Damn, N.W.A's f--kin' up the program
And then you realize we don't care
We don't just say no
We're too busy sayin' yeah
~ "Gangsta, Gangsta" by N.W.A
It was just one day after Niggaz4Life was released in the United Kingdom when the royal axe dropped on N.W.A in 1991. Police from New Scotland Yard, a unit dubbed the Obscene Publications Squad, charged into Island Records' warehouse in London and confiscated nearly 25,000 copies of the album under the Obscene Publications Act. Unfortunately for the police, that one day made all the difference to 16,000 lucky fans who were already merrily on their way to being sullied by the rap group's latest bloody chapter of gangsta life. The UK was charging the Polygram-owned company's president Marc Marot with distributing potentially thought-corrupting material to the public, but they were willing to give him an out. They would drop the charges if Island Records would willingly withdraw the album. He refused and opted to defend N.W.A's right to free speech in court.
N.W.A, or Niggaz Wit Attitude, were certainly not the first rap group to spit out vicious lyrics about drugs, murder and rape, but they were far and away the most successful.1 N.W.A - comprised of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella - weren't simply showing the plight of inner-city ghettos in an effort to affect change, but were using their background as a way to boost their hardcore reputations and sell more records.2 Police deserved to be shot. "Bitches" deserved to be raped. Shady thugs deserved to be murdered. Their lyrics didn't say "help us," they said "fear us."
Pete Dougherty, co-producer of their notorious 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton, tried to defend the rappers, only to add more credence to their reputation as sociopaths.
"I think it's a marvelous record," he told the Sunday Correspondent Magazine in 1989, but also added, "NWA aren't saying the violence is terrible. They're saying, 'We're terrible – we kick ass.' If someone looks at you funny, shoot 'em, that's the vibe."
The UK hadn't exactly been a stranger to controversial bands. The Sex Pistols caused a similar stir in the '70s with riotous songs like "God Save The Queen" and "Anarchy in the UK." In fact, the Daily Mail even compared N.W.A to the punk rockers, calling them "The Black Sex Pistols." MC Ren replied: "What the f--k's that? Man, I ain't never heard of them."
No, they were the self-proclaimed "Most Dangerous Group in America" from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the US: Compton, California.
Macola Records was mostly a pressing plant, where acts could turn their tapes into 45s. They also did some promotion, which involved street teams and appealing to radio stations. Eazy-E's Ruthless Records started out as a partnership with Macola.Eric "Eazy-E" Wright didn't make it through his teens before he started dealing drugs in Compton, a volatile south-central LA suburb where you were more likely to get shot than to graduate high school. By the time he amassed what he claimed was a six-figure bankroll, his ambitions expanded beyond the volatile neighborhood to the burgeoning hip-hop scene in Los Angeles. For the awestruck teenagers waiting in the lobby of Macola Records, the aura surrounding the skinny rapper was palpable. Little did they know, they were looking at the future "grandfather of gangsta rap." Eazy used his stash of drug money to start Reckless Records3 and partnered with the famous but down-and-out music manager Jerry Heller, who had backed acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elton John and Pink Floyd a decade earlier before a few bad choices on a few bad bands destroyed his credibility.
In 1987, Eazy recorded "Boyz-N-The-Hood," a street anthem written by the teenaged up-and-comer Ice Cube. The song crossed over from the swap meets in Compton to the record stores in Encino, selling at least 100,000 copies, mostly to white kids.
Along with the club DJ Dr. Dre (ex-World Class Wreckin' Cru), Cube and Eazy formed N.W.A and soon brought DJ Yella and MC Ren into the fold. They released an album later in 1987 called N.W.A and the Posse, but their biggest claim to fame would shortly follow: Straight Outta Compton. It was like a blood-spattered scrapbook of life in the ghetto.
The late-'80s weren't exactly a great time to release a controversial album, depending on your taste for publicity. In 1985, Tipper Gore was shocked to hear the racy lyrics of Prince's "Darling Nikki" - full of references to sex and masturbation - blasting from her young daughter's room. Like any distraught mother, Gore took action in the form of the Parents Music Resource Center. The group compiled their list of the "Filthy Fifteen," the songs that could cause the most damage to young minds with their explicit content: violence, sex, drugs and the occult - basically anything a teen would find halfway interesting. By the time N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton three years later, the group was marketing a new label to help warn parents of potential danger: the Parental Advisory sticker. With a track list boasting titles like "f--k tha Police" and "Dope Man," Straight Outta Compton became one of the first albums to carry the warning label.
Like cigarettes and six-packs, labeling the album as forbidden to teens only made them want it more. The challenge was radio: no mainstream station would play N.W.A. It was hard to clean up a song that, at its tamest, spouted "motherf--ker" so consistently, and no one wanted to try. Even Yo! MTV Raps drew the line at airing the music video for "Straight Outta Compton," which brought viewers into the streets of Compton in the midst of a gang-sweep.
N.W.A stood up to critics who claimed they were glorifying violence with their prideful songs about their AK-47s and promises of retribution. Ice Cube told Melody Maker that same year:
"N.W.A are here to tell you about the ways of the street, we want you to realize the dangers and fully understand the reality of the situation. That's not negative – that's a positive thing. LA isn't all about palm trees and pretty girls in bikinis down there on the beach."
Even their posters were causing controversy over in the UK. It had nothing to do with violent artwork. There weren't any obscene gestures, exposed weapons or body parts or even a single menacing glare. The promotions plastered around Nottingham simply read "N.W.A." The problem was, the locals thought it was an advertisement for the sale of shares in the Nottingham Water Authority, and flooded the local council with phone calls. When it was revealed that N.W.A. stood for "Niggaz Wit Attitude," they were too offended to see the humor in the situation and demanded the posters be removed. These probably weren't the same folks who greeted Straight Outta Compton with fanfare shortly after. The album debuted at #35 on the UK charts.
Back in the US, N.W.A had help from their boys back in Compton who spread word of the album, but their biggest fans weren't thugs and playas, but white teens from upper-crust LA neighborhoods who wanted to live vicariously through the seedy exploits rapped about in the songs. The album managed to earn double-platinum status without radio or TV promotion.
Already nervous that N.W.A's glorification of the violent gangsta lifestyle could encourage a new fleet of delinquents across the country, law enforcement was ready to take matters into their own hands after hearing the lyrics, "and when I'm finished there's gonna be a bloodbath of cops dyin' in LA." The FBI sent Priority (Ruthless Records' parent label) a letter decrying the album, while police refused to provide security for any of N.W.A's shows. When undercover officers did show up in Detroit, it was to storm the stage to prevent them from performing the notorious "f--k tha Police." They were brought back to police headquarters and given a lesson: nobody says "f--k tha Police" in Detroit. MC Ren and Ice Cube vented to Melody Maker:
"The FBI claim that 'f--k tha Police' incites violence and has been responsible for the death of police officers is bullshit. There was violence long before N.W.A came along, the same as there was profanity, and there'll be violence and profanity long after we've gone."
N.W.A. did receive airplay in Australia, where "f--k tha Police" was in regular rotation at the Triple J radio station... for about six months, that is. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation had apparently missed the memo about the controversial group that was banned by the rest of the world. They demanded Triple J ban the song immediately. The enraged staff responded by going on strike, but they had one more record to spin before turning the lights out: N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself." It played for a solid 24 hours. Fans in the UK were about to suffer a similar blow to their freedom of expression.
In spite of the poster snafu, N.W.A was gaining followers in the UK, and the group was looking forward to a tour across the pond. With frontman Ice Cube's messy break from the group, the remaining members vowed to go bigger and bolder with their next album, if that were even possible. Straight Outta Compton had its own share of violence and misogyny, but Niggaz4Life (changed to Efil4zaggin because the very title of the album was offensive) took their brash opinions to another level with each tale of rape and revenge even more sickeningly graphic. Even in their personal lives, violence was amped up to new heights with Dr. Dre assaulting Pump It Up host Dee Barnes at a West Hollywood club and simply shrugging it off with the comment, "Somebody f--ks with me, I'm going to f--k with them."4
But the case against N.W.A represented more than the ban of a few rap songs. David Webb, director of the National Campaign for the Reformation of the Obscene Publications Acts (NCOPRA), took New Scotland Yard to task for trying to silence the group. He wasn't out to prove that N.W.A's lyrics weren't offensive or obscene, but he wanted the condemnation to come from the public and not the state. He wrote:
"As a matter of urgency... we ask you to reconsider your operational priorities and consign any provisions for such fatuous waste of police time to the trash-can. You may well be of the opinion that that is where 'Niggas with Attitude' records should end up. In any 'free society' it is far too dangerous to entrust such a decision to the state. It must be left to the individual."
The police may have been unwavering in the fight to censor N.W.A (perhaps still bristling over the sentiments in "f--k tha Police"), but the British Magistrates proved to be a little less austere and a little more gangsta. They played a cassette of Niggaz4Life during the four-hour hearing on November 4, 1991 and dismissed the charges.
"I am thrilled," Marot told reporters. "We all thought it would be difficult for magistrates to define the difference between what they found offensive and what could be proved to be corrupting." What Marot didn't realize is, he had just won the first and only obscenity case to be brought against an album in the UK.
As for N.W.A, who had already bitterly parted ways over contract negotiations, the case just proved what they'd been saying all along. MC Ren explained:
"All this shit has happened because N.W.A are telling the truth and because we're so popular. That means that the truth hurts that much more."
May 16, 2013
- 1 ] The most popular West-Coast hip-hop acts pre-N.W.A were of the electro variety, with names like Knights of the Turntables and The Electrobeat Crew. Until Eazy-E turned his drug money in to a record company, authentic gangsta rappers lacked the resources to make a national impact. (back)
- 2 ] "We're not making records for the fun of it. We're in it to make money" ~ Eazy-E (back)
- 3 ] Ruthless Records was envisioned as a rap version of Motown, making black music that would be consumed by a white audience. Like Motown, their highest-paid early employee was white, since they needed connections to get their grand plans off the ground. At Ruthless, this was Jerry Heller. At Motown, it was their press agent Al Abrams (back)
- 4 ] "Dre never gangbanged a day in his life," said his World Class Wreckin' Cru mate Lonzo Williams. Perhaps trying to build a rap sheet, Dre attacked Pump It Up host Dee Barnes, who let Ice Cube diss Dre on her show when the rappers were not getting along. The following year, Dre was sentenced to house arrest after an incident in New Orleans; in town for a black radio executives convention, he took part in a brawl in the Sheraton Hotel lobby that involved at least 50 people. He pleaded guilty to battery on a police officer. (back)
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