Boys Become Boyz
The Wreckin' Cru was Lonzo's group. He decided what music they did. As much as Dre complained about money, he told friends that he was equally frustrated with the Wreckin' Cru's musical direction.
"I'm inviting Dre and Yella out to the stall. They're cutting records right there at the Roadium," Yano says. "Somebody plays it at a party. Everybody goes, 'What's that?' But you can't get it. You can't buy it anywhere. It was unbelievable. Dre says, 'Why don't you make a label?' I said, 'No way.' "
Dre kept asking. Yano kept saying no.
"Then one day," Yano says, "along comes Eazy."
There was no reason to think Eazy-E (Eric Wright) knew anything about any business but selling dope.
But being a dope man imposed certain career limitations. When he wandered by Yano's swap meet stall in 1985, at 22, he had resolved to get a new occupation. He told one friend if all else failed he would do what his father had done: go to work at the post office.
First, though, he wanted to give the music business a try. And it was clear to everyone that it was the money more than the music that interested him.
"Even as a kid, he was a businessman," Yano says.
This was something Dre notably was not. He was a terrible manager of his own affairs, forever broke. He made matters worse by ignoring money matters when he could. He racked up parking tickets and traffic citations, then didn't pay them until the fines doubled or tripled or he was jailed for not paying at all.
"What you gonna do? Couldn't leave him in jail, you might have a gig that weekend," Lonzo says.
So Lonzo bailed Dre out repeatedly. Finally, it happened one time too many. The call came, Dre asked and Lonzo said: "You know what? I'm gonna let your butt sit in jail for a while. Maybe you'll learn something."
"So he calls Eazy," Lonzo says.
Eazy and Dre cut a deal: Eazy would bail Dre out of jail; Dre would produce records for Eazy's new record company. Of course, Eazy's record company existed only in Eazy's mind. The idea of a minor-league dope dealer starting a record company from scratch was not as preposterous as it might seem. It was possible to create a virtual record company, although nobody called it that at the time. The existence of Macola Records, basically a fee-for-service pressing plant, lowered the bar to enter the record business to next to nothing.
Macola provided all of the infrastructure to manufacture and distribute records. Studios could be rented. And the music itself could be made quickly and cheaply. All Eazy really needed was ambition, which he had, and Dre.
"They come by the stall one day," Yano says. "I got a guy there doing T-shirts, spraying them. Eazy says, 'Whattya think of Ruthless? Ruthless Records?' " "That's cool," Yano said.
And the T-shirt guy painted what would become the logo for Ruthless Records.
Eazy Duz It
Eazy now had a name but still no artists, no material, no plan. Dre gave him a tape from a New York rap duo called HBO. Eazy agreed to record them as the debut artists for Ruthless. He booked time at Audio Achievements, where the Wreckin' Cru records were made. He asked Dre for a song.
Dre had been writing with O'Shea Jackson, a young Compton MC who lived four doors down from one of Dre's cousins. Jackson had been writing rhymes since grade school in L.A.'s Crenshaw district. Dre became a mentor. He'd pick Jackson up after school and take him along to clubs and to Lonzo's garage, which they had converted into a ramshackle recording studio.
Dre produced an album by Jackson, Dre's cousin Jinx and a third friend, Kid Disaster. They called their group CIA (Criminals In Action). Jackson adopted the stage name Ice Cube. Like a lot of kids, Cube was a huge fan of the comedian Richard Pryor. Cube's parents had Pryor's records, which in addition to being hilarious were exceptionally profane. Cube listened to the albums when his parents left the house. He started writing similarly obscene rap parodies of popular songs.
"We knew the value of language, especially profanity. We weren't that sophisticated, but we knew the power it had," Cube says.
He and Dre started DJing together at clubs and the Compton Skateland roller rink. Dre would play the instrumental tracks of popular hip-hop songs and Cube would rap obscene versions of the original lyrics. One of the highlights was a version of the Run-DMC hit "My Adidas" that Cube transformed into "My Penis." The Skateland kids loved it. Cube wrote constantly. "I never stopped," he says. "I had notebooks full of raps." Among them was one called "Boyz N Tha Hood" that Cube wrote during English class at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, where he was bused from South-Central. Cube showed the rhyme to Dre, who made an instrumental track for it.
When HBO showed up in Torrance to record, Dre gave them "Boyz." HBO balked. Too West Coast, they said, and walked out. Eazy was stuck with the bill for an empty recording studio. Since Dre, Cube and the others were already in various groups, Dre urged Eazy to rap the song. Eazy resisted. He was a businessman. He knew nothing about rapping. Dre persisted, and with no other option, Eazy did the song.
He had no rap experience or skills, and it showed. It took two days to make the track. "We all laughed 'cuz it was so bad," Lonzo says.
"Boyz N Tha Hood" is the story of a young man's misadventures with friends, cars, girls and guns on a single afternoon. It opens with him "cruisin' down tha street in my '64." He sees a friend driving a stolen car. He catches another friend trying to steal his car stereo and shoots him. He has a couple of drinks, gets in a fight with his girlfriend, then with her father. He wrecks the car and, finally, walking home, sees the guy with the stolen car from the first verse fight with police. A busy day. "I can sell that," Yano said.
Eazy took it to Macola, had a pressing done, and Yano started selling the 12-inch singles at the swap meet.
"Kids are just loving it," Yano says. "We had the best promotion you could ever get, promotion at the grass-roots street level."
Eazy would drive up to Hollywood, ostensibly to talk to Don MacMillan. "He'd go to Macola, go into the back room and steal his own records," says Lorenzo Patterson, a young rapper whom Eazy recruited to join his label. "We'd take 'em out through the back door and throw them into his Jeep."
Eazy hired "snipers"--friends, gangbangers, ordinary guys who wanted to make a couple bucks--to take the records around to neighborhood stores. They gave away cassette copies to kids in the projects who were leaders of their own little cliques.
Against all odds, "Boyz N Tha Hood" became a hit.
"The response told us we'd found our niche, to be ourselves," says Cube. Eazy persuaded Dre, Cube, Yella and another local rapper named Mik Lezan, known as the Arabian Prince, to form an all-star group. Dre and Yella would make the beats; Cube would write the lyrics; Arabian Prince, Cube and Eazy would rap them. They could all continue to do their own things and get together on the side to make wild records for Ruthless.
It was an informal collective. People came and went in the studio. Cube, just out of high school, surprised everybody by leaving town to take a course in architectural drafting in Arizona. "If this record thing didn't work out, I didn't want to be out there digging ditches," Cube says. The Arabian Prince left too--for a solo career. As replacements Eazy brought in Patterson, who went by the name M.C. Ren, and Tray Curry, a Texas rapper who performed as The D.O.C. Eazy auditioned Ren in his mother's Compton garage, where he had recording gear set up. Ren had been writing rhymes since junior high. He rhymed equations in algebra class
. "He told me to start rapping about anything," Ren says. "So I started rapping about [stuff] in the garage. He liked it, took the tape to Dre. Dre signed me on the spot. Took me to a notary public he knew in Lakewood, signed me to a contract. There was no money or nothing. I didn't care. I was like, 'Fine.' "
Ren says Eazy's pitch was straightforward: at Ruthless, you could make records you couldn't make at other labels; it would be a place where nobody would tell you what you couldn't do. The records would all be like "Boyz N Tha Hood"--full of sex and guns, drinking and drugging. It would be stuff their friends would buy. At 24, Yella was the oldest of the crew. Eazy was 23; Dre, 21; Ren, 20; Cube, 18.
One day, hanging out at the Arabian Prince's house in Inglewood, they arrived at a name for the new group. They wanted something everybody would identify with the West Coast. Somebody suggested From Compton With Love.
"Hell, no!" everyone shouted.
"Then," Ren recalls, "Eazy says, 'How 'bout N.W.A, Niggaz With Attitude?' Everybody's like, 'Hell, yeah. N.W.A it is.' "
The Permanent Business
As the label took shape, Eazy bugged Lonzo for an introduction to Jerry Heller, a veteran talent manager. Lonzo had met Heller at Macola, which was a kind of social club for the emerging local hip-hop scene.
"We all heard of Jerry. He was always there at Don's," Lonzo says. "At one time he had almost everybody on the West Coast signed up. Throw it against the wall and see what sticks. That's what he was doing."
Lonzo and Heller had become friendly. Lonzo was older than many of the other guys, and he and Heller had an easy rapport. Lonzo didn't much like Eazy. For one thing, he thought Eazy was prying Dre away from him.
"The original plan was for Dre to produce Eazy and stay in the Cru," Lonzo says. "Dre was enticed by Eazy's lifestyle. He got tired of the flashy costumes, got tired of practicing the choreography. He wanted to be a rapper.
"I'm fighting for the Wreckin' Cru and I can't compete. There's a musical divide. I thought their music was good, but I wasn't into it. I loved ballads."
In the end, Lonzo agreed to introduce Eazy to Heller, but he made it clear he wasn't doing it as a friend. He charged Eazy $750. The introduction took place in March 1987 in the Macola lobby. "Eazy took the money out of his sock right there and paid Lonzo," Heller says.
Heller was an old pro, a part of what music people call "the permanent business." Denizens of the permanent business have a genius mainly for endurance. They hang around, surfing the erratic waves of popularity that define pop culture. Heller had made and lost at least one fortune already. A middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road white guy with no musical ability, he had been managing musicians dating back to Creedence Clearwater Revival in the 1960s. By the 1980s, Heller's fortunes had declined. He was, he says, "burned out on the industry."
"Then I heard about this scene at Macola, this pressing plant on Santa Monica Boulevard," Heller says. "For a thousand dollars, he'd press 500 records."
Eazy told Heller about the kind of record company he wanted. Then he played "Boyz N Tha Hood" and a new N.W.A song, "Straight Outta Compton."
"It blew me away," Heller says. "I thought it was the most important music I had ever heard."
They agreed to form a partnership and sealed the deal with a drink at Martini's, a Hollywood hangout. Heller decided that what N.W.A needed most was better promotion and distribution. That fall, Heller sent the band on tour and went shopping for a partner. The tour was far from glamorous. For much of it, N.W.A shared the bill with Salt-N-Pepa, a group of three women with national hits. Salt-N-Pepa flew between dates while N.W.A drove in a van.
Salt-N-Pepa found it greatly amusing that the hard-core Compton "gangsters" had to drive themselves. "Used to laugh at us: 'When y'all's plane leaving?' " Ren says.
Heller wasn't having a great deal more fun trying to sell the group. He says Columbia Records executive Joe Smith's reaction, upon hearing a demo tape, was typical. Smith offered to purchase the name Ruthless, which he thought had possibilities, but wanted nothing to do with the records.
"Are you crazy?" Heller remembers Smith asking. "What the hell would make you believe somebody is going to buy this crap?"
Some evidence was beginning to accumulate that Smith was wrong. Heller took Eazy to New York to introduce him at an industry gathering. They were in an elevator at the Park Lane Hotel. The elevator stopped and let on Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels, the front men for Run-DMC. Heller and Eazy immediately recognized Simmons and McDaniels, who in turn gave Heller and, especially, Eazy the once over. Then, recognition having dawned, Simmons and McDaniels started softly rapping the lyrics to "Boyz N Tha Hood."
"They knew every word," Heller says. "The record had never been played on radio anywhere. It's a 12-inch single distributed locally. And they knew the whole thing." Seizing on the underground success of "Boyz," Macola's Don MacMillan compiled that song, a bunch of demos and rough recordings various people had done under the Ruthless banner and issued it as an album under the name "N.W.A and the Posse." Only three of the songs on the album were performed by what would become N.W.A. The record didn't sell in huge numbers, but it started building N.W.A's reputation.
Johnny Phillips, a record distributor in Memphis, remembers a call around this time from one of his accounts, an independent record store in Cincinnati, asking about a record by a group called N.W.A that was being played in local clubs.
"I called Macola, bought a couple hundred of them. By the next month we were reordering five, six, seven thousand a week. As soon as we got 'em, we sold 'em."
Phillips, the nephew of Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley, was a key distributor for Priority Records, a fledgling company in Los Angeles. He sent Priority a copy of the Macola album. Priority was the creation of Bryan Turner and Mark Cerami, former K-Tel Records executives. They had started the label just two years before and made some money issuing a line of rap compilation albums. Then they hit it big with an unlikely novelty hit, the California raisins.
Television commercials for the California raisin industry had featured a musical quartet of animated raisins singing the soul classic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Priority licensed the rights to the singing raisins and put out an album of soul oldies. They sold 2 million copies. As a result, Priority was flush with cash and looking for new talent.
Coincidentally, Priority's offices were on the same floor of a Hollywood building as Jerry Heller's office. Turner, Cerami and Heller knew one another casually, and Heller had just been in to pitch N.W.A.
Cerami went to see the group perform. It was like the Beatles, he said. That sealed it. N.W.A was set to follow in the footsteps of the California raisins.
Paint Ball Politics
In the record business, money is spent on two things: recording music and promoting it. By the time N.W.A went into the studio to make its first real album, "Straight Outta Compton," a typical studio album cost well more than $100,000 to produce. Some cost 10 times that much.
The more money that was spent and made, the greater the size of the record company that would manage it.
One of the great gifts hip-hop gave to the music community was liberation from these corporate bureaucracies. Most hip-hop records were being made by small companies on low budgets--"on machines you could buy for $200 at Toys R Us," Heller says.
The other half of up-front costs--promotion and marketing--is spent mainly trying to get radio stations to play records. With N.W.A, there was no chance radio stations were going to touch the stuff, so there was no sense throwing money at them.
"You couldn't spend money on radio, so basically you couldn't spend money," Turner says. This, coupled with low production costs, made the economics of an N.W.A record utterly different.
"I could sell fifty, sixty, seventy thousand of these records and make money," Turner says.
With those numbers and with almost no investment, Priority could afford to both sign N.W.A and leave the group alone. After its brief tour, N.W.A, with Cube back home from Arizona, went into the studio with complete freedom to make whatever record they wanted to make. And they did.
"Straight Outta Compton" has been described variously as a work of revolutionary genius, a painful scream from the bleak streets of black America and, more commonly, as reprehensible trash with no redeeming value. It is all of that, and remains startling because of it.
"It's just an image," says Ren. "We got to do something that would distinguish ourselves. We was just trying to be different."
The fifth word on the first song on "Straight Outta Compton" is unprintable in The Times. The same word and many variations of it recur with regularity thereafter.
The record is laced with language you don't hear on the radio or in polite society. That was the beauty of it and, from the group's point of view, the joy of it. "We were going to write about the street. Cussing and hollering," Ren says. They didn't give a damn about polite society, or anything beyond the narrow world of the low-level street hooligans they wrote about.
What is most shocking about the album is not the language but the gleeful, celebratory hedonism of it, the misogyny and violence and dark-as-midnight nihilism. As a listener, you get the sense you're learning more about something than you really want to know, something you might at some point be called to testify about.
When people talk about the album's political and social power, they're referring mainly to the first three of 13 songs: "Straight Outta Compton," "F--- Tha Police" and "Gangsta, Gangsta."
The other 10 tracks are party songs, some of them great dance tracks but lyrically silly and forgettable. Several songs had been recorded previously and were redone for the album. It is a measure of the power of the first three songs that they have been able to drown out memory of the other 10. Dre has at times seemed embarrassed at the rawness of the whole affair, saying the record was crudely made. Others see this as a virtue, part of the album's immediacy. The record was made in just six weeks. It cost about $8,000 and has the loose sense of a bunch of guys having one hell of a good time--except Ice Cube, who is ferociously angry throughout.
"Think about how you felt at that age," Cube says. "I was mad at everything. When I went to the schools in the Valley, going through those neighborhoods, seeing how different they were from mine, that angered me. The injustice of it, that's what always got me--the injustice."
The group was not political in any way other than the most elementary sense. Cube's lyrics were more socially aware than he was. "F--- Tha Police" was at least as dismissive of the police as it was an attack on them. The group wasn't even going to record it initially. When Cube first showed the lyrics to Dre, he passed. "What else you got?" Dre asked.
It was only after Dre and Eazy were caught shooting paint balls at people at Torrance bus stops that Dre changed his mind about the song.
Cube was the main lyricist for the album. Dre and Yella shared the producer's credit. They were almost always the first ones in the Torrance studio and the last to leave. Others came and went as need or whim dictated. It was clear who was in charge.
"Dre was like the main ear," Ren says. "He'd tell you, 'Try to make it like this.' You'd do it. He'd be like, 'Cool.' Or, 'That's terrible.' Dre'd look at you like, you dumb mother . . . ."
The results do not match Dre's later musical sophistication; few things do. It was, as Priority's Bryan Turner points out, his first real album. Even so, the sound of the album is as powerful as the lyrics--and more varied. The fast-beat Wreckin' Cru techno is absent, replaced by slower, deeper, funkier rhythm tracks set in a scrap heap soundscape of sirens, gunshots, shouts, curses and cars. The overall effect can be ominous.
Hip-hop from its beginnings has been intensely place-based. Rappers have told us about their neighborhoods and towns, praising them and criticizing others. Regional chauvinism became a defining characteristic; geographic feuds a part of the drama. N.W.A made a virtue of necessity in celebrating Compton, a place few people had ever heard of outside Southern California. To this day, all that many people know of it is what N.W.A told them. In a way, people read both too much and too little into "Straight Outta Compton." Too much was made of supposed political motivations and probably not enough of the fact that these were kids making records for other kids.
Few people placed the record inside a broader regional tradition to which it clearly belongs. California pop music in the last 40 years has had four periods of peak popularity: mid-'60s surf and hot-rod music; late-'60s psychedelia; '70s laid-back country rock; and gangsta rap of the late '80s through the '90s.
As distinct as these genres are, they share a notably self-indulgent worldview. No matter who's singing--Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, the Eagles or Niggaz With Attitudes--or about what, California hedonism prevails. As Cube put it in "Gangsta, Gangsta," life is just girls and money, or words to that effect.
In almost any other medium, the same content would have been received more calmly. It would have been analyzed as an artistic stance, not a lifestyle. (These weren't, after all, real gangsters.) Dre would have been exalted as a postmodern master, Frank Gehry at the mixing board, cobbling scraps of James Brown funk to cool Euro techno in a way that made both seem more alive. Cube would have been doing political commentary on CNN and Eazy's autobiography would have been a business school staple.
People forgot that these were songs, fictions. Almost inevitably, establishment forces denounced "Straight Outta Compton." It set off a long-running, unresolved debate about the content of pop culture.
The ubiquity of pop music encourages overreaction; it's the only art form that blasts out of a 200-watt amp in the Toyota next to you at the stoplight on Slauson, the artillery thump of the bass vibrating shop windows a block away. Or, more to the point, the stoplight might be on Magic Mountain Parkway in Valencia; or any intersection in Bethesda, Md., Waukegan, Ill., or Redmond, Ore. Or, for that matter, in Tokyo, Paris or Rio.
From nearly the beginning, as soon as N.W.A broke out of the swap meet scene, the group sold most of its records far beyond the boundaries of black neighborhoods. Eventually, Priority calculated, 80% of the sales of "Straight Outta Compton" were in the suburbs, mainly to teenage boys who wouldn't know real niggaz if one woofed in their ears.