It was N.W.A's incendiary words a decade ago that made the Southern California group the most controversial and influential ever in rap. They even drew the fire of an FBI official who said that some lyrics in N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" album encouraged violence against law enforcement officers.
The language in that album--which defined the entire gangsta rap movement in America--was startling. Though other artists had laid the foundation for N.W.A's tales of inner-city frustrations, no one had ever written with such force.
For many listeners at the time, it was hard to believe that anyone was putting these words on record--not just the expletives, but also the ribald humor and the relentless rage. It was music that would directly influence artists ranging from the late 2Pac to DMX.
But the legacy of the five--Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and Yella--isn't limited to N.W.A's words, or even to its own recordings. Some of its alumni, notably Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, have gone on to give us some of the most acclaimed and successful rap albums, including Dre's 1992 "The Chronic" and Cube's 1990 "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted."
One of the remarkable things about N.W.A's music, which has been compiled in "The N.W.A Legacy Volume 1 (1988-1998)," a two-disc retrospective due March 23 from Priority Records, is its revolutionary musical textures.
It would be difficult to overestimate the contributions that producers Dr. Dre and Yella made to N.W.A's breakthrough album, offering sonic knockout punches on each track of "Straight Outta Compton."
While most of their contemporaries were sampling the festive, funky tracks of artists such as James Brown, N.W.A spurned the comfortable and immersed itself in the gangster formula.
Driving drums, wailing sirens and piercing keyboards created a sinister backdrop that was matched by the anti-authority raps of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Dr. Dre.
Although Public Enemy's earlier sound collages were as abrasive and commanding as any music being produced at the time, N.W.A added an overpowering menace to its nonstop assault that was an obvious influence on the throng of up-and-coming beatsmiths.
"Efil4Zaggin," N.W.A's darkest effort, spawned the most imitators. The 1991 album was full of macabre, eerie, hair-raising backdrops that could easily serve as the soundtrack for a murder. The harrowing beats were intended to match the extreme lyrics, which were more violent and sexually deviant than those on their earlier works.
This in-your-face approach may have been the group's way to compensate for the loss of Ice Cube, who left the group in a dispute over money after the group's first album, on which he wrote most of the words that people embraced or recoiled from.
Cube and N.W.A didn't invent gangsta rap. They built on the foundation laid by such artists as Schoolly D, Just Ice and Ice-T. But while those pioneers enjoyed regional underground success, N.W.A exploded nationally.
Songs such as "F--- tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta" struck a chord with urban youth who were delighted to find a group that expressed their feelings of social outrage so uncompromisingly.
N.W.A created a world on record in which it did everything any rebellious youth ever dreamed of: spitting in the face of authority, roughing up whomever it pleased, enjoying droves of women and cursing up a storm.
After "Straight Outta Compton" became one of hip-hop's most popular albums, record company executives began scouring every urban area for the next gangsta rap phenomenon. Compton's Most Wanted and fellow Comptonite DJ Quik offered their versions of reality rap, Houston's Geto Boys amplified their morbid tales, New York's Kool G Rap and Brand Nubian turned hard-core, and the Bay Area's Spice 1 emerged with albums full of gangsta raps.
Each of these artists, except the New York acts, had confrontational, uncompromising albums that sold more than 500,000 copies each. But the spinoffs hardly stopped there. Eazy-E's Ruthless Records, the home of N.W.A, also released popular, less volatile albums by the D.O.C., Above the Law, MC Ren and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
When Ice Cube left the group, he unleashed his own varied stable of artists, most notably the politically charged Da Lench Mob, hard-core female rapper Yo-Yo, psychedelic Del, militant Kam and gangster Mack 10.
Then there's Dr. Dre, whose departure after N.W.A's "Efil4Zaggin" crippled Ruthless and resulted in the creation of Death Row Records. Home to Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and eventually 2Pac, the label recaptured the notoriety Dre enjoyed during his N.W.A days when his "The Chronic" and Snoop's "Doggystyle" albums sold more than 4 million each.
N.W.A also generated rap's first successful artist-businessman, Eazy-E. The success of his Ruthless Records inspired many rappers--including Master P--to take the do-it-yourself route. Today, artists such as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jay-Z and Jermaine Dupri own and operate their own successful imprints, a testament to Eazy-E's legacy.
With all this history, you'd think the Priority retrospective would be another in the string of rap albums to debut in the national Top 10.
But the odds are against it.
Unlike mainstream pop fans, rap fans tend not to look back. Where veteran rock groups continue to sell millions of albums a year, rap retrospectives have done so poorly that companies don't even bother putting new ones on the market. With the rap audience, it's strictly a matter of "What's new?"
For anyone interested in exploring gangsta rap's past, however, "The N.W.A Legacy Volume 1 (1988-1998)" is an essential starting place.