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His 'Innovative Life'

Original N.W.A member Arabian Prince's '80s work is the focus of a new anthology release.

August 22, 2008|Jeff Weiss | Special to The Times

More than two decades after he helped define Los Angeles' early electro-rap sound, Arabian Prince holds court inside Sawtelle's vinyl-jammed Turntable Lab. He's still filled with the restless creative spirit that drove him when he was an original member of N.W.A and that is captured on the newly released "Innovative Life: The Anthology -- 1984-1989."

"The title had to be 'Innovative Life' because that song expressed everything about me. I always try to create and forge new paths," Arabian Prince, 43, says.

Despite a catalog studded with hit 12-inch singles, no one had ever compiled Arabian Prince's work in a single volume. But Peanut Butter Wolf, owner and founder of local hip-hop label Stones Throw, which released the collection, is optimistic the anthology will introduce a new generation to an underrated artist and educate listeners about the ways in which he influenced hip-hop.

Everyone knows the 1988 Arabian Prince-produced J.J. Fad single "Supersonic," "but nobody realized that prior to 'Supersonic,' he'd made a whole album's worth of material that had that same vibe, only with his rhyming on it," Wolf says. "Thankfully, now I can spread the word to a bigger audience."

Of course, Arabian Prince's relative anonymity stems from his own volition as much as from the triumph of the gangsta rap sound over its techno-influenced forebears. A self-professed tech nerd, he boasts about taking one of the first laptops created, a Radio Shack Tandy model, on N.W.A's first tour, and in the '90s he ditched the music business for his own special-effects and 3-D animation company, Hypnotx FX.

Born K.R. Nazel, Arabian Prince grew up in Inglewood, where he got swept up in the then-nascent hip-hop scene. Hypnotized by anything on the Sugar Hill label, he began peddling mix tapes at school. The tapes led to DJ gigs, which he parlayed into his weekly club, the Cave, in Lennox.

The Cave epitomized the come-as-you-are attitude of the Los Angeles hip-hop scene.

"It was such a mix of different people . . . ," Prince says. "We drew influences from the Hispanic community, the black community and the white community. . . . You had to play something for everyone."

He began doing gigs with the Egyptian Lover, another DJ gaining currency on the scene. He also hooked up with Russ Parr, one of the most successful DJs on KDAY, which at the time was the only station in the country devoted exclusively to hip-hop. Under the alias Bobby Jimmy and the Critters, Prince and Parr managed to sell 50,000 copies of their first release, a parody called "We Like Ugly Women."

From there, Arabian Prince began to establish a solo career with the Middle Eastern-flavored tune "Strange Life." As West Coast hip-hop started its meteoric rise, his star followed. But an epiphany on a car ride with then World Class Wrecking Crew member Dr. Dre sparked a desire for change.

"We were driving in Dre's old RX7 with no back window to see J.J. Fad before they became J.J. Fad," he says, laughing. "They lived out in Rialto, and the entire way there we were listening to the radio and hearing our songs. We looked at each other and were like, how is it that our songs are getting played on the radio and we ain't got any money?"

A subsequent encounter with a flush Eazy-E paved the way for both Dre and Arabian Prince to join up with him to form N.W.A, with the idea that their already name-brand stars would help pave the way for the largely unknown rest of the group.

"Arabian had a name for himself," Egyptian Lover says. "The thinking was that he and Dre could make some good records and in the process help get N.W.A's foot in the door. No one called it 'electro hip-hop' back then, it was just 'hip-hop.' "

The group's first single featured the Prince-produced "Panic Zone" on its A side, along with other tunes such as "Dopeman" and "8-Ball." But by the time N.W.A prepared to record “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988, Arabian Prince was on the outs with his bandmates and manager Jerry Heller.

"I'd ask when we were going to get paid, and they'd tell me to talk to Jerry," Arabian Prince says. "He'd give us $500 or $1,000 there, but we never got royalties, nor any statements or checks. People still ask me, 'What about the fame?' But I was never about that. Besides, all the fame in the world doesn't matter if you can't get paid."

Arabian Prince recorded more solo albums before deciding to pursue a new career, although he continues to record and do DJ remixes. He's finishing an album under his Professor X alias and has plans for another Arabian Prince record. He takes great satisfaction in the current generation's incorporation of old-school electro-funk sound in its work.

"Flo Rida and will.i.am. use the old-school electro-funk. Will even turned 'Stetasonic' into 'Fergalicious.' Even Akon's new stuff is all up-tempo. It seems like the music has really come full circle."

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