N.W.A. Cops an Attitude

L.A. rappers portray the violence of ghetto life

MC Ren and Eazy-E. of N.W.A.
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
June 29, 1989

N.W.A. stands for Niggers With Attitude, and attitude is just what you get from the five young Los Angeles rappers who have rapidly become one of the biggest and most controversial phenomenons in music. The group's debut album, Straight Outta Compton, is a harsh hip-hop documentary of L.A. ghetto life that includes gangbangs, drive-by shootings and police sweeps.

"Peace is a fictional word to me," says Ice Cube, né Oséa Jackson, the twenty-year-old writer behind much of N.W.A.'s lyrics. "We deal with reality. Violence is reality. When you say something like that, it scares people. You're supposed to picture life as a bowl of cherries, but it's not. So we don't do nothin' fake."

That statement of purpose actually reads tougher than it sounds coming from Cube's mouth. In conversation, he's a fairly soft-spoken, thoughtful young man. Sitting with fellow group member M.C. Ren (Lorenzo Patterson) in his bedroom at his parents' very suburban-looking home in the notorious south-central part of L.A., he hardly seems a threat to civilization.

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Yet that's how many seem to feel about N.W.A. – whose other members are Eazy-E (Eric Wright) and producers Dr. Dre (Andre Young) and Yella (Antoine Carraby) – judging by reactions to the group's brutal raps. MTV refused to air the video for Straight Outta Compton's title track, claiming the clip – a re-creation of a police gang sweep of black teens – "glorified violence." The video has also angered Los Angeles-area police and antigang activists.

If N.W.A. can't get respect from the authorities, it hasn't had any problem getting it from the record buyers. Straight Outta Compton sold 400,000 copies before getting any sort of airplay and is now poised at the 1 million mark, while Eazy Duz It, the solo debut by group member Eazy-E, has passed platinum.

But being role models is the last thing N.W.A. wants. "We don't go around telling people, 'Don't do drugs,' or preaching safe sex," says Ren, " 'cause everybody's gonna do what they want regardless."

Still, Eazy-E could easily qualify as a triumphant example of American enterprise. Besides being a member of N.W.A. and a solo artist, he is the money man behind those acts; he says he started his production company, Ruthless, with money gained illegally on the streets. "I don't want kids looking up to me and saying, 'I want to shoot people or deal dope,'" he says. "But you can look at it the other way, that I got out of it and started my record company. That's positive."

Positive or not, it's still irrelevant to the N.W.A. goal.

"We told the truth on this record, so now we're gonna teach the truth," Ice Cube says. "Now we got a bigger audience that buys our records and likes us but don't really understand. We're gonna show them the raw reality of life. When they come out the other end, they gonna say, 'Damn, it's like that? For real?' And we're gonna make money. Those are the goals."

This story is from the June 29th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

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