One of the most influential and controversial groups in the history of Hip Hop, N.W.A. were almost solely responsible for elevating Gangsta rap from a street phenomenon in South Central Los Angeles to national prominence, through their raw, provocative debut Straight Outta Compton, which sold 3 million copies in the year after its 1988 release.
N.W.A. (short for “Niggaz Wit Attitude”) began taking shape in early 1986, when Eric “Eazy-E” Wright sought out Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, who had performed together in an electro-rap band and produced beats and mixtapes for the KDAY radio station. The trio then recruited Ice Cube from the group C.I.A., along with MC Ren and Arabian Prince. Eazy-E tapped into the small fortune he’d made as a drug dealer to fund the launch of Ruthless Records, which became the home for N.W.A. and other up-and-coming Hip Hop artists. The early single “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” written by Ice Cube and performed by Eazy, was an underground hit, and laid the groundwork for the menacing, nihilistic and often grimly humorous worldview that would fuel Straight Outta Compton.
Described as “disturbingly explosive” by the L.A. Times, the album was an instant classic, almost precisely because it offended so many critics and parents’ groups. Laced with profanity and over-the-top portrayals of gun violence, murder and misogyny, Straight Outta Compton offered chilling glimpses of a lawless urban nightmare. Radio and MTV wouldn’t touch it, but Hip Hop fans were drawn to what they perceived as N.W.A.’s raw hedonism and stark authenticity.
Several key elements drove the album’s sales. Between Eazy-E’s high-pitched rasp, Ice Cube’s smoldering anger and MC Ren’s rapid-fire delivery, N.W.A. surged with a dynamism that rivaled Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav. The effect was boosted by the funky, bass-heavy production of Dr. Dre and DJ Yella’s samples and turntable scratches.
But the biggest factor was the controversy around the song “Fuck Tha Police,” which generated massive publicity after the FBI sent a letter accusing N.W.A.’s distributor with promoting violence against police officers. It became front-page news, and everyone – including many white teens not accustomed to buying Hip Hop records — wanted the album the FBI wanted banned.
Straight Outta Compton quickly went platinum, but by the end of 1989, N.W.A. was nearly finished. First, Ice Cube departed; Dr. Dre hung on for N.W.A.’s next album Niggaz4Life, which topped the Billboard 200 chart, but soon left to co-found Death Row Records. Both Dre and Cube have built lucrative careers — Cube as a solo artist, screenwriter and actor and Dre as a producer. Eazy-E, who released his solo debut Eazy-Duz-It, only a month after Straight Outta Compton and continued to record for Ruthless, died in 1995 from complications related to AIDS.