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The Rap Reality: Truth and Money : Compton's N.W.A. catches fire with stark portraits of ghetto life

April 02, 1989|DENNIS HUNT

Eazy-E was rapping about reality the other day, extolling the virtues of telling it like it is.

The young Compton rapper, who also runs the rap production company Ruthless Records, was lunching with his pal, writer/rapper M.C. Ren, at a Westside deli that's one of their favorite dining spots.

"Why do you think the fans like us--why they prefer our street raps over all that phony stuff out there?" asked Eazy-E, who has a hit album, "Eazy Duz It." He's also a member of the group N.W.A, whose "Straight Outta Compton" is one of the hottest rap albums around.

He answered his own question: "Because we're telling the real story of what it's like living in places like Compton. We're giving them reality. We're like reporters. We give them the truth. People where we come from hear so many lies that the truth stands out like a sore thumb."

Eazy-E, an admitted ex-dope dealer whose real name is Eric Wright, is small, surprisingly shy and rather mellow. He certainly doesn't look tough. Neither does fellow N.W.A member M.C. Ren (Lorenzo Patterson), who's bigger and more talkative. (The other members of N.W.A are Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Yella.)

Continued Eazy-E: "If you're from the streets, one of the fellas from the hood (neighborhood), and you hear us, you say, 'Yo, that's real.' "

"Listen to him," said M.C. Ren, who clearly idolizes Eazy-E. "Everybody else does. He's real, man, he's real."

Reality is in right now in West Coast rap, with Eazy-E, N.W.A and Ice-T leading the way. That means a stark, no-nonsense portrait of ghetto life, where gangs and dope pushers rule. (Critics are sharply divided over N.W.A.'s album. See Popmeter, Page 82.)

"What Jazzy Jeff and rappers like him talk about is phony stuff," charged M.C. Ren, referring to the maker of the cutesy "Parents Just Don't Understand."

"They're not into street raps, into telling what's really happening out there. They're talking about what the white world and the white kids can identity with. If you're a black kid from the streets and somebody is rapping about parents not understanding, you'd laugh at that. You might not have parents or you'd have parents that were into crack or prostitution."

Against the odds, both albums have become hits: "Eazy-Duz-It" has sold nearly 650,000, and N.W.A's "Compton" is nearing sales of 500,000.

The rappers have received exposure mainly in clubs and sold records largely by word-of-mouth. Now, though, they're going for the mainstream pop market by releasing versions of the albums in which the language is cleaned up.

Isn't this marketing strategy a compromise of their "reality" doctrine?

"It's just business," Eazy-E explained. "We want to sell more records. You can't put records in places like K mart and Target if they have explicit lyrics.

"Also, a lot of little kids like our music but their parents won't let them have records with the cussing on it. And with all the cussing, the records won't get played on the radio. So we have a clean version for that. Cussing ain't for everybody. They want clean versions, so that's what we'll give them."

Eazy-E says that criminal activities such as dope dealing, car theft, burglary bankrolled his entry into the record business.

"It was getting too dangerous," he said. "I decided to look for something legal to do with the money I'd made."

In late 1986 he started Ruthless Records, a production company that signs artists and releases their records through various labels. His solo efforts and N.W.A's records are put out by Priority Records, while Ruthless's other prize act, female rap trio JJ Fad, is with Atco Records. Ruthless's other artists are Bobby Jimmy & the Critters, who are with Priority, and Michele Le, on Atco.

Eazy-E was turned on to rap by hanging out at a Compton club with his rapper buddies. Originally, he planned to be strictly a background figure.

"I wanted to help out rap groups and get in on the business part of the rap scene," he said. "But a couple of the acts we wanted backed out, so I decided to try rapping myself--even though I had never done it."

But love of rapping isn't the primary reason he's in this business.

"We're not making records for the fun of it; we're in it to make money," Eazy-E said.

Both the Eazy-E and N.W.A albums feature some hard-core swearing.

In defense of their seamy street language, Eazy-E said: "If you want to get your point across, you gotta cuss."

X-rated street raps, M.C. Ren added, are very macho. "When you're riding around with the fellas, you want to listen to something real masculine, like 'Boyz-in-the-Hood.' How would it look riding around and listening to something wimpy like 'I Need Love' or that phony stuff Jazzy Jeff does? Street raps have to be masculine."

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