From the South Bronx to South Central LA, once hip hop migrated west, nothing was the same. Once money was found in “gangsta” rap, the culture quickly turned for better and worst. Being “hardcore” and “street-smart,” keeping it real began to trump lyrical ability. The tone darkened. The stakes escalated. In layman’s terms, “shit got real” fast.
The rise of the legendary hip hop group, NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) came in a climate of an oppressed black community on the west coast. Forced since the 1920s into Watts, or “Mud Town” as it was aptly known, African Americans had to deal with overcrowded homes and housing projects, unemployment, poor health care and education, and white gangs and police terrorizing them among other innumerable crimes. 1943’s Zoot Suit riots resulted. Barely 22 years later on August 11th, what began as a routine drunk driving arrest erupted into a five day riot resulting in over $40 million in damages and thirty-four casualties. Protective gangs “joined the Revolution.” The US Organization, Black Panthers, and the Watts Prophets resulted in a sort of South Central Renaissance. On “A Pimp,” Otis O’Solomon rapped,
But with the fall of the Panthers (due to the FBI’s instigation of tensions and infiltration of their infrastructure), a young brother by the name of Raymond Washington took up the reigns and formed the Baby Avenues in 1969 after a local, fading gang, the Avenues. Rocking leather jackets, they somehow evolved [or devolved] into black youth beating one another for their leather jackets. Washington’s ideology was summed up: “Chitty chatty bang bang, nothing but a Crip thang, Eastside Cuz. This is going to be the most notorious gang in the world. It’s going to go from generation to generation.” Thus the Crips were born, leading to other rivaling groups to spawn, most notably the Bloods confederation.
The 80s were marred with rising unemployment, the closing of big manufacturing plants like Firestone and Goodyear, declining education quality, inaccessible colleges, and South Central’s isolation from inner city LA. Reaganomics and the first Bush administration abandoned local communities leaving local governments to handle their issues with campaigns like the War on Gangs, resulting by 1992 in “the city was paying out $11 million annually in brutality settlements while allocating less than $2 million to gang intervention programs, and almost half of all young, Black males living in South Central were in the gang database.”
All this was the foundation laid for the birth of NWA, comprising of O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby. What more could one expect when you’re brought up in an environment where everyone seems to be the enemy and you have nowhere to turn. NWA’s nihilistic views of self gratification stemmed from decades of denial and civil unrest which they provided the blunt, distinguished voice to. Ice Cube’s writing prowess accompanied by Dr. Dre’s hard hitting beats gave the group it’s backbone.
While east coast hip hop was heading for a more African, peace, “knowledge is power” message, NWA went in the opposite direction, finding bliss in the ignorance. “I wanted to make people go, ‘ I can’t believe he saying that shit,” said Dre. “I wanted to go all the way left. Everybody trying to do this black power and shit, so I was like, let’s give ‘em an alternative, ‘niggerniggerniggernigger fuck this fuck that bitchbitchbitchbitch suck my dick,’ all types of shit, you know what I’m saying?”
And yet, at the same time (whether they were aware of it or not) opened the door for a lot of much necessary dialogue and debate over the situations and status of a rejected people lacking hope. Without their music, I doubt we'd know how the deep the disparities and suffering of African Americans in the South Centrals reached. In their song, “Gangsta Gangsta,” Ice Cube said, “To a kid looking up to me, life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.” It is when your father is locked away or killed by police brutality. When there’s no one to teach you right from wrong. No one to raise you as a Man or Woman. When all you know is that gun makes you God, drugs can take away the pain, and (to quote AMG) “a ho is a ho is a ho.”
My father once told me that “The hood brings out the best and the worst in people.” Looking at Ice Cube and Dr. Dre today, it’s amazing how time can season these once loud, obnoxious kids into the men that command respect and honor in hip hop’s halls of history. If only Eazy slowed down a bit, he might still be among the living. Overall it amazes me the factors that set up and inspire the music. It makes me wonder. Like damn, that could've been me.
Written February 2014
S/O Prof. Josh Karant