Thursday, August 13, 2015

Poison the Hood

On a spring evening in 1991, the late Eazy-E accepted the invitation of Dr. Dre, his fellow member of the notorious "gangsta" rap group NWA, to come hang with him at a recording studio in Hollywood not far from where their mutual dream had been born. Eazy was well aware of Dre's growing dissatisfaction with his share of their record company's huge profits, but whom could he trust if not the good doctors? Hadn't they clawed their way out of one of the West Coast's most nightmarish ghettos side by side? And since he'd bailed him out of jail 'way back when, after others had refused, hadn't Eazy made his friend richer than they'd ever dared dream possible?              

Once at Galaxy Studios, though, Eazy wasn't greeted by Dre, but by three huge guys in black who took him into a dark room and informed him that they were holding his Jewboy manager hostage outside in a van. They tapped lead pipes in their leather-encased palms. They revealed gun bulges under their shirts and produced documents they wanted him to sign, documents that would release Dre from his contractual obligations to Eazy. They offered him a pen and tapped their lead pipes some more, a little less patiently. But Easy hadn't prospered selling iello on the streets of the CPT (as the gangs called rock cocaine and Compton, respectively) by being easily cowed.

It turned out, though, that they didn't have just his Jewboy manager; but his mama too. And they were going to get his signature on their documents or kill the bitch.

Gimme the damn pen.



Half a decade before, Hollywood had been a long drive, an absolutely endless bus ride, and a world away. But with Reaganomics having wiped out all the youth programs, what better shot at getting out of Compton did a motherfucker have than cutting a rap record and hoping that it made him the new LL Cool J? And so, hearing the ads on KDAY, they swarmed by the carload to a little record pressing plant on Santa Monica Blvd. where, if he liked a fellow's tape, the old white dude proprietor, Don MacMillan, would press 500 12-inch singles for him for only $600. MacMillan would send a couple hundred to his distributors, whose salespeople would take them into stores and radio stations nationwide, and the kid would get 200 or 300 to take back to his neighborhood.

Compared to the South Central Los Angeles environs of his old record company, in which he'd become accustomed to witnessing shootouts on the way to work, his new stomping grounds impressed Don MacMillan as relatively tranquil, its gay teenage runaway hustlers and Hispanic gangs notwithstanding. To the kids from Compton, the squalid sector of Hollywood in which Macola Records was based must have looked like Shangri-La. In the decades since George Bush lived there briefly as a fresh-out-of-Yale oil-bit salesman in the last months of the ‘40s, Compton had turned into a war zone. Not an inch of its 10 square miles wasn't claimed by at least one of its 40 street gangs; locals observed with a strange sort of pride that if you started running east on Rosecrans from Central, you could get gatted on -- shot at -- by seven different gangs by the time you reached Atlantic Boulevard less than two miles away. If you reached it.

At the high schools, 300-pound football players allowed skinny freshmen gang members to humiliate them at will, for to fight back would be to dodge bullets on the way home from practice in the afternoon. And that chirping sound wasn't crickets, but the beepers that summoned kids from class to close drug deals. By day, children were cut down by errant Crips, Bloods, and Pirus bullets on their schools' front lawns. And at night, the city really got dangerous, as the crackheads who'd been sold macadamia nuts rolled in Anbesol flew into rages and reached for their own gats.

Don McMillan was struck by how a lot of the kids who hung out in the lobby of his pressing plant seemed slightly in awe of little Eric Wright, who called himself Eazy-E. Maybe it was that he was so bright. Or maybe it was the breadth of his ambition. As a product of Compton's infamous public school system, he had absolutely no idea where anything was -- where San Francisco was, or Seattle -- but he still openly aspired to presiding over his own recording empire.

Back in the 'hood, though, Eazy inspired considerably less admiration than in Macola's lobby. While it was known that he'd use his fists if he had to, it was equally well known that his girlfriend Joyce kept him on a very short leash, and wasn't averse to walloping him upside the head with a GI Joe lunchbox if, for instance, he neglected to beep her for too long at a stretch.

It was even more widely known that the reason he seemed always to have money in his socks was that he was a dope man. While a lot of Comptonites viewed drugs in general as a blight, who could come down that hard on an individual kid who retailed a little chronic or stress or even iello to make a buck or two? How else was a teenaged father supposed to be able to give his girlfriend money to buy his babies food or get decent speakers in his ride, by working at motherfucking McDonald's? And if he didn't sell the shit, somebody else surely would. And wasn't it a whole lot better than killing for money, as some boys in the 'hood were known to?

In the spring of 1986, Macola released Eazy's "Boyz-N-the-Hood," an orgy of "gangsta" (that is, gang member) posturing written by a zealously malignant local teenager who called himself Ice Cube. Eazy's performance was almost comically inept -- his inflection childish, his rhythm shaky -- and at first it seemed as though the record might stiff. Promoting it, MacMillan's men didn't even approach radio at first, but instead hired a few brothers to tape posters up in the ghetto and hand out free cassettes on Crenshaw Blvd., on which the young studs of South Central liked to drive back and forth glowering on a Saturday night in their 1964 Chevies, demonstrating their ability to survive bass levels that would have killed less manly men.

At first, one could buy the record only at the daily Compton Swap Meet in the old Sears building on Long Beach Blvd., and in none of the big chain stores. But then the white kids of the San Fernando Valley discovered it, and it began to fly out of the Wherehouse in mostly white, suburban Northridge, out of Tower in mostly white, suburban Encino. It took fully eight months before the record finally took off nationally, but when it did, it was to the tune of 200,000 copies sold.

The bad news for Eric being that he had now to perform, the prospect of which scared him shitless. It was one thing to deal iello on the streets of Compton, apparently, and a similar one to cow the other boys in the lobby at Macola Records, but quite another to get up on stage in front of people. Seemingly to insulate himself, he assembled a "posse" that included Andre Young -- nicknamed Dr. Dre because he idolized the Philadelphia 76ers' Dr. J. Formerly one of the most bashful boys in the CPT (if the father of five children by three different girlfriends by age 23), Dre had turned down a drafting job at Northrop Aviation (no damn McDonald's for Dre!) in favor of club disk jockeying.

Converting dope money into turntables, the entrepreneurial Eazy had hired him to DJ at birthday parties for $30 a night. But it was as a member of the World Class Wreckin' Cru that Dre had gained his greatest local notoriety. Suave seducers who rapped seductively over techno music and moved in unison like the Temptations, the Cru posed for their Macola album cover in makeup and much purple, Dre in a white sequined bodysuit and the expression of one suspecting that he might be making a grievous mistake.

Behold, though, how passionately the Cru was loved in even the Spanish-speaking parts of the ghetto. "One night me and Dre were riding around," Cru kingpin Lonzo Williams remembers, "when a Mexican in a Pinto hit the back of my car and broke these bands that hold the muffler on. I jump out talking shit. These ten cats along the wall drinking beer stand up when they see a black guy stepping to an older Mexican guy. Dre's sitting in the car scared shitless.

"When they see his Wreckin' Cru jacket, the Mexicans say, 'Hey, man, where'd you get that from?' He says, 'I'm Dr. Dre, man.' I'm in hardcore mini-Tijuana talking shit to drunk Mexicans, and I'm supposed to get my ass whupped. Instead, we have to sit there and drink beer and kick with them for about 20 minutes while they fix my muffler!"

Lonzo, in whose studio Dre's stepfather gave everyone in the Cru's circle karate lessons after Ice Cube was beaten up at Washington High, was like Dre's big brother. "I bought him a car, which eventually went to the impound because he had a very bad habit of never paying his tickets; at one time he had $500 worth. I bailed him out of jail, but two months later, he had another stack of warrants. Wreckin' Cru wasn't working and money was getting tight; Dre was spending all of his on tennis shoes and motel rooms. So I told him, 'Look, I'll go half with somebody, but I can't afford to keep doing this.' Which was where Eazy stepped in with his drug money."

It was Eazy who named his posse NWA, but the old white dude Don MacMillan who figured out what the letters stood for. "I was in a meeting with a bunch of other black guys when he came in and said he wanted NWA on the record. He told me he saw it on a sign -- I think it might have been for Northwest Airlines or something -- and that it looked real good. I started laughing. He said, 'What are you laughing at?' I said, 'I figured it meant Niggers With an Attitude.' A minute later I thought, 'Oh, shit, what have I said?' But they all laughed."

Realizing in time that everyone stood to come out ahead if his young customers were guided by experienced management, MacMillan invited the participation of another old white dude, a key early patron of white Chicago blues and the overseer turned owner of the record company for which MacMillan had worked in South Central. Morey Alexander, the very picture of a cigar-chomping, tsouris-exuding music biz sharpie, in turn phoned the middleaged Jewish music biz veteran who'd booked the harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite for him thousands of years before, back near the beginning of both their careers.

Jerry Heller had been Creedence Clearwater Revival's agent in the late 60s, but hadn't gotten rich until the early 70s, when he represented most of David Geffen's biggest singer-songwriters. He helped launch Elton John in America and booked the tours that established Pink Floyd, drank prodigious amounts of cognac, snorted prodigious amounts of blow, and seduced prodigious numbers of starlets. By decade's end, he'd lost his credibility after representing a bunch of L.A. skinny tie acts on which everyone lost his shirt. By and by, the poor devil had resigned himself "to being an also-ran the rest of my life, to living in a condo and making $200,000 a year." Which rankled painfully, since "I'm actually one of the brightest guys I've ever met."

Having dutifully idolized John Kennedy while pursuing his MBA at USC, this son of Cleveland's most fashionable suburb somehow wasn't appalled by the young Comptonites' apparent sociopathy, by their hatred of women and avowed penchant for violence. Indeed, he managed to convince himself that it was the most important music he'd heard since 1965.

Conversely, the boys from the 'hood didn't mind Heller's being old (over 40), Jewish, and white. Far from it, in fact, for wasn't a white boy manager exactly what a motherfucker needed really to get over? And it wasn't brothers one saw representing all the top athletes, the ones with shoes named in their honor, after all, but Jewboys. Whatever you had to give up was worth it -- 20 percent of a fortune was still apt to buy a closetful of Air Jordans! Back in the hood, word got around that Eazy, knowing that he ought to bring something to the table, gave up a paper bag containing $40,000 at the meeting where he asked Heller to help him realize his dreams of empire.

Thinking more like the owner of a pressing plant than a great impresario, believing rap to be only a fad, Don MacMillan hadn't contractually tied up any of his unlikely new stars. Noticing which, his lieutenant Chuck Fassert -- decades earlier the composer and lead singer of the Regents' "Barbara Ann" -- resolved to form his own label to distribute Eazy's coterie's stuff, and agreed with Heller on a deal for the NWA and the Posse album for $50,000 -- and a $13,000 Rolex wristwatch for Eric. But while Fassert was on the road getting the money from his distributors, Heller jilted him. START

The creation of a pair of escapees from K-Tel, of late-night TV hucksterism infamy, Priority Records was in a position to double Fassert's bid as a result of having recently sold a million and a half California Raisins albums. And Eazy and his homies, hard core gangsta niggaz though they loudly proclaimed themselves to be, continued to be managed, recorded, promoted, and distributed entirely by old white dudes -- most of them with surprising connections and backgrounds. The uncle of John Phillips, who distributed NWA's records in the South, had discovered Elvis and founded Sun Records. Recording engineer Donovan Smith, who paled noticeably when Dre ensured that the bass was loud enough to rattle a six-four's windshield, was a lapsed surfer, Priority kingpin Bryan Turner a Winnipeg-born hockey fanatic.

The old white dudes behind the group soon saw much, much green. Eazy-Duz-It, his 1988 full-length debut, sold two million. So did NWA's Straight Out of Compton, whose tone Ice Cube set by warning that he"should never [have] been let out of the penitentiary," owing to his Charles Manson-ish criminal record. Never mind that he'd recently been an architecture student at college in Arizona, and before that, thanks to bussing, a senior at a salubrious suburban San Fernando Valley high school.

The fearsomeness about which Cube and his homies bragged was strangely at odds with the album's thank-you list, which started with God and "our mothers and fathers." Asked how his nurse mother (presumably neither a bitch nor a [w]ho[re], unlike any woman on their record) felt about NWA's records, the obtuse, personable DJ Yella would confide, "It didn't bother her; she never listened to them. It was making money. Anything we said been said before. Everybody says bad words here and there."

As though the group's vocabulary, rather than its ugly nihilism, were the issue! "To me," Eazy unashamedly confided on Duz-It, "girls are female dogs." In the world NWA's records described, all men were amoral brutes who "think with [their] dingaling[s]," self-loathing thugs who reveled in getting drunk and murdering one another. Had virulent white supremacists ghostwritten their stuff for them, who'd have been able to tell the difference?

But who could be concerned about ugly nihilism in the face of the revenues the group was generating? "All of a sudden," Heller was heard to rhapsodize, "these kids had come out of nowhere and made me important and rich again. I'm living in a mansion and driving big cars, doing all the things that I'd resigned myself never to doing anymore."

Experts agreed that the Real Niggaz' audience consisted substantially of white suburban teens who bought their records to experience danger vicariously. While white kids loved hearing self-described niggers threatening one another, though, at least one hip-hop journal observed that NWA had relatively few fans in the ghetto. Indeed, back in the hood, NWA's success inspired much disdainful grumbling. Eazy's former homeboys called him a gimmick, and said that if he were six feet tall -- that is, not impish -- he'd never have captured the public fancy. Motherfucker couldn't rap a damn Christmas present! They bitterly decried his having imported extras from neighborhoods other than the CPT for his videos, and this after they'd sold his damn tapes for him out of the trunks of their cars! His own little sister and his cousin Chris were both said to think him a dog.

The FBI didn't care for him either. Getting an earful of Outta Compton, its assistant director of public affairs sent Priority an indignant letter astutely observing that "Fuck Tha Police" "encourages...disrespect for the law enforcement officer." Your tax dollars at work! Not to be outdone, the Fraternal Order of Police voted not to provide security at NWA concerts.

The group's 40-date national tour in mid-1989, during which Eazy wore a bulletproof vest on stage in spite of 80 percent white audiences (white kids love this shit!), was nonetheless without tragic incident — except for the group being torn apart from within. "Eazy calls me from their hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to tell me they're having a fight about their white cocksucker manager," Heller relates proudly. "Ice Cube says, 'It's either him or me.' If Eazy lets him play his little black/white game, there's no more Ruthless Records [as Eazy had christened his empire]. But he tells him, 'NWA is me, Dre, Yella...and Jerry Heller; here's your plane ticket home.'"

Maybe, as Heller speculated, it was that the eternally scowling Cube couldn't endure being only the second most charismatic member of the group, after Eazy. Or maybe, as Eazy himself speculates, it was that NWA's ambitious publicist, Pat Charbonnet, had begun trying to sell the group on the idea that "we should do these side deals somewhere else. She couldn't get me to do it, so she went to Ice Cube. She went from being a publicist to being Ice Cube's manager. Now she's running his record company. That's good for her, but I don't know if it's good for him."

Back in Compton, there'd been widespread amazement at Dre's new image. "Dre never gangbanged a day in his life," according to Wreckin' Cru's Lonzo Williams. "When we had fights, he was the last person to do any swinging. We had several situations when all we needed was man-power. But when me and [Cru rapper] Cli-N-Tel and the rest of the fellows would be out there, Dre was like, 'Hey, I got to mix these records.' It would take a hell of a lot to convince me that he's really the person he's claiming to be."

Said hell of a lot presumably being something other than what Dee Barnes, the petite host of Fox-TV's Pump It Up, alleges happened at West Hollywood's Speakeasy club on a late January evening in 1991. While his bodyguard kept might-have-been intervenors at bay, the good doctor yanked Barnes off the ground by her hair and ear and slammed her against a wall. Tiring of which, he tried to throw her down a flight of stairs, but lost his grip. When she fell, he kicked her in the ribs and stomped on her hand. She ran into the ladies' room, but he was right behind her, punching her in the back of the head.

Not, it was crucial to understand, that he hadn't been abundantly pro-voked. A couple of months earlier, Pump It Up had inserted a segment featuring Yo-Yo, Ice Cube's sweetheart, into a program otherwise spotl-ighting NWA. Feeling his oats as a result of the platinum success of hisAmeriKKKa's Most Wanted album and his extraordinary performance in Boyz N the Hood - The Movie, Cube had eagerly seized the opportunity to express his great distaste for his former colleagues.

"Somebody fucks with me," the once-slender, ever-heftier Dre explained of his manhandling of the 105-pound Barnes, "I'm going to fuck with them." After failing to get him to agree to write and produce four tracks for her Body and Soul album without credit, Barnes filed a $22.7 million lawsuit against both Dre and those of his colleagues in NWA who assured the press that she'd gotten only what she'd had coming. Bitches not being shit and all.

So Dre's life had come to imitating his art, or at least that of his gigantic new mentor Marion (Suge) Knight, who, since failing to set the National Football League afire, had become one of the most dreaded goons in Los Angeles black music circles, the "nasty motherfucker" in whose honor one-time NWA co-manager Morey Alexander keeps a loaded pistol in his desk drawer.

Terror, thy nickname is Suge. Not only violent, Suge also seemed a little crazy, and was absolutely implacable. At a benefit for a South Central charity organization at the Hollywood Palladium, for instance, he decided that he wouldn't let his artist, Michel le, go on until she was paid. Never mind that, because the whole thing was for charity, nobody was being paid, not Another Bad Creation, not even Boyz II Men. It took a while, but the KDAY DJ who was hosting the event finally made Suge understand.

A few days later, though, when he encountered the DJ in a restaurant, Suge got right back in his face -- in front of the guy's family and a whole restaurant-ful of comparably horrified diners. Pushing him against a wall, Suge loudly warned, "This is going to be the last time I [ask] you [for the money]," presumably in the same tone in which he'd advised Morey, "You could be dead too," when Morey tried to intervene in a dispute between Suge and Jerry Heller. It later came out that Michelle had gotten herself a black eye for going on stage without Suge's authorization.

NWA's second full-length album, Efile4zaggin, included a song soliciting calls to the group's 900 number and a coupon with which one could order official Niggaz 4 Life T-shirts and posters, and thus was remarkable for its brazen exploitiveness. It was far more remarkable, though, for its blood-curdling misogyny. "Fellows, next time they try totell a lie that they never sucked a dick," the rapper Ren urges at one point, "punch the bitch in the eye. And then the ho will fall to the ground. Then you open up her mouth, put your dick in and move the shit around. And she'll catch on and start doin' it on her own."

Elsewhere, explaining with jaw-dropping candor why he refers to himself as a nigger, Dre brags about "gettin' paid to say this shit here, makin' more in a week than a doctor makes in a year." In "Message to B.A.," he advises the faithless Cube that "when we see your ass, we're gonna cut your hair off and fuck you with a broomstick," if not put "a motherfucking bullet in your forehead." White folks loved this shit; Efile4zaggin debuted at No. 2 and supplanted Paula Abdul's Spellbound at No. 1 a week later.

On his own next album, the platinum Death Certificate, Cube got right into the spirit of the thing, calling for "a bullet in the temple" of the white Jew "devil" Heller -- this when he wasn't busy vilifying gays and Koreans and threatening the latter with arson. White folks loved this shit, but a nationwide boycott by 3000 Asian grocers forced the makers of St. Ides (the malt liquor that hoped to supplant Olde English 800 as the ghetto's cheap intoxicant of choice) to rescind its TV and radio spots starring the community-minded Cube.

In England, Efile4zaggin inspired talk of toughening the Obscene Publications Act. Even the mad Irish chanteuse Sinead O'Connor fled the shrinking ranks of NWA's apologists. Life was good. But here came the rift that tore NWA apart for keeps, as it dawned on Dre -- scrupulously oblivious to business since his Wreckin' Cru days -- that Eazy seemed to be getting a great deal richer than he even though Dre had understood them to be 50/50 partners.

According to Heller, no less than the music business colossus Sony was in the forefront of the conspiracy to turn Dre against Eazy. "They told him the kinds of things that these guys have historically told young black artists with white managers. He's not very bright, and when they offered him $15 million to leave us and go with them, he was ready to forsake his friends and his roots and morals."

Within 24 hours of the Night of the Leather-Gloved Thugs -- of Dre being released from his Ruthless contracts and Eazy's mama's not being killed -- Heller's lawyers had filed a state court action to invalidate Dre's liberation on the ground that Eazy had acceded to it only under supreme duress. Heller further hired a couple of RICO (racketeer-influenced corrupt organization) aces to file a $248 million lawsuit against Suge and Dre and friends, corporate and other. Eazy cackled, "Dre now works for a bodyguard that used to work for him for like $75 a night," and someone broke into Heller's home in the gated west San Fernando Valley estate in which he, Eazy, and Dre all lived like robber barons to spraypaint "Payback's a motherfucker, Jerry" on the mirrored closet doors in one of his bedrooms. And thus did the ghetto come to Calabasas.

It was painful to wonder how many Reaganomics-ruined youth prog-rams could be restored in Compton for the fortune Heller and Eazy reconciled themselves to spending on Suge-sized bodyguards of their own each month. The most painful part being that, like Eazy's friendship with one of the LAPD defendants in the Rodney King case, the bodyguards might have been all for show, since Eazy, Dre, Ice Cube, and Ren were seen hanging out happily in different combinations at Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood. Could it be that their promises to sodomize one another with broomsticks without the benefit of lubricants constituted one of the most egregiously cynical publicity ploys in the history ofAmerican entertainment?

Once their individual careers died down a little bit, friends speculated, you'd read about the forthcoming release of a third NWA album. Not that there was much sign of any of their careers dying down. Ren's characteristically conciliatory Kizz My Black Azz EP reached No. 12, and was in the charts for 13 weeks. Just in time to make the season bright, Ice Cube's wantonly spiteful The Predator entered the charts at No. 1 in De-cember 1992. And Dre's comparably malevolent The Chronic, released a couple of months later, was still in the Top 5 six months after release, with sales exceeding two million.

White folks continued to love to hear self-described niggers threatening one another.

Back in the CPT, though, nothing much seemed to have changed. Bored, jobless, and without prospects, the boys in the hood still guzzled 8-Ball on street corners and talked a lot of bullshit about how they would somehow claw their way out of the ghetto too. But you never heard one say he wanted to do it Dre's way. His shameless fronting, that gat-in-your-mouth shit of his! When push came to shove, it had turned out to be rich white Century City lawyers like John Branca, formerly Michael Jackson's main man, who fought Dre's battles for him.

Here he was in the Top 10 and on MTV talking homeboy this and homeboy that, and he hadn't done shit for his homeboys, hadn't even hired one of his uncles to work for him. And right around the corner from where his grandmother still lived, boys were still selling iello to put a few bucks in their pockets.

There'd been a time, not so many years before, when they'd have done anything for the brother, would have taken a bullet for him. And now, they agreed, if Dre ever again dared to show his face in the hood, they'd steal his jewelry.


Or maybe put a bullet in the motherfucker themselves.

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