The late 70’s and early 80’s saw no shortage of popular rap groups and songs. Everybody from Sugarhill Gang to the Beastie Boys were capitalizing on this growing trend, and some, like Public Enemy even took the genre out of the dance clubs and turned it into serious art. It wasn’t until 1986, however, when LA based rapper Ice T recorded and released 6 in the Mornin’ that it got REAL, and an entire subculture was born. Gangsta rap, as this subgenre was known, didn’t enter the mainstream until 1988, though, with the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. Suddenly, white suburban kids, like myself, were listening to stories about pimps, hoes, and gang-banging. Eazy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre became household names. The government and law enforcement got involved. People lost their lives.
I guess, though, before we get to that point in the story, we need to go back to the beginning. 1986, in the LA suburb of Compton. Eric Wright was a little dude who stood not even 5 and a half feet tall. He called himself Eazy E.The story goes that Eazy was a successful drug dealer who decided he’d rather make music. Eazy probably heard that Ice T record and recognized a kindred spirit. Maybe it was the first time he’d heard music that talked about the life he recognized. Maybe Eazy, who had a keen mind for business by all accounts, envisioned gangsta rap as a thing that people could relate to, because certainly lots of people were living that life style, but also as a thing that could appeal to people who had never lived a life like that. For kids like me, this world was entirely alien, and it was a safe way to experience the danger and the excitement of that life without having to be in danger ourselves. Like a horror movie – vicarious, safe thrills. Whatever the case, he took some of the sizable earnings from his drug business, hired a white manager named Jerry Heller, and started a record label, called Ruthless Records.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about Jerry Heller a little. Jerry was already a successful manager before Eazy and he hooked up. Eazy was a smart guy. He knew that the businessmen who ran the music industry might not take him, the little drug dealing black dude from the streets, seriously. He probably knew that Jerry Heller, who was also a smart guy, and who knew the industry, could help him sell not only his music, but the image. Jerry, who already had experience selling some pretty controversial bands like Black Sabbath, could help him package the image and sell it to the suits.
So anyway, Eazy E and Jerry Heller went into business together, and started Ruthless Records. In the meantime, Eazy was working on his songs and getting his posse together. Local DJ’s Andre “Dr Dre” Young and Antoine “Yella” Carraby joined up, as did rapper O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and producer Mik “Arabian Prince” Lezan. These five called themselves NWA, and released a single titled “Panic Zone”, which was later included on the compilation album N.W.A. and the Posse, which was also released in 1987 and included a solo track from Eazy E along with two others by his group, plus various cuts from other local artists.
Perhaps when Panic Zone didn’t make the splash Eazy had hoped for, he decided to reorganize. With Dr Dre and Yella producing the group’s music, Arabian Prince was found to be surplus to requirements and was dismissed. Rapper Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson was added to the mix, and the group set to work recording their first LP. Straight Outta Compton was released as the album’s first single in May of 1988. Even today, armed with more than 25 years of hindsight, this track sounds like the beginning of a legend and the end of the world all at once. I can only imagine the incendiary effect it had on other young impressionable minds and ears back then, but I can state that, personally, when a classmate loaned me his copy of the cassette tape, i sat on the floor of my bedroom, walkman hidden under my TV stand, wearing only one headphone, listening for my mom’s step on the stair lest she catch me with this contraband, and I sat there for hours. For weeks, I would rush home, tear through my seemingly interminable chores, then head up to my room to indulge. I felt so dirty and exhilarated, I couldn’t get enough. I don’t think I ever gave Alan his tape back.
The structure of the song was thus: after a short intro spoken by Eazy, the drums exploded, followed by a menacing, monotone horn sample and a jangling guitar that reeked delightfully of loose women shimmying. Ice Cube rapped first, followed by Ren. Cube’s verse was violent and angry, while Ren’s verse was more raw, disrespectful, and terrifying. Eazy came last and was somewhere between the two in terms of content. Foul language was everywhere, making me tremble with the grown-up-edness of it all. I think it was the first time I’d ever realized that those words actually meant something, and could be used for more than dismaying babysitters or shocking classmates.
Suffice it to say, the record was a hit, and the album it was from, also titled Straight Outta Compton, was a hit too, being certified platinum in less than a year . The first chapter of the story was in the books. Of course, now, all of this is history, but I still find it to be one of the most dramatic and fascinating stories ever told in the annals of music history. We’ll take a look at another chapter of this story next week, in our continuing West Coast Wednesdays series.