoted to his alleged thuggishness, relatively less to his artistry -- which is on a par with Phil Spector’s or Brian Wilson’s.”
Gold said the beats on “The Chronic” were “clean but edgy, featuring big-bottomed, slightly dirty beats, and powered by guitar and bass work that is not sampled, but recreated in the studio, so that -- unlike East Coast rap productions -- the fidelity of the final product is not inflected by the fidelity of scratchy R&B records that have been played a million times. It is largely Dre’s production work -- on Eazy-E, on N.W.A., on the D.O.C., on Above the Law -- that made West Coast gangsta rap among the most vital pop genres to come along in the last few years.”
Dubbing the album “among the best-sounding rap records of the year,” Gold nonetheless had a few issues. “The problem is that while several of the rappers he’s surrounded himself with here have devastatingly good voices -- the buttery snarl of Snoop Dog in particular -- none of them seem to have the quick wit, the rhythmic virtuosity of his former N.W.A colleagues Ice Cube and Ren. Too many of the jokes fall flat; too many of the jabs just seem mean. Dre, forced, strained-sounding, is hardly as accomplished a rapper as he is a producer. But there are those beats . . .”
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