N.W.A's 1988 album Straight Outta Compton was the Jordan that kicked down all the doors — the idea that hip-hop didn't have to come from New York, the hard truths of "reality rap," the waterfall of profanity, Raiders gear and something that had America so shook that the FBI had to get involved. But before their breakout, California had already planted the seeds. Los Angeles had DJ crews that raised future superstars like Dr. Dre and Ice-T, and unflinching gangsta rap rhymes that spoke truth to power; the Bay Area thumped with cassettes of freaky tales; and both cities birthed electro records that exploded in roller rinks and parking lots across America. To celebrate our cover story on Straight Outta Compton, here's the 20 best West Coast hip-hop songs that led up N.W.A's landmark year.
Eazy-E understood better than anyone. When he formed supergroup N.W.A, he gamed the odds by recruiting Arabian Prince. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were relatively untested rookies, but Arabian Prince had solo hits to his name — most notably, "Strange Life," released on Russ Parr's Rapsur Records. You'll find him in the credits for Bobby Jimmy and Critters novelty jams like "Roaches" and "Big Butt." You can hear his booming 808 claps on J.J. Fad's "Supersonic" too. But it all started with "Strange Life," a perfectly bizarre seven-minute odyssey of psychedelic guitars, odd syncopation and dedications to weirdness that even Rammellzee would've had to respect. It transformed him from another general in Uncle Jamm's Army to the biggest solo star in L.A. rap since his close friend the Egyptian Lover. When N.W.A dropped their first single, Eazy knew they had include Prince's "Panic Zone": This son of a classical pianist and a funk radio employee was a foolproof way to give everyone something 2 dance 2. J.W.
Open your book to page "Freak" and you'll find Uncle Jamm's Army and the Egyptian Lover. They claimed territory from Venice Beach to the Nile River, a fertile crescent of freakery built on the moans of Minneapolis, the vocoder of Roger Troutman and the greasy funk of South Central Los Angeles. The first huge electro-rap hit on L.A. radio, KDAY played "Dial-A-Freak" pretty much every hour on the hour. Until well into 1984, it seemed like it was all anyone dialed on the request line. Before "Dial-A-Freak," the mobile disco party dancers did the gigolo, the tilt and the bump. But afterwards, there was only the freak — to the point where teachers would walk around with anti-freaking signs. You can hear the influence in everyone from Too $hort to 2Pac. J.W.
Even before the MTV-dominating days of Young MC and Tone Loc, the West Coast was capable of producing shamelessly fun party raps. For a time in the mid Eighties, Rudy Pardee (who died in 1998) and Chris "Snake Puppy" Wilson ruled California roller-skate parties with two 12-inch smashes, "Rockberry Jam" and "The Dream Team Is in the House!" If you were a California kid bumping R&B radio, you couldn't escape the latter's Saturday morning cartoon synth arrangement and Lisa Love cooing, "Yes, they're here! The Dream Team is here!" Coupled with the success of "Rockberry Jam," it led to one of the first major label deals for a West Coast rap act and three albums on MCA. M.R.
Cross Afrika Bambaataa with Rudolph Valentino and a pound of Good Fred's activator curl oil, and you get the Egyptian Lover. South Central's Greg Broussard was the first West Coast hip-hop superstar, the heartthrob architect of both electro-rap and Miami bass — and the first to pose in front of a pyramid in a leather jacket and Prince scarf. "Egypt, Egypt," carved from a chunk of Kraftwerk's "Tour De France" and 808 drums that he'd learned how to manipulate from Afrika Islam, was the Rosetta Stone. Barely 20 years old, the breakout force of Uncle Jamm's Army originally conceived his biggest solo hit as "Beast Beats." But after accidental inhalation of angel dust-laced weed led him to hallucinate the devil ("he looked like a cross between Saddam Hussein and "the Kid" in Purple Rain"), Broussard instead divined "Egypt, Egypt." It instantly became C-4 for freaks from Long Beach to Florida — Miami bass pioneer Uncle Luke booked him for a show, watched him play "Egypt, Egypt" and an electric bulb went off. J.W.
In the early 1980s, songwriter/producer Rich Cason already had two decades of work as a musician behind him. When disco morphed into the synthesizer-heavy style of dance music popular on West Coast dance floors and rappers began to jump in the mix, he dove in. One of the biggest of his many electro records for the Rappers Rapp Disco Co. label was "Radio Activity Rapp," a record with M.C. Fosty and Lovin' C (both of Rappers Rapp Group) that interpolated Royalcash's recent electrofunker "Radio Activity." Opening with a shout-out to thugs and gangbangers and riding a funky bassline, it's easy to draw a line of influence from the song's strong low-end and a generation of gangsta rap stars to come. D.D.
After the big bang of Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rappers' Delight," corny novelty tunes flooded the world, capitalizing on a unique pop moment — and L.A. was not spared (see King Monkey, a.k.a. comedian Jimmy Thompson's 1980 12-inch "Badd Mann Dann Rapp)." It wasn't until the fall of 1981 when Larry "Captain Rapp" Glenn and DJ Michael "Disco Daddy" Khalfani, two veterans of the local nightlife scene, gave the city what is regarded as the first authentic West Coast hip-hop tune. Released on the newly formed Rappers Rapp Disco Co., the duo rocked to the beat as they jammed to a cover of Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby." Disco Daddy went on to make more 12-inches and form the L.A. Breakers crew, which performed at the closing ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics — and included future actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and Raymond Cruz). Meanwhile, Captain Rapp would score a national hit with "Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)." M.R.
In 1990, Kid Frost became a local hero — with "La Raza" all over Yo! MTV Raps, he brought the realities of east L.A. Chicano gang activity worldwide and the visuals of the region's explosive lowrider culture along with it. But Frost was showing off his abilities five years prior on the electro-rap single "Terminator." "I'm the Latin spice, always precise/And if you want to battle me, you better make nice," he raps to the sounds of laser warfare courtesy of producer Dave Storrs (whom Frost dubbed "the alien wizard"). C.L.
Before Dr. Dre and 2Pac made "California . . . knows how to party" the chorus of the Number One record "California Love," it propelled a smaller hit for Ronnie Hudson, a Washington D.C.-raised former bassist in Isaac Hayes' classic Stax band. Just two years after moving to L.A., Hudson's manager and label owner convinced him to do a tribute to the "West Coast poplock," the dance fad then dominating Watts. The idea was to merge Zapp's "So Ruff, So Tuff" with streetwise lyrics about the lands south of Interstate 110. Searching for experience, Hudson dropped into the Watts projects, befriended some affable gangsters, and partied until the sun came up. It yielded an old school lowrider classic, sampled by N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Scarface and Mos Def. The poplock itself faded away within a few years, but Hudson's municipal roll call never left rotation on the West Coast. J.W.
The first release from Bustin' Records, a small Fremont label backed by Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy of the Oakland A's, was a 12-inch by an East Oakland street kid turned dancer and entrepreneur who used to be the team's ball boy. He had cemented a relationship with Felton Pilate II of Con Funk Shun fame and Pilate's skills gave "Let's Get It Started" an impressive sonic muscularity for an indie release. The body-slamming percussion and stabbing synth keys nuked Bay Area dance floors while Hammer bragged that "my beat is ever boomin'" and "I'm second to none/From LL to Doug E. Fresh and DJ Run." (Though, LL Cool J would lyrically eviscerate Hammer for that slip-up on "Jack the Ripper.") Soon after, MC Hammer graduated to a deal with Capitol Records and, in 1990, released the first rap record to sell 10 million copies. M.R.
Two years before Kurtis Blow dropped his hit "Basketball," DJ George "Hurt 'Em Bad" Luster daydreamed on wax of winning games and shocking fans. According to Billy Jam's liner notes to West Coast Rap: The First Dynasty, Vol. 2, the apocryphal story is that Hurt 'Em approached half of the duo behind Groove Time Records in a parking lot and rapped this All-Star highlight reel at him — the funk label quickly rethought their resistance to rap music. Hurt 'Em Bad did four more sports-themed singles, one of which featured actual baller Hakeem Olajuwon, though none matched the charms of the first. C.L.
After the Time finished Prince's Controversy tour in the summer of 1982, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis stayed in L.A. and tried to hustle their demos. One of the first sessions they landed was "Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)," the West Coast answer to Melle Mel's "The Message." For five minutes, Captain Rapp helped us "wake up to what's going down" by reciting a litany of societal issues, and mourning "gangbangers" who end up "with a tag on his toe in a coroner's room." But what really stood out were the bulbous bass and synthesizer arrangements, and the seeds of what soon became known as Jam & Lewis' Minneapolis Sound. Aided by a killer hook from Kimberly Hall of forgotten R&B group Magic Lady, "Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)" became an early Eighties boogie-funk classic, and an early signpost in the slowly gestating identity of West Coast rap. M.R.
Rodney O's "Everlasting Bass" never cracked any national charts, but it was one of the hottest street records of 1987 and an anthem for the car-tuner craze of the late Eighties. Produced by Rodney O for Egyptian Lover's Egyptian Empire label, the song is all 808 drums and walloping subwoofers — "The bass that's in your face sho 'nuff shrugs your face/Just like you got sprayed by a can of mace," brags Rodney — as well as an awesomely funky synth line (a slowed down version of a hip-hop staple, 7th Wonder's 1979 single "Daisy Lady"). "Everlasting Bass" anchored the 1988 debut by Rodney and DJ Joe Cooley, Me & Joe, an unappreciated gem of early West Coast hip-hop. M.R.
The techno-hop opera "Electric Kingdom" emerged during the post-"Planet Rock" craze for all things electro. Recorded in San Francisco, it brought together producer Gordon Bahary (best known for programming Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants) with Broadway actor Joseph Saulter and reggae vet Errol Moore, who bellowed and shouted like the Soulsonic Force as they rapped about a dystopian urban metropolis. The motley crew made a hit single nearly as successful as its inspiration: "Electric Kingdom" peaked at Number Seven on the Billboard Black Singles charts in the winter of 1984 before they disembarked for other projects. M.R.
N.W.A's 1987 debut single "Panic Zone" announced the arrival of a new force in hip-hop, but it was the record's "Funky Worm"-sampling B-side, "Dope Man," that ultimately had a bigger impact. Raw and proud of it, the record put a spotlight on the grimy details of a world typically hidden from view. Essentially an Ice Cube record with some roleplaying from Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and N.W.A posse member Krazy D, the narrative describes a drug dealer's reality with more cautionary disgust than the group is typically credited with: "If you smoke 'caine, you're a stupid motherfucker!" Cube opens one verse, closing with Eazy repulsed by the idea of sex with a junkie. It doesn't look away, but its point of view is clear: "You're robbing and stealing, bugging and illing while the dope man's dealing/What is killing your pain, cocaine, this shit's insane." D.D.
Formerly known as the Timex Crew, Marcus Thompson, Alex Hill and singer Michael Marshall hustled Thompson's demo of "Rumors" around the Bay Area for over two years before it fell into the hands of rising Sacramento entrepreneur Jay King. He paired the group with producers Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster (later known for co-creating En Vogue), and what emerged was a classic piece of Bay Area synth-funk. Released on Jay Records, it bloomed slowly from regional smash to national hit, and landed at Number One on the R&B charts and Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100. Sadly, Timex Social Club soon crumbled from in-fighting and legal battles with King, who jacked their momentum to create Club Nouveau and re-record "Rumors" for himself. Years later, Marshall would re-emerge as a singer on Bay Area mob music classics like the Luniz' "I Got 5 on It." M.R.
The U.S. military gifted armored vehicles to the LAPD to smash down the doors of suspected crack houses. In one gruesome TV news photo-op, first lady Nancy Reagan watched as Darryl Gates' goons battered down doors of the afflicted and destitute. In response, Toddy Tee gifted "Batterram" to the streets and swap meets. Before Kendrick and Game and Quik and even Dre or Eazy, there was Toddy Tee, the first major rapper straight outta Compton. Flipping the novelty hit "Rappin' Duke" the enigmatic underground MC offered a chilling tale of the ramifications of crypto-fascist Eighties politics. Before "Fuck the Police," Toddy Tee spoke to the hood of brutal truths that they already knew. While electro-funk was ruling the clubs, Toddy Tee supplied the first major underground cassette smash about what was actually going on outside. N.W.A ultimately captured the full sales potential of kicking street knowledge, but Toddy Tee started a different kind of boom. J.W.
King Tee wasn't trying to rap how everyone else did in his native Los Angeles. "I never listened to that shit, Egyptian Lover, all that fast shit," he said in It's Not About a Salary: Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles, preferring East Coast hip-hop like LL Cool J. "It was all I listened to, shit that was comin' from New York. There wasn’t nothing out here but the fast shit. That's why we didn't get no respect back then." "Bass" showed that King Tee knew what he was doing. Produced by DJ Pooh (who would go on to produce Ice Cube's iconic "It Was a Good Day"), there is enough boom to crack the walls — though King Tee's swagger sounds like the bigger threat. Ice-T swore to HipHopDX that Notorious B.I.G. took notes: "He was his favorite fuckin' emcee!" C.L.
East Bay rapper Too $hort sold tapes from his trunk and slowly built up one of the nation's first true started-from-the-bottom coast-to-coast success stories. "Freaky Tales" is the archetypal Too $hort record: sexual conquest as a raw, uncensored expression of juvenile male id. Lewd and rude, its effectiveness is rooted in that undeniable funk groove — a loop that stays gripping for the song's nearly 10-minute run time — and $hort Dog's undeniable charisma. His plainspoken, clear-as-a-bell rap style was formed in part when the rapper, then a regular Newport smoker, found himself running out of breath partway through "Freaky Tales." It ended up molding his easy-going style: "I wrote my shit so I can say it just like it's on the record," he told The Fader. "The voice that you hear me rap on the record, I rap that voice on stage too." D.D.
Tracy "Ice-T" Marrow's legacy dates back to the very beginnings of West Coast hip-hop, when he battled Disco Daddy at the Carolina West disco club for the chance to work with Duffy Hooks III's newly formed Rappers Rapp Co. record label. Marrow's loss meant Disco Daddy went on to release 1981's pioneering "Gigolo Rapp." He played a crucial role in the protean TV documentary Breakin' 'n' Enterin', appeared in the hiphopsploitation hit Breakin' and recorded a bunch of electro 12-inches that he'd later dismiss as wack — a bit unfair, especially in regards to his underrated debut single "The Coldest Rap." Then, partly inspired by Schoolly D's "PSK (What Does It Mean)," Ice-T switched gears and rhymed about his real-life experiences as a Crip gang affiliate and robbery expert. His "6 in the Mornin'" begins with Ice's "fresh Adidas squeak[ing] across the bathroom floor" as he jumps out the back window to escape the police. He spins a portrait of a "self-made mobster" with "pistol close at hand," and his pimp-like lilting delivery had roguish charm over Afrika Islam's thundering drum machine beats. What came next was West Coast gangsta rap as we know it, a deal with Warner Bros., New Jack City, "Cop Killer," your mom's favorite character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and, now, daytime TV. M.R.
Before N.W.A. even existed, there was Eric "Eazy-E" Wright's "Boyz-n-the Hood." The song was produced by Dr. Dre, who owed Wright a favor: Eazy bailed him out of jail when Dre accumulated too many speeding tickets. Originally intended for New York rap group H.B.O., who rejected the tune, Dre and DJ Yella ultimately convinced Eazy to rap the song himself. Written by a teenage Ice Cube around the rhythms of Ice-T's "6 in the Mornin'," "Boyz-n-the Hood" became Eazy's breakthrough, and an early influence in gangsta rap evolution. It was a day-in-the-life record that was less concerned with commentary or critique than simply conveying a lifestyle. D.D.