In 1988, with the double-platinum album Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A brought gangsta rap into the mainstream. The record was among the first to offer an insider's perspective of the violence and brutality of gang-ridden South Central L.A. With songs like "Fuck tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta" set in a chaotic swirl of siren and gunshot sounds, it also foreshadowed the 1992 L.A. riots.
In 1986, O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson, born and raised in a two-parent, middle-class home in South Central—and always more interested in music and books than in gangs—met Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, who shared Cube's passion for writing rap songs. The two started writing for Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, a former drug dealer who started Ruthless Records with his profits. Eazy needed material for a group he'd signed to the label, HBO. When HBO rejected Cube and Dre's song "Boyz-n-the-Hood," about the South Central town of Compton, Eazy-E decided to record the song himself and the three started working together as Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A).
After N.W.A's first collection, N.W.A. and the Posse, Cube took a year off to study drafting at the Phoenix Institute of Technology. When he returned in 1988, the group—now with MC Ren and DJ Yella on board—finished Eazy's solo album and started work on Straight Outta Compton. Released in 1989, the album sold 750,000 copies even before N.W.A embarked on a tour. In the meantime, a media storm developed over the controversial "Fuck tha Police," resulting in a "warning letter" from the FBI to the group's distributor, Priority Records.
After a tour, Cube got into a financial dispute with N.W.A's manager, Jerry Heller, who Cube claimed had cheated him out of royalties. The two settled out of court in 1990, and Cube moved on to a successful solo career. N.W.A continued recording and selling records but fell out of critical favor. In June 1991, the group made history again when, despite strong criticism from politicians and being banned from some retail chains, EFIL4ZAGGIN("Niggaz 4 Life" backward) reached Number One two weeks after its release.
Members of N.W.A made the police blotter often during the early 1990s, mainly for assault charges that ended up being dismissed or settled. Dr. Dre was involved in the most notorious case when he was charged with attacking the female host of a television rap show in 1991. He pleaded no contest and paid an out-of-court settlement to the host. In 1992, Dre was arrested for assaulting record producer Damon Thomas and later plead guilty to assault on a police officer, eventually serving "house arrest" and wearing a police-monitoring ankle bracelet. Eazy-E also raised eyebrows in the rap community when he attended a fund-raising lunch for President George Bush, donating $2,500 for the privilege.
By early 1992 N.W.A was over, its members scattered to solo careers. Dre left both the group and Ruthless to co-found Death Row Records with Marion "Suge" Knight. Eazy-E later claimed in a lawsuit that Knight had negotiated Dre's exit with the help of baseball bats and pipes. MC Ren's Kizz My Black Azz EP (Number 12, 1992) went platinum. But aside from Ice Cube, Dr. Dre has had the most chart success: In 1993 The Chronic (Number Three) went triple platinum, appeared on a number of critics' year-end top-10 lists, and spawned several hits. "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" (Number Two pop, Number One R&B) and "Dre Day" (Number Eight pop, Number Six R&B) featured the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, who later in the year had his own hit album (produced by Dre), DoggyStyle (Number One pop, Number One R&B). As a sign of lingering bad feelings, Dre also used his solo album and accompanying videos to ridicule Eazy. In October 1993 Eazy responded with It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa (Number Five pop, Number One R&B). Eazy also found success with Ruthless nurturing the trio Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, with whom Eazy recorded the single "Foe tha Love of $" (Number 41 pop, Number 33 R&B, 1995).
Two years later, Eazy-E split with longtime manager Jerry Heller. Communication among the former N.W.A members quickly improved. Soon Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the others were talking about an N.W.A reunion project. Though he had been the first to leave the group for a very successful solo career, Ice Cube later expressed regret that N.W.A had never built on its early potential. Then, in 1995, Eazy-E died from complications of AIDS. Both Dre and Cube visited him in the hospital shortly before he died. The Ruthless impresario was married two days before his death, and his estate quickly became mired in a barrage of lawsuits filed on behalf of business associates and heirs (which included nine children by seven different women). A final solo album, Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton (Number Three pop, Number One R&B), was released in 1996.
At Death Row, Dre enjoyed continued popular success, both as house producer and as a performer in a duet with Tupac Shakur on "California Love" (Number Six pop, 1996). But Dre unexpectedly left Death Row that same year and soon formed Aftermath Entertainment (in association with Interscope). By now an outspoken critic of the highly publicized West Coast–East Coast hip-hop feud, Dre's first post-Death Row single was "Been There, Done That." Dre also discovered a white Detroit rapper named Eminem, whose Dre-produced albums made him as controversial as N.W.A had been a decade before. As Dre prepared to release his followup to The Chronic, he filed suit against Death Row for copyright infringement over the label's unauthorized release of Suge Knight Presents: Chronic 2000, a compilation album that Dre felt unfairly "used" his "Chronic" title. (He later dropped the suit.) Dre's own 2001 (Number Two pop, Number One R&B, 1999) featured such guests as MC Ren, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem.
The long-rumored N.W.A reunion finally began to take shape that same year. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren recorded "Hell Low," the opening track on Cube's War & Peace vol. 2 (The Peace Disc), and a new track credited to N.W.A also appeared on the soundtrack to Cube's film Next Friday. That was followed by a national arena tour in 2000 with Dre, Ren, Snoop Dogg, Warren G., and Eminem. Separately and in joint interviews, the former N.W.A partners talked up a proposed album called Not These Niggas Again, but by 2001 any further studio recordings were not, in Dre's opinion, strong enough to release.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.