Ironically, in their original incarnation N.W.A were hardly revolutionary. Eazy-E (born Eric Wright), a former drug dealer who started Ruthless Records with money he earned by pushing, was attempting to start a rap empire by building a roster of successful rap artists. However, he wasn't having much success until Dr. Dre (born Andre Young) -- a member of the World Class Wreckin' Cru -- and Ice Cube (born O'Shea Jackson) began writing songs for Ruthless. Eazy tried to give one of the duo's songs, 'Boyz-n-the Hood', to Ruthless signees HBO, and when the group refused, Eazy formed N.W.A -- an acronym for Niggaz With Attitude -- with Dre and Cube, adding World Class Wreckin' Cru member DJ Yella (born Antoine Carraby), the Arabian Prince, and the D.O.C. to the group. N.W.A's first album, N.W.A. and the Posse, was a party-oriented jam record that largely went ignored upon its 1987 release.
In the following year, the group added MC Ren (born Lorenzo Patterson) and revamped their sound, bringing in many of the noisy, extreme sonic innovations of Public Enemy and adopting a self-consciously violent and dangerous lyrical stance. Late in 1988, N.W.A delivered Straight Outta Compton, a vicious hardcore record that became an underground hit with virtually no support from radio, the press, or MTV. N.W.A became notorious for their hardcore lyrics, especially those of 'Fuck tha Police', which resulted in the FBI sending a warning letter to Ruthless and its parent company, Priority, suggesting that the group should watch their step.
Most of the group's political threat left with Cube when he departed in late 1989 amid many financial disagreements. A nasty feud between N.W.A and the departed rapper began that would culminate with Cube's 'No Vaseline', an attack on the group's management released on his 1991 Death Certificate album. By the time the song was released, N.W.A, for all intents and purposes, was finished.
In the two years between Cube's departure and the group's dissolution, N.W.A was dominated by Eazy's near-parodic lyrics and Dre's increasingly subtle and complex productions. The group quickly released an EP, 100 Miles and Runnin', in 1990 before following it up early the next year with Efil4zaggin ('Niggaz 4 Life' spelled backward). Efil4zaggin was teeming with dense, funky soundscapes and ridiculously violent and misogynist lyrics. Naturally, the lyrics provoked outrage from many critics and conservative watchdogs, but that only increased the group's predominately male, white suburban audience. Even though the group was at the peak of their popularity, Dre began to make efforts to leave the crew, due to conflicting egos and what he perceived as an unfair record deal.
Dre left the group to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight in early 1992. According to legend, Knight threatened to kill N.W.A's manager Jerry Heller if he refused to let Dre out of his contract. Over the next few years, Dre and Eazy engaged in a highly publicized feud, which included both of the rappers attacking each other on their respective solo albums. Ren and Yella both released solo albums, which were largely ignored, and Eazy continued to record albums that turned him into a complete self-parody until his tragic death from AIDS in March 1995. Before he died, Dre and Cube both made amends with Eazy. With his first solo album, 1992's The Chronic, Dre established himself as the premier Hip Hop producer of the mid-'90s, setting the pace for much of hardcore rap with its elastic bass and deep, rolling grooves.
Gangsta rap established itself as the most popular form of Hip Hop during the '90s -- in other words, N.W.A's amoralistic, hedonistic stance temporarily triumphed over the socially conscious, self-award Hip Hop of Public Enemy, and it completely rewrote the rules of Hip Hop for the '90s.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Straight Outta Compton wasn't quite the first gangsta rap album, but it was the first one to find a popular audience, and its sensibility virtually defined the genre from its 1988 release on. It established gangsta rap - and, moreover, West Coast rap in general - as a commercial force, going platinum with no airplay and crossing over with shock-hungry white teenagers. Unlike Ice-T, there's little social criticism or reflection on the gangsta lifestyle; most of the record is about raising hell - harassing women, driving drunk, shooting it out with cops and partygoers. All of that directionless rebellion and rage produces some of the most frightening, visceral moments in all of rap, especially the amazing opening trio of songs, which threaten to dwarf everything that follows. Given the album's sheer force, the production is surprisingly spare, even a little low-budget - mostly DJ scratches and a drum machine, plus a few sampled horn blasts and bits of funk guitar. Although they were as much a reaction against pop-friendly rap, Straight Outta Compton's insistent claims of reality ring a little hollow today, since it hardly ever depicts consequences. But despite all the romanticized invincibility, the force and detail of Ice Cube's writing makes the exaggerations resonate. Although Cube wrote some of his bandmates' raps, including nearly all of Eazy-E's, each member has a distinct delivery and character, and the energy of their individual personalities puts their generic imitators to shame. But although Straight Outta Compton has its own share of posturing, it still sounds refreshingly uncalculated because of its irreverent, gonzo sense of humor, still unfortunately rare in hardcore rap. There are several undistinguished misfires during the second half, but they aren't nearly enough to detract from the overall magnitude. It's impossible to overstate the enduring impact of Straight Outta Compton; as polarizing as its outlook may be, it remains an essential landmark, one of Hip Hop's all-time greatest.
Words: Steve Huey
Like 100 Miles and Runnin' (1990), the five-track EP that preceded it, N.W.A's third full-length album, Niggaz4life, courts controversy in every imaginable way, from its title (printed backward on the cover, as a mirror image) down to its mercilessly misogynistic second half, and it remains shocking years later, no matter how many times the controversial aspects of the album have been exploited again and again by others. Unfortunately, the shocking rhetoric - which, to a degree unprecedented at the time of the album's release, revels in relentless obscenity, graphic sex, and extreme violence -tends to overshadow the remarkable production work of Dr. Dre here. Similar in practice to the concurrent production work of the Bomb Squad, Dr. Dre and co-producer DJ Yella densely layer soul-funk samples from the 1970s over hard-hitting beats. As he had on his previous productions, Dr. Dre mines the Parliament-Funkadelic back catalog in particular for sample material: for instance, two Eazy-E solo showcases, "Automobile" and "I'd Rather Fuck You," are satirical interpolations of Parliament's "My Automobile" and Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be with You," respectively, while the skits "Don't Drink That Wine" and "1-900-2-Compton" are likewise homage to George Clinton and company - and, if you're keeping tabs, "Niggaz 4 Life" borrows an elastic bassline from Parliament's "Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk." The album-opening "Real Niggaz Don't Die" is one of the most remarkable productions, comprised of multiple samples, most evidently Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate," a joyous song whose sampled hook is in great juxtaposition to the overriding dire tone of the production, best characterized by one of the other songs sampled on the track, the Last Poets' "Die Nigger!!!" In terms of rapping, Niggaz4life suffers for the absence of Ice Cube, even as the D.O.C. assumes his position as the in-house ghostwriter. There's a lot of Eazy-E to be heard throughout the album, for better and for worse, as his sense of humorous menace is amusing as well as unsettling. In the end, it's easy to understand why N.W.A unraveled shortly after Niggaz4life: on the one hand, the group had become a vehicle for exploiting the taboos of gangsta rap, to significant commercial success (this was a chart-topping album, after all), while on the other hand, it had become less about the production talent of Dr. Dre, whose work was being sorely overshadowed by all the controversy.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
The world's most volatile Hip Hop group gets compiled again with the 2006 release The Best of N.W.A. The straight-ahead collection differs just a little from 1996's Greatest Hits, although it does contain better liner notes and a worthwhile essay from Hip Hop historian Soren Baker. The problem remains that you can't call yourself an N.W.A fan without owning the Straight Outta Compton album, and once you own that, you're overlapping six of the tracks included here. Plus, they're the best tracks. What The Best of N.W.A. does right is scatter the Compton tracks about the collection and make the whole thing flow with a running order that feels right.
Words: David Jeffries
Hip Hop was still very much dominated by New York in 1987 when Macola Records (a company that distributed numerous L.A. rap labels in the 1980s, including Eazy-E's Ruthless Records) distributed N.W.A's groundbreaking debut album, N.W.A and the Posse. Ice-T was among the few West Coast rappers enjoying national exposure, and gangsta rap was far from the phenomenon it would become a few years later. A number of the songs - including the brutally honest "Dopeman" - would be reissued on Straight Outta Compton, while Eazy-E's first single, "Boyz-n-the Hood" would be included on his 1988 solo album, Eazy-Duz-It. And the entire album would be reissued by Priority in 1989. This CD ranges from those early and seminal examples of gangsta rap to songs that are pure, unapologetic fun - such as the outrageously humorous "Fat Girl" and N.W.A associates the Fila Fresh Crew's "Drink It Up," an infectious ode to booze employing the melody from the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout." One of the Crew's members was the D.O.C., who Dr. Dre and Eazy-E took to the top of the charts in 1989. Though not quite on a par with Straight Outta Compton, this is an engaging and historically important CD that's well worth acquiring.
Words: Alex Henderson
N.W.A's career isn't necessarily one that lends itself well to anthologies. Though the group had important singles, especially in the underground Hip Hop community in the late '80s, it never received any support from radio or MTV, which meant it never had any official "hits." Instead, N.W.A's albums were more important, popular, and influential than singles, even if individual tracks - "Fuck tha Police," "Straight Outta Compton," "Gangsta Gangsta," "Express Yourself" - became the focus of attention. And, if you notice, all those songs were from Straight Outta Compton, the only good album the group ever made. Greatest Hits does include all of the high points from that album (the title track is present in a previously unavailable remix), plus a scattershot sampling of raw early singles and the highlights from 100 Miles and Runnin' and Niggaz4Life.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine