The rappers in N.W.A. see themselves as reporters, and the stories they cover are not pretty. Having grown up amidst drug deals and gang violence in the Compton section of Los Angeles, the members of N.W.A. rap about urban America’s ugliest realities and offer no apologies for the brutality and cynicism in their lyrics. Orlando Sentinel correspondent Robert Hilburn wrote: “Pushing the imagery much further than anyone before, N.W.A. features sirens and gunshots as backdrops to its… tales of drug dealing and police confrontations…. The defiant N.W.A. refuses to pass judgment or offer itself as a role model. The group’s name echoes its bold, incendiary nature: Niggers With Attitude.”
N.W.A. formed in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, when an admitted former drug dealer decided to invest his earnings in a record company. The leader of the group, Eazy-E founded Ruthless Records “with money gained illegally on the streets,” according to Rolling Stone. He then recruited some of his friends to form a rap act, most notably Ice Cube, who wrote many of the raps on
Name stands for Niggers With Attitude; group formed c. 1988 in Los Angeles, CA; original members included Eazy-E (Eric Wright), M.C. Ren (Lorenzo Patterson), Ice Cube (Osea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Andre Young), and Yella (Antoine Carraby). Group released first album, Straight Outta Compton, on Ruthless, 1989.
In 1990 Ice Cube left group to pursue solo career; Eazy-E and M.C. Ren remained with group, but also pursued independent projects.
the group’s debut album. Other N.W.A. members include producers Dr. Dre and Yella and mixer M.C. Ren.
In 1989 N.W.A. released their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, a vivid evocation of the bitter and dangerous world from which the group’s members had emerged. The work was decidedly controversial—one song, “F—tha Police,” derided police, making claims of brutality. Richmond Times-Dispatch contributor Mark Holmberg described the album as “a preacher-provoking, mother-maddening, reality-stinks” diatribe that “wallows in gangs, doping, drive-by shootings, brutal sexism, cop slamming and racism.” However, a reviewer for Newsweek acknowledged that Straight Outta Compton “introduced some of the most grotesquely exciting music ever made.”
A Newsweek reviewer added, “Hinting at gang roots, and selling themselves on those hints, they project a gangster mystique that pays no attention where criminality begins and marketing lets off.” Defending the group’s stance, original N.W.A. member Ice Cube told Rolling Stone: “Peace is a fictional word to me.” “Violence is reality…. You’re supposed to picture life as a bowl of cherries, but it’s not. So we don’t do nothin’ fake.”
Because of its controversial lyrics, little air time was granted to Straight Outta Compton —even by rap radio stations—and MTV refused to show the group’s debut video, claiming it “glorified violence.” Despite this lack of mainstream exposure the album sold a million copies, making stars of its five Compton natives. Criticism rained down on the group—the F.B.I, officially condemned “F—the Police” for encouraging violence against law-enforcement officers, and the group members were allegedly harassed by police officers during a concert at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. Ice Cube told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the group’s negative image among authority figures didn’t bother N.W.A. “We don’t want the key to any cities,” he announced. “We like to be real… wake up and smell the coffee, this is the way it is.”
Their defiant attitude firmly established, N.W.A.’s members became premier performers of “gangster” rap, an arm of rap music that chronicles often violent and squalid urban conditions without preaching. As M.C. Ren explained in Rolling Stone, “We don’t go around telling people, ‘Don’t do drugs,’ or preaching safe sex, cause everybody’s gonna do what they want regardless.”
The group’s subject matter and its lyrics, rife with four-letter words and sexual suggestion, have aroused heated controversy among critics. Some reviewers feel that N.W.A. glamorizes gang violence. In the Washington Post, David Mills wrote: “The hard-core street rappers defend their violent lyrics as a reflection of ‘reality.’ But for all the gunshots they mix into their music, rappers rarely try to dramatize that reality—a young man flat on the ground, a knot of lead in his chest, pleading as death slowly takes him in. It’s easier for them to imagine themselves pulling the trigger.” On the other hand, Wichita Eagle-Beacon correspondent Bud Norman noted that while N.W.A.’s members refuse to condemn the violence they describe, “they don’t make it sound like much fun…. They describe it with the same non-judgmental resignation that a Kansan might use about a tornado.”
Ice Cube answered the charges against N.W.A.’s lyrics. “We’re not trying to make a buck off of violence,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’re not on the good side or the bad side of anything. We’re in the middle, like a reporter would do. We tell [listeners] what’s going on. If you want to go bad, you got to deal with the consequences.” He added: “If you don’t like it, if you don’t understand it, don’t buy the records. Don’t come to the concert.”
After Straight Outta Compton Ice Cube left the group to pursue a solo career—allegedly, according to Rolling Stone, because of a financial dispute. Because Ice Cube had written many lyrics, the group’s 1991 album, Efil4zaggin, marked a new direction for N.W.A. Nonetheless, the new release occupied the number one spot on the charts without a hit single or play on radio stations and MTV. Once again, the group caused controversy. The title of the album, read backwards is Niggaz4life. Although the group’s members refer to themselves with this word, many find it offensive. In addition, N.W.A.’s references to women—most often as bitches—caused an uproar. As Alan Light in Rolling Stone remarked, “the second half of the album … stands as a graphic, violent suite of misogyny unparalleled in rap.” Former member Ice Cube was also the target of N.W.A.’s insults with one song, “B.A.”—for traitor Benedict Arnold—aimed at him.
The unbridled success of Efil4zaggin among both black and white listeners startled and dismayed critics. The group earned substantial media attention as “experts” tried to explain N.W.A.’s appeal. Some suggested that the bad attitude and raunchy lyrics of what a reviewer for Time called a “rap mural of ghetto life, spray-painted with blood,” appealed to listeners. Helping to launch sales of the album was a new group of customers—white middle-class teenagers—who latched on to the hard-core sound of N.W.A. As M.C. Ren explained, “White kids have been seeing so many negative images of blacks in the media for most of their lives. Now they have a chance to see something real. White kids got hip.”
Straight Outta Compton, Ruthless Records, 1989.
100 Miles and Runnin’ (EP), Ruthless Records, 1990.
Efil4zaggin, Ruthless/Priority, 1991.
Houston Post, June 18, 1989.
Newsweek, March 19, 1990; July 1, 1991.
Orlando Sentinel, October 26, 1990.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 30, 1989.
Rolling Stone, June 29, 1989; August 8, 1991.
Time, July 1, 1991.
Washington Post, September 2, 1990; March 19, 1991.
Wichita Eagle-Beacon, August 3, 1989.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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