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It’s clear that many pop-culture fanatics like for the legacies of their heroes to be scrubbed and romanticized. For proof, you needn’t look much further than most biopics and TV shows about the entertainment business, in which character flaws may occasionally factor in, but are typically eclipsed by brilliance.

Cultural consumers of this revisionist mind who wish to learn about the rise of California rap should view Straight Outta Compton, the candy-coated 2015 big-screen dramatization of the saga behind N.W.A., hip-hop’s first explosive Los Angeles export. However, those who crave the dirty details—no matter how horrendous, despite how some characterizations may impact one’s feelings for beloved classics—will prefer to digest Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. Authored and intensely researched by former LA Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff, the volume is as eloquently written as it is immensely raw in content. To borrow one from Ice Cube, it’s a “no Vaseline” sort of affair.

In a recent chat about his latest effort, Westhoff couldn’t recall the precise nature of his original pitch to publishers. He knew that he was rolling into familiar and even well-charted territory, but he also knew that although contributions like Have Gun Will Travel, Ronin Ro’s 1999 book subtitled The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, delve into various cracks in the often-inaccurate popular narrative, there was still a mess of information buried in participants of varying significance.

Add in the extraordinary social unrest and the crack epidemic from which West Coast hip-hop was in large part born, as well as the unwieldy conspiracy theories that cloud almost any discussion of the subgenre—especially around the deaths of Eazy-E and Tupac—and Westhoff saw an opportunity to weave together puzzle pieces and fill gaps left by the legions who have mined similar spaces and begun to trim some of the taller tales.

Of course, reality is crazier than fiction, and it’s impossible to turn more than a couple of pages in Original Gangstas without shaking one’s head in amazement at the insanity of daily life at N.W.A.’s Ruthless Records—from the number of children and artists Eazy and Dre fathered to the Nation of Islam’s bizarre attempt to cure the former’s AIDS before his death in 1995 (a happening reported here in detail for the first time). While Westhoff started researching before he had a focus, the through-line eventually became obvious: Dr. Dre, born Andre Young, whose career as a party-rocking teenage DJ—and then later as the leading architect behind an evolving West Coast sound and the region’s chief rap impresario—transformed countless heavyweight careers.

With a guiding light on Dre, Westhoff says that his approach was notably different from the one he took with Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop. Whereas that book reads more like a travelogue (and hearkens to the cult immersive NOLA rap scene dispatch Tricksta by Nick Cohn) than, say, Brian Coleman’s comprehensive Check the Technique series, which lets the artists do most of the talking directly, Original Gangstas reads like classic investigative magazine journalism and stands alongside Check the Technique, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, and The Big Payback by Dan Charnas as a standard-bearer sure to age like a Dre track.

With the responsibility of turning an investigative eye on Ruthless Records and Death Row—the latter the comparably infamous imprint of iconic criminal boss Suge Knight, that fostered the massive careers of Snoop Dogg and Tupac—came the duty of attending to a series of unfortunate domestic assaults which took place throughout the halcyon years. It’s not a stretch to say that beating women is a major plotline in any story involving Dre; such behavior was so normalized among N.W.A. members, in fact, that one is left to question the intentions of the Straight Outta Compton screenwriters, or of any other biographer who masks these black eyes. One account by Westhoff, of a beating Dre gave then-TV host Dee Barnes at a club in West Hollywood, stands out among the most despicable: “He grabbed me by my hair, picked me up and started slamming me into a brick wall,” said Barnes, who is nearly a foot shorter than Dre and weighed about half as much. Dre’s bodyguard held back the crowd, she added in a statement. According to eyewitness accounts, Dre began kicking her and tried to push her down a flight of stairs. She fled to the bathroom, but Dre followed her in and began beating her more. (N.W.A. promoter) Doug Young said the room full of spectators watched and did nothing.”

In these respects, Original Gangstas is a grueling read—even for those who may be vaguely familiar with parts of the domestic side of this story, and especially for anyone who grew up hanging pictures of these guys on their walls, an experience that I personally share with Westhoff. (The Minnesota-bred author notes this in brief throughout the book, using his own impressions as a way to show the far-reaching impact of Compton rap.) But while atrocious acts against women—their victims almost always were women, one might acknowledge, as N.W.A.’s security handled the male threats—turn up on page after page, Westhoff doesn’t let those acts hijack the narrative. And why should they? This is, after all, the dirty version. Extensive scars considered, Dre himself should probably be happy with the book, since it proves him to be among the realest MCs ever, at least in that he apparently meant in earnest and delivered on the threats he issued against women on record.

As a critical addition to existing accounts of these episodes, Original Gangstas is a reliable and accessible historical document, from Westhoff’s diligence in finding sources who were difficult to track down—though N.W.A.’s former business manager, the recently deceased Jerry Heller, was subsequently ambushed by the paparazzi likes of TMZ, Westhoff believes theirs was Heller’s last substantial interview; as he writes, in their short time together in October 2014, the mogul was “alternatively calm and heated,” oscillating “between saying he doesn’t care what anyone says about him, and vehemently denying various allegations”—to his interviews with others who were more amenable, like J-Dee of Da Lench Mob, who is currently serving a substantial sentence for murder in the California Men’s Colony. In our chat, Westhoff said that coverage from Vibe magazine was particularly thorough, though he made sure to note that the publication, for reasons satisfactory or otherwise, drew criticism from some corners for fueling the violence that erupted between warring rap factions. Even with these many living documents to pluck from and fact-check, Westhoff managed to produce a seriously compelling page-turner. Never too far from his early music-critic roots, the author clearly knows his shit, which is more than can be said for most people writing about rap for national audiences. From his description of the frenzy over the 1988 release of Straight Outta Compton: “The album’s most memorable songs feature an assault of abrasive textures, marching drums, sample fragments, and break beats mined from Roadium swap meets. Straight Outta Compton’s bombastic sound matches its rhetoric. To hear it as a child of poverty was to nod in affirmation; to hear it as a person of privilege was to gasp in horror.”

On an important side note, underground heads should be happy to know that Westhoff, a longtime music scribe who has covered many facets of the genre, appropriately notes intersections between rap honchos and the subterranean element around them—from the involvement of Cube’s cousin Del tha Funkee Homosapien (his preferred spelling back then) with Da Lench Mob to the parallel rise of the Good Life Cafe and an alternative rhyme scene in Greater Los Angeles. That’s in addition to a range of cameos from peripheral players like DJ David Faustino (yes, Bud from Married With Children) to rappers who emerged as household names outside the Ruthless fold—like Everlast, whose former girlfriend, white female MC Tairrie B, Dre once punched in the face “the way a guy would hit another guy,” according to one witness.

Westhoff, who began working on Original Gangstas before Straight Outta Compton was announced, said that he and his publisher debated rushing up their drop date to align with the biopic. In the end, it wasn’t feasible, or, as the author now acknowledges, anywhere close to necessary. A proper published biographical account claws much closer to the core of any topic than could any feature film, and in this case, the difference isn’t simply in the errors and omissions of the N.W.A. flick, like having the group visit the White House (in reality, Eazy attended a George H.W. Bush fundraiser at a DC hotel), or showing them being arrested for performing “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit (they weren’t). Rather, in his intricate profile of these seminal gang-related performers, we are treated to the ugly truth. Considering that California gangsta rap, before all of the hype, was commonly called “reality rap” by its originators, there should be no higher aspiration for those attempting to document the backstory.

This piece originally appeared in DigBoston. Below: Author Ben Westhoff. Photo by Jay Senter Grey.

Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap

By Ben Westhoff

Hachette

432 pages, $28

Published in Literature

After he was announced as part of the Coachella lineup, Ice Cube said his goal for the performance was to get N.W.A. back together.

It didn’t happen during Coachella’s first weekend. But on the Saturday night of Weekend 2, he managed to accomplish just that.

Last weekend, both DJ Yella and MC Ren joined Ice Cube—but there wasn’t a doctor in the house. But this weekend, Dr. Dre was announced—and the crowd went insane.

While it was late in Ice Cube’s set, Dre joined Yella, Ren and Cube for a shortened version of “The Next Episode,” as well as “California Love.”

Other guests included The Game and Kendrick Lamar. Cube teased the audience a bit when graphics flashed for Parliament Funkadelic. Some people in the crowd thought George Clinton himself might come out and sing “Bop Gun (One Nation),” a 1994 collaboration between Ice Cube and Clinton that sampled Clinton’s original “Bop Gun.” Alas, Clinton was nowhere to be found—but nonetheless, the song was fantastic.

When Ice Cube began the show, he appeared on a throne of fingers shaped like the West Coast hand gesture. Cube then made it known: “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It.” This made me wonder: Did gangsta rap make him appear in all of thise family films and horrible comedies?

The set included a lot of Ice Cube’s greatest material, such as “Check Yo’ Self” and “Gangsta Nation,” as well as N.W.A. hits “Dopeman” (performed with Little Easy-E., son of the late Eazy-E) and “Fuck Tha Police” (performed with Ren and Yella). He closed out the show with “It Was a Good Day.”

Given that Ice Cube had made good on his promise to get the surviving members of N.W.A. back together, it indeed was a good day. 

Scroll down to see more photos from Saturday at Coachella, by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Reviews

I did not realize until I had watched the entirety of Straight Outta Compton, the thrilling new N.W.A. biopic, that Ice Cube’s son was playing Ice Cube.

It’s not like the guy is named Ice Cube Jr. He’s actually named O’Shea Jackson Jr.—his dad’s birth name with Jr. tacked on to the end.

Jackson Jr. is the No. 1 reason to see Compton, a blast of a film that chronicles the rise of the rap group, the eventual infighting and the birth of some gigantic solo careers and record labels. Besides Jackson, Jason Mitchell is a revelation as Eazy-E, while Corey Hawkins is a nice anchor as Dr. Dre.

The film works best when covering the creation of the legendary album that shares the movie’s title. The film also spends plenty of time on the band’s management problems with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in a moderately distracting wig) and Eazy-E’s eventual death from AIDS. At a running time of almost 2 1/2 hours, plenty of ground gets covered—in a way that never gets boring.

O’Shea Jackson Jr. is the spitting image of his dad, especially in the way he talks and raps. This lends an invaluable level of authenticity to Compton. It’s a real blessing that Ice Cube’s kid, making his film debut, is a supremely capable actor, because he blows up the screen like Ice Cube did when he made his film debut in Boyz n the Hood back in 1991.

The movie’s music melds original N.W.A. work with actors doing their own vocals. Watch and listen closely, and you’ll catch moments when Jackson and Mitchell prove they are more than capable of re-creating the N.W.A. sound. According to Rolling Stone, the actors re-recorded the original Compton record as an exercise—and that exercise paid off.

Adding to the party are Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, and Keith Stanfield, who totally embodies the part of Snoop Dog. R. Marcos Taylor is quite fearsome as the cigar-chomping Suge Knight. The real Suge Knight is currently in jail, awaiting trial for a hit-and-run death that occurred during a promotional shoot for the movie.

There is one brief scene featuring Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) laying down a track. The scene feels tacked on and obligatory, and probably should’ve been relegated to the cutting-room floor.

The depiction of always-evil cops in this film is borderline cartoonish, but what do you expect? This is a movie about the creation of the gangsta rap group that sang “Fuck tha Police.” I didn’t expect to see any warm and fuzzy cops scratching their heads and protesting while Cube, Dre and E are unjustifiably face-down on the pavement. Save the good cops for another movie. This is about Compton in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a war zone where nobody was doing anything right, and the likes of Ice Cube were definitely not feeling the love from the boys in blue. The real-life former members of N.W.A. had a hand in producing the movie, and I’m thinking they are perfectly OK with the depiction of cops in this movie.

Compton was directed by F. Gary Gray, who worked with Ice Cube two decades ago on the very funny Friday. Compton actually has some good laughs to go with its drama. Gray has stumbled a bit with some bad films (Be Cool, Law Abiding Citizen) since his last pairing with Ice Cube, but Compton shows he still has plenty to offer.

Straight Outta Compton is a solid cinematic time capsule that gives some deserved glory to an influential group that forever changed the landscape of hip hop and brought much-needed attention to a very troubled part of the world. It does the band and the biopic genre proud.

Straight Outta Compton is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews