N.W.A., the unapologetically violent and sexist pioneers of gangsta rap, is in many ways the most notorious group in the history of rap. Emerging in the late ’80s, when Public Enemy had rewritten the rules of hardcore rap by proving that it could be intelligent, revolutionary and socially aware, N.W.A. capitalized on PE’s sonic breakthroughs while ignoring their message. Instead, the five-piece crew celebrated the violence and hedonism of the criminal life, capturing it all in blunt, harsh language. Initially, the group’s relentless attack appeared to be serious, vital commentary, and it even provoked the FBI to caution N.W.A.’s record company, but following Ice Cube’s departure late 1989, the group began to turn to self-parody. With his high-pitched whine, Eazy-E’s urban nightmares now seemed like comic book fantasies, but that fulfilled the fantasies of the teenage, White suburbanites that had become their core audience, and the group became more popular than ever.
Nevertheless, clashing egos prevented the band from recording a third album, and they fell apart once producer Dr. Dre left for a solo career in 1992. Although the group was no longer active, their influence — from their funky, bass-driven beats to their exaggerated lyrics — was evident throughout the ’90s.
Ironically, in its original incarnation NWA was hardly revolutionary. Eazy-E (b. Eric Wright), a former drug dealer who started Ruthless Records with money he earned by pushing, was attempting to start a rap empire, by building a roster of successful rap artists. However, he wasn’t having much success until Dr. Dre — a member of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru — and Ice Cube (b. O’Shea Jackson) began writing songs for Ruthless. Eazy tried to give one of the duo’s songs, “Boyz N The Hood,” to Ruthless signees HBO and when the group refused, Eazy formed NWA — an acronym for Niggaz With Attitude — with Dre and Cube, adding World Class Wreckin’ Cru member DJ Yella (b. Antoine Carraby), the Arabian Prince and the D.O.C. to the group.
N.W.A.’s first album, N.W.A. and the Posse, was a party-oriented jam record that largely went ignored upon its 1987 release. In the following year, the group added MC Ren and revamped their sound, bringing in many of the noisy, extreme sonic innovations of Public Enemy and adopting a self-consciously violent and dangerous lyrical stance. Late in 1988, N.W.A. delivered Straight Outta Compton, a vicious hardcore record that became an underground hit with virtually no support from radio, the press or MTV. N.W.A. became notorious for their hardcore lyrics, especially those of “Fuck Tha Police,” which resulted in the FBI sending a warning letter to Ruthless and its parent company Priority, suggesting that the group should watch their step.