Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s 2015 biopic provided a very entertaining and nostalgic look at the rise of notorious L.A. rappers, N.W.A., without getting too deeply into the myriad controversies surrounding the group and also turning a tidy profit at the box office. But after reading Gerrick D. Kennedy’s masterwork, Parental Discretion Is Advised: The Rise of N.W.A. and the Dawn of Gangsta Rap (Atria, 2017), I’ll definitely opt for the book, which lays out the story of the rap’s most dangerous group in brilliant detail while offering precious context. Kennedy, an award-winning L.A. Times journalist, not only demonstrates a true command of his subject matter, but writes with the enthusiasm of an insider, making this book a real page-turner.
I thought I knew N.W.A., but Kennedy sheds new light on the group. I was aware, for instance, that N.W.A.’s debut Straight Outta Compton sold three million records with hardly any radio play. I had no idea, however, that, as Kennedy says, “At its peak, Eazy’s Ruthless Records—a label he started strictly as a means to get off the streets—was the number-one independent label in the industry and the largest black-owned indie since Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown empire. Without Eazy laying down the foundation for hustlers-turned-record executives, who knows if Death Row, Bad Boy, No Limit or Cash Money could have existed? How would Jay-Z ever have known he could go from slinging crack cocaine to creating Rock-A-Fella had Eazy not done it less than a decade before.” Eazy, who started off as an investor and had absolutely no desire to rhyme, was forced into the vocal booth by Dr. Dre when H.B.O., a group from Brooklyn, refused to perform the Ice Cube-penned “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” thus launching the diminutive one’s career on the mic. That story, like much of the book, helps put things in perspective because he sounds like he’s reciting lyrics instead of rapping them.
The book goes into great detail about each member of the group and how they fit into the mix—including Dre’s masterful production work and Cube’s writing—but the most interesting revelations come with the introduction of the notorious Suge Knight and his exploits. Dangling Vanilla Ice off a hotel roof from his ankles or approaching Eazy with baseball bats and strong-arming him into releasing Dre from his contract with Ruthless are part of music industry lore that get the proper journalistic treatment here. In fact, back-stabbing, exploitation, and straight thuggery seem to be par for the course among rappers who referred to themselves as the world’s most dangerous group. While reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking about if N.W.A. came out today. The gratuitous violence, misogyny, and homophobia displayed on their albums obviously would not have cut the mustard in today’s woke environment.
But regardless, N.W.A. was a product of the times and their environment, and their impact and influence remain indisputable. As Cube says, “’Fuck tha Police’ did change the world. If you think about how the police were getting away with murder before ‘Fuck tha Police’ and then you see how much scrutiny they get after you say, ‘Okay this song changed [something].” Touché, Cube.