NWA: Straight Outta Compton
Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics No One Was Ready for N.W.A's 'Straight Outta Compton.' But It Sold 3 Million Records and Transformed the Music Industry.
By TERRY MCDERMOTT of the Los Angles Times 4/14/02
PART 1 of 2
The beginning of the end of life as we know it occurred here, on a beaten patch of asphalt out in the vast, flat no man's land of greater Los Angeles.
The beginning of the end came unannounced. There was no salute, no blast of trumpets or heavenly choir. It came in the sunken heat of summer at an abandoned drive-in movie theater called the Roadium.
The Roadium was graced by a grand arched gate that, in its day, promised entry to whatever secret kingdom Hollywood could conjure. By the summer of 1985, though, the drive-in, its dreams and innocent magic are relics of a long-gone past. The dull blur of south county towns the Roadium served--Torrance, Lawndale, Hawthorne, Gardena, Carson and Compton--are staging areas in a decade-long descent into what feels at times like a war zone; and at times is. Street corners are outposts in a new crack economy, boulevards battle lines dividing endless variations of Bloods and Crips, usually from one another, always from themselves. With the drive-in theater gone, the stuff of dreams has been traded for just plain stuff. The Roadium's arch now frames an open-air bazaar piled high with cheap Chinese toys, one-size-fits-all Sri Lankan socks, used car batteries, secondhand tool chests, last year's Barbie dolls and canned peas with last week's use-by date. The Roadium is a swap meet.
The first thing you notice are the people. The place is so jammed you wonder how they ever got along without it. At the moment, the biggest crowd surrounds a little stall just inside the old arch. Kids are lined up two, three deep along the perimeter of the stall, whooping and hollering. A lanky Japanese guy, whippet-thin and wired, presides behind a homemade plywood table in the middle of the noise. The table is stacked high with records, LPs and those 12-inch singles that disc jockeys spin. He's got more of the same displayed on a 20-foot-wide pegboard behind him.
He's got so much product that some days, days when the heat is so thick you could lean against it, the table legs sink an inch into the melting asphalt.
The whole place isn't much bigger than a walk-in closet, and it's hot in every way imaginable. The air's an oven, the kids fired by the desire for the new.
"Yo, Steve. Whatcha got?"
"Stevie, Stevie, whatcha got new, man?"
Steve Yano is the man of the moment, an East L.A. guy who has somehow swapped a career as a high school guidance counselor to become the uncrowned king of a swap meet music underground. He has turned his table into the hippest, hottest record store on the West Coast. He's got everything--all the new East Coast hip-hop, the best old-school R&B, all the L.A. dance jams, that locking-and-popping stuff you see on "Soul Train." He has stuff nobody else has, stuff nobody else has ever heard of. He has stuff so new it doesn't even exist yet (not officially), stuff with no labels, no packaging, just the stamp of the new.
It is the new that tugs at the ears of the man who will deliver the beginning of the end of life as we know it. He's a little guy, 5-5, 5-6, tops, with the slow swagger of a hustler fat on house money. Steve Yano remembers him showing up that first day at the Roadium, going through piles of 12-inch singles. Big piles.
"He looks 'em over, stacks 'em up. Then says, 'I'll take these."'
The guy has maybe 20 records in front of him. Yano is used to kids buying one, maybe two at a time. These are not rich kids. They wouldn't be at the swap meet if they were. Yano thinks this guy is scamming.
"All those?" he asks.
"Yeah," the kid says. He's got a high, squeaky voice that makes him sound even younger than he looks. And he looks about 13. He picks up one of the 12-inchers, a cut from some local DJs called the World Class Wreckin' Cru.
"Where you get that from?" he asks.
The question doesn't even register with Yano, who still can't believe the kid has money to buy all the records he has in front of him.
"All of them?" he asks.
"Sure," the kid says, and reaches down in his sock. He comes back up with a roll of cash. He peels the bills off. Bam. Just like that.
Then he says: "Tell Dre, Eric says, 'Whassup?' "
With that, Eric Wright turns and walks off with a stack of records half as big as he is. Yano, of course, tells Dre nothing. Dre, Andre Young, a member of the Wreckin' Cru, is one of the hottest young DJs in L.A. He doesn't need to be bothered, man. Not with this kid anyhow.
Wright comes back the next weekend, asks about Dre again, wants his numbers. He's polite but persistent and comes back every week. Yano finally asks Dre if he knows a homeboy named Eric Wright. And damned if Dre doesn't.
"Next thing I know," Yano says, "those guys are on a three-way call with me at 2 in the morning. Eric wants to open a record store. I tell him, 'Don't do it. It's a bad business. I can show you how, but don't do it.' "
Eric has money--street money, dope money--and wants to go straight. Dre, meanwhile, bugs Yano, who knows every low-level somebody in the record business in all of Los Angeles, to start a record label. Dre wants a place to put out his own music.
In time, these dreams merged and came true. Eric went into the record business, all right, not with a corner store but with his own label and Dre was on it. Soon that label, Ruthless Records, sent out into the world some of the weirdest, funniest, saddest, maddest music anybody ever heard. Out of that little swap meet stall came the partnership that rocked, then overran the record business.
The partnership took full form in the hip-hop group Niggaz With Attitude, which in 1988 released a record called "Straight Outta Compton." This was the group's first national release. N.W.A was largely unknown. The record contained no hit singles. In most of the country, nothing from the record was played even once on the radio. It was too crude, too misogynistic, too violent. MTV, which had by then established itself as the primary gatekeeper of popular culture, refused to play N.W.A videos.
No radio, no television and no publicity.
"Straight Outta Compton" sold 3 million records.
The music it contained was so perverse, so nihilistic, so forbidden, politicians--then and still--elbowed each other out of the way to condemn it. Highbrow critics couldn't find language strong enough to critique it; they went further, questioning whether it was even music at all. It's barbaric, they said. Hide the women and children; bar the doors. Too late.
Gangsta rap was in the house.
Locking and Popping
The content of youth culture today is, to a significant extent, hip-hop: hip-hop records, hip-hop fashion, hip-hop film, hip-hop attitude. It is the only genre of popular entertainment that cuts consistently across class, ethnicity, gender and age. Just as rock music was a vehicle for the countercultural attitudes that provoked social upheaval among the middle classes in the 1960s, hip-hop in general and gangsta rap in particular have carried urban underclass sensibilities to the wider society--which has reacted with equal parts enchantment, imitation and outrage.
But in the first half of the 1980s, people in the Los Angeles-based record industry saw hip-hop as an East Coast fad. Hip-hop's few national hits were dismissed as novelties. Southern California was in the grip of a dance epidemic, a local disco fever. A DJ collective called Uncle Jamm's Army played Culver City east to Pomona; the Dream Team owned South-Central. A forceful young man named Lonzo Williams worked the clubs and parties from Gardena to Long Beach.
Lonzo had been an ardent dancer who started DJing to make money. While still at Compton High School, he booked house and block parties, graduating to 1,000-plus-seat venues such as Alpine Village in Torrance and even the Queen Mary.
Lonzo landed a regular gig at Eve After Dark, a new Compton nightclub. On Fridays he would spin records from 9 at night until 5 the next morning, turning the crowd over three or four times. To share the load, Lonzo in the early 1980s built a team of DJs called Disco Construction; then, as disco died, the World Class Wreckin' Cru. The Cru played the usual: Donna Summer, Average White Band, George Clinton, Parliament and Prince.
Eve was a high-class club--dresses for the ladies and ties and slacks for the gentlemen. Lonzo dressed his Jheri-curled DJs in matching lavender outfits and devised Temptations-style choreography. The club became a fixture on the dance map of Los Angeles. "People came out in droves," Lonzo recalls. "It was a constant party."
A young Compton kid started hanging around outside Eve, which didn't serve alcohol but had an age limit. His name was Andre Young. He was 17, still a student at Centennial High, and already a three-year DJ veteran.
Young pestered Lonzo for a spot on the Cru. On a night when one of the regulars didn't show, Lonzo gave the new kid a shot.
Lonzo says the key to DJing in such a competitive scene was to "find the most obscure record you could and play it." Dre was young, but he had tremendous musical knowledge. He'd been listening forever to his mother's extensive rhythm-and-blues and jazz record collection. When she came home after work at night, he once said, the stereo went on before the lights. He DJed for her and her friends when he was barely school age.
That first night at Eve, Young mixed the old Motown song "Please Mr. Postman" over Afrika Bambaataa's seminal hip-hop recording, "Planet Rock"--two songs with completely different tempos and moods. For whatever reason, it worked.
The crowd went crazy and Lonzo went, "Hmm, what do we have here?"
One of the most popular acts in town at the time was Uncle Jamm's Army, in which the DJs built identifiable characters--essentially roles they played onstage. One, a heartthrob named Egyptian Lover, did several numbers exploring the racier dimensions of his love life. Lonzo admired Young's musical talent, but even more he saw the good-looking young ladies' man as a draw, his answer to Egyptian Lover. Young joined the Wreckin' Cru under the stage name Dr. Dre in honor of Julius Erving, the basketball player known as Doctor J. Lonzo booked other acts into Eve, including the first L.A.-area appearances of New York rappers Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. When the Wreckin' Cru saw Run-DMC for the first time, they looked at one another in amazement, recalls Antoine Carraby, a DJ known as Yella.
Run-DMC was a Eureka moment.
" 'This is it? It's not even a 10-minute show. We can do this.' That's exactly how it started," says Yella. "We can do this."
They began writing their own material. It didn't seem to matter that none of them were musicians. Yella could program a drum machine. Otherwise, they were lost.
"We were DJs. What we knew was partying," Lonzo says. "I can't play dead. I can't play the radio."
No matter. Dre was naturally musical in a way that most DJs only dreamed about. Dre and Yella hung out during the day at Eve After Dark, listening to records, figuring out how to replicate instrumental tracks on an old four-track recording deck in the back room. It was, Dre says, how he learned record production.
In 1984, they went into Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, where for $100 they recorded two tracks--one called Slice, the other Kru Groove. The music--a fast-beat techno sound influenced by the German band Kraftwerk--consisted mainly of drum tracks programmed by Yella and Dre's turntable scratching, the distinctive wicky, wicky sound made by manipulating a turntable by hand. Another member of the group, Marquette Hawkins, known as DJ Cli-N-Tel, rapped lyrics that mostly said how clever Yella was to have written them. They took the tracks to Macola Records, a small, independent label in Hollywood where you could have records pressed in lots as small as 500. For virtual pocket change, they were now proud owners of a two-sided, 12-inch dance single. They began selling it out of the trunk of Lonzo's car to independent record stores throughout Los Angeles.
"We sold 5,000 of them," Lonzo says. "Five thousand! That's like ghetto gold."
The New Mall
Steve Yano was a grad student in educational psychology at Cal State L.A. when he saw an ad on campus for a part-time job delivering records to stores in the area. Within a year, he found himself part owner of a record store with the man who had hired him. The store did well enough but couldn't support them both, so Yano sold his half of the business to his partner. Yano took payment in merchandise.
"At about this time, the West Coast swap meet scene just blew up," Yano says. "I spent the week, Monday through Friday, searching for product. Hitting all the spots in town, going through used record bins. Weekends, I'd sell at the meet. I went to every single pawnshop in L.A. You could buy 10 records for a dollar. I knew I could sell three of them for two bucks each."
At the peak of disco fever, Yano got a stall at one of the busiest swap meets in California--the Roadium on Redondo Beach Boulevard in Torrance. Customers at the Roadium were mainly African American, and Yano began to tailor his product to fit the customers. "Then there started to be this new type of talk--R&B, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC," Yano says. "These guys are popping. Kids are talking about it. Do you have any 12-inch? Nobody has it. They've never heard of it. Finally, I found out places you can get some."
Among those sources was Lonzo Williams. Yano called him.
"Oh yeah, sure," Lonzo said. "How many you need?"
"Three or four," Yano answered.
"Pretty soon it was, 'I'll take 10 of these. Then 50,' " Yano says. "Pretty soon Lonzo is coming to me with stuff and I'm carrying 100 titles. I'm selling 100 a week of some of them. The DJ craze hits. Now everybody and their mother is a DJ and they all want the latest [music]. So they all come to me. I was selling a lot of 12-inch vinyl. I mean, a lot. Pretty soon other dealers are coming to me. I'm meeting these guys outside bowling alleys in parking lots at midnight. It was like we were dealing drugs.
"I become for a while a very important guy. I'm buying 500 copies of a title. The first place anybody called in L.A. was me. 'Play this. Whattya think?' All these label guys are starting to bring me their new records. I could tell the first weekend if something is going to sell just by how the kids react. If it was good, kids would start to break dance right there in the stall."
One day, when Yano went to Eve After Dark to meet Lonzo, he heard Dre and Yella in one of their practice sessions.
KDAY, a local radio station, had converted to an all hip-hop format, the first station in the country to do so. The station had a daily feature called Traffic Jam, and it solicited local DJs to make mixes. Dre and Yella did mixes several times a week--Yella on the drum machine, Dre scratching on the turntable.
Yano listened, rapt. "Is that how you do it?" he asked.
"You want us to make you a tape?" Yella answered. Yano took the tape to the swap meet the next weekend.
"I'm playing it," Yano says, "and people go, 'Who did that tape? Can I get that?"'
Calling Dr. Dre
By the mid-1980s, much of the record business had evolved into large integrated companies that did everything from signing artists, assigning them producers and songs, then promoting and selling their records through sales staffs. More and more, the records were marketed through giant retail chains.
Low profit margins made store rack space too valuable to waste on unknown artists. This was less true in black communities, where small, locally owned retailers hung on and where there was an enduring demand not just for what was popular but for what was novel. These stores provided an outlet for the new music that the big chains wouldn't risk stocking. This helped make hip-hop possible in the first place.
While Lonzo worked the local market, Don MacMillan, the owner of Macola Records, distributed Wreckin' Cru recordings to an informal network of independent distributors around the country. MacMillan had several hip-hop acts on Macola. The artists were drawn to him by the easy terms. He would press records in small quantities and send them out. He didn't care who was making the records or what was on them.
MacMillan let the artists put their own labels on the recordings and control their own publishing. Lonzo called his label Kru-Cut Records.
After modest success with its first 12-inch single, the Cru had a hit with "Surgery," a 1984 number written and produced by Dre that sold 50,000 records--a huge amount for an independently made and distributed record. "Surgery" was typical of the Wreckin' Cru's music: basic electronic funk, a fast drum machine beat, lots of turntable scratching and silly lyrics ("Calling Dr. Dre to surgery").
The Wreckin' Cru started making the transition from dance hall DJs to recording artists. They followed "Surgery" with "Juice" in 1985 and put out an album called "World Class" that same year. CBS Records called. Larkin Arnold, an executive, wanted a meeting. "Larkin was like the black godfather of music. If he said there was a meeting, there was a meeting," Lonzo says.
The meeting went well. Arnold said he'd get back to them, and the Wreckin' Cru went on tour as an opening act for Rick James. The Cru measured its success night to night by how many girls they could coax to their hotel rooms. Most nights, they earned high marks. "We had showmanship," Lonzo says.
They did their dance steps, wore lace gloves, makeup and rhinestone satin costumes. These were, in their way, almost quaint reminders of Lonzo's old-school roots. On the road, Lonzo got a call from his lawyer. CBS was offering a contract with a $100,000 advance.
Are you interested, the lawyer wanted to know.
"Interested? Sign the damned contract!" Lonzo screamed. "You got power of attorney. Sign it before they change their minds."
Lonzo pauses at this point in the story. He now owns a small club on Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood. It's empty in the way that only a nightclub at noon can be. He looks around and shakes his head.
"It was the worst thing that ever happened," he says. "From that point on, we had nothing but dissension over money."
Dre complained that Lonzo wasn't paying him enough. He was the musical foundation of the Wreckin' Cru but was being paid as one of the guys. That category--one of the guys--meant everybody except Lonzo, who, in his own defense, says that no one understood how much it cost him to keep the Wreckin' Cru operating. It was his group; he paid for everything--advertising, recording costs, travel, equipment. It was only fair that he be paid more money. The irony was that the more successful the group became, the worse things got. This had been Lonzo's one big chance. It left without him. He shakes his head again. "One day you're cool, the next day you're not. By the time we came off the road, we were on the down slide," Lonzo says. "Something happened with those guys."