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The Rise of N.W.A and the Dawn of Gangsta Rap

by Gerrick D. Kennedy

Pub Date: Dec. 5th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-3491-3
Publisher: Atria

An entertaining account of the rise and influence of pioneering “gangsta rap” act Niggaz with Attitude, aka N.W.A.

Los Angeles Times music writer Kennedy takes a detail-oriented approach in this retelling of a controversy-laden success story, recently dramatized in a hit film. “Although their run together was short,” he writes, “N.W.A.’s music encouraged a generation of young black emcees to explore their rawest thoughts, no matter how obscene or radical.” Writing in a breezy style, the author focuses on many colorful figures in N.W.A.’s orbit, talking to (or quoting) numerous rap icons and business figures like Jerry Heller, the insider who helped founding member Eazy-E start his own label (they were later accused of defrauding the group’s principals, notably Ice Cube and Dr. Dre). The story is most engaging initially, when the future stars came together via low-budget improvisation and street-wise ambition in the local underground of swap meets and small venues—though Dr. Dre got his start in a Prince-influenced dance group, very much at odds with his later image. The collective found underground success with the epochal LP “Straight Outta Compton,” released on Eazy-E’s Ruthless label. The album was condemned by the FBI and others for incendiary content. However, they soon broke up due to recriminations over financial chicanery. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre moved on to iconic careers, while Eazy-E struggled to match their solo success prior to his sudden death from AIDS in 1995. Kennedy broadens his narrative to discuss the larger milieu, including West Coast racial tensions that exploded following the Rodney King brutality trial, the bloody East Coast–West Coast rap “war,” and the general (if ineffectual) backlash against “gangsta” culture. He captures the early connections between N.W.A., fellow rappers, and shadier figures like Suge Knight, who’d eventually become rivals. While fans may be familiar with many of the notorious incidents here, Kennedy stitches them into a coherent narrative.

An apt consideration of a raunchy yet vital cultural moment.