As the supercharged — and super timely — biopic hits multiplexes, the four living members of N.W.A recount their wild ride from "dirt nothing" to the "world's most dangerous group" in an interview by their most celebrated fan.
When Kendrick Lamar arrives this Friday evening at a cavernous photo studio in the flatlands of industrial Hollywood, he's 30 minutes early. And the occasion has been nearly 25 years in the making: Lamar, 28, is here to interview the four living members of N.W.A for their first magazine cover together since Ice Cube went solo in 1991 and the group collapsed into a famously bitter feud. Eazy-E died in 1995, at 31. But today, Lamar meets with four men who defined his hometown of Compton, Calif., as a cradle of politically engaged, uncompromisingly hardcore hip-hop. With a modest demeanor that suggests nothing of his status as rap's leading visionary and an entourage numbering just two associates and a publicist, he seems genuinely humbled to be here. When the group arrives, he is quick to pay his respects: first to Dr. Dre, then Ice Cube, then DJ Yella and MC Ren. They all share warm smiles and hugs.
"Ain't nobody we'd rather have do this interview," says Cube, 46.
"Have you seen the movie?" asks Dre, 50.
"Not yet," answers Lamar. "Didn't want to go to a preview and see it in a privileged setting. Would rather wait for it to come to the neighborhood and see it with everyone else. That way it'll mean the most to me."
The movie is Straight Outta Compton, which on Aug. 14 emerges from 13 years in development purgatory. Universal ultimately greenlighted the project with a budget of $29 million; a screenwriter, Jonathan Herman; and a director, F. Gary Gray, all orchestrated with close oversight by Cube and Dre. (Cube is played by his son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., 24.) The result is a hard-hitting narrative replete with the conviction and turmoil that typified N.W.A in its heyday.
That heyday kicked off in 1988 — the same year Lamar turned 1 — with the release of the movie's namesake album. No one had yet seen how Los Angeles could contribute to the simmering rap culture. And Compton, a gang stronghold just south of Watts, held no place in the American imagination.
N.W.A — N—az With Attitude — formed two years earlier, when rapper O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson and DJ-producer Andre "Dr. Dre" Young began working with Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, who had used his drug-dealing profits to launch a label. DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby) and MC Ren (Lorenzo Jerald Patterson) cemented the final lineup. Their debut release is certified double-platinum by the RIAA; "F— Tha Police" has sold nearly 350,000 downloads since Nielsen Music began digital tracking in 2003. N.W.A communicated the desperation of the black underclass — and ignited controversy virtually unrivaled in the history of pop, drawing in the FBI and Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center.
"N.W.A did a lot more than entertain. They told the truth," says Lamar. And as Dre explains, "If N.W.A had done it softer, it wouldn't have gotten the attention. It wouldn't have worked." Cube tells Billboard that he believes police brutality remains "the same" today as it did in the late '80s and early '90s. (The Los Angeles riots are an important motif in the movie's second half.) "They talk about bullying in society, but police are the worst bullies that we have to deal with," he says. Asked about Sam DuBose, who was fatally shot July 19 by a University of Cincinnati officer now charged with murder, Cube says, "This kind of stuff seems like it don't happen to white guys."
By the end of 1989, Cube had split from N.W.A over Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller's hoarding of the group's earnings, setting off a conflict that climaxed with his famously obscene 1991 diss track "No Vaseline." That year he also launched his acting career with Boyz N the Hood; today he's a leading Hollywood star (22 Jump Street) and producer (Friday, Ride Along, in which he also starred). N.W.A fully dissolved when Dre left to start Death Row Records with Suge Knight, and sold, according to Nielsen Music, 5.7 million copies of his 1992 G-funk classic The Chronic. Now, of course, he's one of music's richest moguls, after selling Beats, the headphone and streaming company he co-founded, to Apple in 2014. (On Aug. 7, he released Compton — an album inspired by the new movie, featuring guests including Cube, Lamar and many others.) Yella, 47, is making beats again after 12 years as a porn producer, and Ren, 46, has continued as a solo act (Cube joined him on a track in 2014). The five former members were on the verge of reconciliation when Eazy-E died of AIDS.
In 2011, Dre designated Lamar "the new king of the West Coast." The rapper infuses the politics of N.W.A with an analysis of his own emotional conflicts as a black artist seeking to maintain sanity in 21st century America. It's appropriate that the main figure pushing hip-hop forward today would be present to see the members of N.W.A reunited and talking, as Dre says, "like we just saw each other yesterday." Tucked into the conference room with Dre, Cube, Ren and Yella, Lamar speaks so softly that the men must lean in to hear him. The conversation ranges from early days in the studio with Eazy-E, the eternal "bullshit" of the music business and how N.W.A made South Park (and much more) possible. — David Ritz
From left: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, MC Ren and DJ Yella photographed July 15 by Eric Ray Davidson at Milk Studios in Los Angeles.
I'm tripping right now. Man, I'm bugging. So bear with me ... When did you first know you were more than local stars?
Dr. Dre When I saw Axl Rose wearing an N.W.A cap in one of his videos!
How did N.W.A change the history of music?
Ice Cube We not only changed music, we changed pop culture all over the world. We did that by making it all right for artists to be themselves. You no longer had to be squeaky clean. We opened the floodgates for artists who wanted to work on this side, artists who wanted to be raw.
Dr. Dre And not worry about being on the radio.
Ice Cube Right. There were no other examples of artists not doing it the square way. We became examples for not only musicians, but for shows like South Park, even the reality shows where they're bleeping out words. We started that on the radio — bleeping out words — but the rawness wasn't in the world until N.W.A said it was OK for you to be yourself. There's the world before N.W.A, and the world after.
The cover of Lamar’s 2012 debut, Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City, shows him as a child in Compton with two of his uncles (left) and his grandfather.
How do you think your music changed the way the world viewed our culture and our community?
Ice Cube Unless you come from Compton, it's not a world you're privy to. Our music let you visit Compton from a safe distance.
Dr. Dre We gave the suburban kids an opportunity to get up close.
Ice Cube Now you care. You heard what's going on in the hood, and you're interested. Now Compton means something to you. Now you pay attention. We were able to shed light on some of the bullshit that was going down. We presented it in a way that you could digest, comprehend and sympathize with what we were going through.
Dr. Dre If we had done it softer, it wouldn't have gotten the attention. It wouldn't have worked.
DJ Yella The truth is that there wasn't much competition. There was the East and the West, but there was really no West before us. We came in so different, so real, that we were immediately heard.
Back then, what was your relationship with A&R guys?
Ice Cube We didn't have no A&R guys.
MC Ren It was like, "How many times can we say 'n—a'?"
Dr. Dre We'd say, "We need more 'f—s' on this record."
Did you have any doubts that you would be accepted?
MC Ren I don't think we really cared.
Dr. Dre We had no idea we'd blow up this major. You see, every time we went into the studio we were only trying to make tracks that would rock our neighborhood. Our goal was to be local stars.
Ice Cube We didn't think the world cared about gang-banging and dope-dealing in L.A., Compton, South Central, Long Beach and Watts. The hub of hip-hop was the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. We were on the fringes. And that was OK with us.
Dr. Dre Imagine this: We made Straight Outta Compton in six weeks, and that's without working weekends. Twenty-five years later, and here's a big-ass Hollywood movie carrying the same name. It's unbelievable.
From left: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella photographed July 15 by Eric Ray Davidson at Milk Studios in Los Angeles.
What was the hardest part when you were young and first coming to grips with the game?
DJ Yella Publishing! We didn't know anything about publishing. The first go-around we didn't make a nickel.
Dr. Dre We were just a bunch of creative guys who got together and did something amazing but were clueless about business.
Ice Cube Business is the most f—ed-up part. It's always awkward. It's fun to make records, fun to be in the studio with your homies, fun to get up onstage. But the business part sucks. It's always some shit you ready to get rid of so you can go back to being creative.
Dr. Dre It's all about getting back in that studio.
The studio is like a drug. It's hard for some people around me to understand that the music is all I think about. It's like I'm possessed.
Dr. Dre You can't explain that feeling. It's an obsession. But it's what makes you real.
As one of your offspring, anything I do comes from what y'all have done before me. I'm curious to know how you feel about my generation of artists.
MC Ren I like a few. I like you.
Dr. Dre You're No. 1 on my list because of the care and attention you bring to your tracks and the precision you bring to your sound. There are a few people out there I listen to and respect.
MC Ren Pusha T.
Dr. Dre Definitely Pusha T.
MC Ren I'm not saying this because you're here, Kendrick, but I like your song "Cut You Off." I've been listening to you for a minute.
“Once we started understanding the business, we began to understand how much bullshit goes with it,” says Dr. Dre.
Thank you. Now I'm wondering, is there anything my generation should build on and bring back to the game?
Ice Cube That's tricky, man. An artist has to do it like he feels it — not because he should, or someone else says he should. Hip-hop got too focused on results and record sales. Sales have nothing to do with the art you create in the studio.
Dr. Dre When we started out, it wasn't for money. It was for the love of music. You treat her right, and she'll treat you right. If your only aim is money, your time will be limited.
DJ Yella We just went in there and did what we wanted.
Y'all have gone through so many eras and stages of success. How have you managed to keep your sanity?
Dr. Dre The love of the music. It's all about my passion for this hip-hop thing. Can't let anything get in the way of that. It's my first love.
Ice Cube When I was young, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't let the game change me. From the clubhouse to the courtroom, I was going to be myself no matter what. Let the chips fall where they may.
Dr. Dre It was an unspoken thing for all of us. We were going to stay centered in ourselves.
MC Ren I've tried to put God first. Don't take everything so seriously. Let everything fall wherever it's going to fall.
DJ Yella I just stayed the same. Me and Dre go back so far — a long 30 years — even before N.W.A. The way we talk to each other now is the same way we talked when we first met. No big heads, no ego stuff.
“‘F— Tha Police’ was an anthem for people to be able to fight back, to have a song they can all rally around,” says Ice Cube.
How do you balance your professional lifestyle with your family?
MC Ren I keep the two separate. There are too many fakes in the game, and I try to keep my family away from that. Coming up, we all went through it — all the shady characters.
Ice Cube Family time is family time, and work is work. As my kids got older, they wanted to be part of the business, and I helped create an avenue. My son, O'Shea Jr., is into acting. He plays me in the film. My other son is into producing. It all comes down to their talent and hunger.
Dr. Dre I protect my family and keep them away from the bullshit, but at the same time they're supportive of what I do. They understand how much I love this music, and they push and inspire me.
Eazy-E. What was that relationship like?
MC Ren Cool. Just a cool brother.
DJ Yella Ahead of his time.
Ice Cube Straight visionary.
Dr. Dre He took that street knowledge and brought it over to this thing. Super-smart cat.
MC Ren In the early interviews, Eazy was calling us an all-star group, and this before anyone even knew us. But he knew before we knew.
Ice Cube Eazy's thing was, "I want the music hard, hard, hard." He wanted the rough hardcore shit that couldn't be comprised.
What was the energy like in the studio?
Dr. Dre The energy was crazy. Free. Fun. Eazy's paying for it, and we're just sitting there creating.
Ice Cube With every character in the neighborhood dropping by. That was the fun part.
You ever bump heads creatively?
Dr. Dre All the time. Argued night and day. But always out of mutual respect. Always out of a desire to get the best. And always settled with a cool compromise.
Boiling it all down, what do you see as N.W.A's legacy?
Ice Cube World's most dangerous group — a group that made it all right for artists to be totally themselves.
Dr. Dre A legacy of inspiration, because we came from nothing.
DJ Yella Dirt nothing.
Ice Cube A legacy that says that although we were living in a destructive neighborhood, we were able to do something constructive.
Seems as if today y'all have the same bond you had when you started out.
Ice Cube We have a bond that you can't buy or manufacture. We look at each other and know what we went through to get here. The obstacles. The censors. C. Delores Tucker. Tipper Gore. The FBI. Man, we were tangling with some of the biggest power entities out there. And still we didn't crack.
MC Ren We only got stronger. Now our hope is that this movie makes some young people go out and do what we did — something new, something fresh.
Dr. Dre The inspiration we excite in others isn't just about music. It's about all of life. Keep pushing. Keep cracking. Stay strong.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.