N.W.A. may be an unconventional pick when focusing on musicians for Black History Month since there has always been controversy that’s followed the group but their mark on the music industry, especially the rap genre is undeniable. I don’t just want to focus on artists that are successful money wise, but ones that are also game changing and leaders. I’ll only be focusing on the group’s impact on music for now, but if you want to learn more about the individual members, use the tags at the bottom of the post!
N.W.A. was an American hip hop group from Compton, California, widely considered one of the seminal acts of the gangsta rap and west coast hip hop subgenres, sometimes credited as the most important group in the history of rap music. Active from 1986 to 1991, the rap group endured controversy due to their music’s explicit lyrics that many viewed as being disrespectful of women, as well as its glorification of drugs and crime. The group was subsequently banned from many mainstream American radio stations. In spite of this, the group has sold over 10 million units in the United States alone.
The original lineup consisted of Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. MC Ren joined in 1988, with Arabian Prince leaving the group later that same year. Ice Cube left in December of 1989 over royalty disputes. The group was assembled by Compton-based Eazy-E, who co-founded Ruthless Records with Jerry Heller.
Ruthless released the single “Panic Zone” in 1987 with Macola Records, which marked the first collaboration of Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. Mexican rapper Krazy-Dee co-wrote “Panic Zone,” which was originally called “Hispanic Zone,” but the title was later changed when Dr. Dre advised Krazy-Dee that the word “hispanic” would hinder sales.
N.W.A released their debut studio album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988. With its famous opening salvo of three tracks, the group reflected the rising anger of the urban youth. The opening song “Straight Outta Compton” introduced the group, “Fuck tha Police” protested police brutality and racial profiling, and “Gangsta Gangsta” painted the worldview of the inner-city youth. While the group was later credited with pioneering the burgeoning subgenre of gangsta rap, N.W.A referred to their music as “reality rap.”
Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, as HighPowered Productions, composed the beats for each song, with Dre making occasional rapping appearances. Ice Cube and MC Ren wrote most of the group’s lyrics, including “Fuck tha Police,” perhaps the group’s most notorious song, which brought them into conflict with various law enforcement agencies. Under pressure from Focus on the Family, Milt Ahlerich, an assistant director of the FBI, sent a letter to Ruthless and its distributing company Priority Records, advising the rappers that “advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.” This letter can still be seen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Policemen refused to provide security for the group’s concerts, hurting their plans to tour. Nonetheless, the FBI’s letter only served to draw more publicity to the group.
Straight Outta Compton was also one of the first albums to adhere to the new Parental Advisory label scheme, then still in its early stages: the label at the time consisted of “WARNING: Moderate impact coarse language and/or themes” only. However, the taboo nature of N.W.A’s music was the most important factor of its mass appeal. Media coverage compensated for N.W.A’s lack of airplay and their album eventually went double platinum.
Although the group disbanded in 1991, it left a lasting legacy on hip hop music in the following decades. Their influence (from their funky, bass-driven beats to their exaggerated lyrics) was evident throughout the 1990s and even into the present, and is often credited as bridging the White/Black American musical lines with their massive appeal to White America in the late 1980s.