More than any other rapper, Dr. Dre was responsible for moving away from the avant-noise and political stance of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions as well as the party vibes of old-school rap. Instead, Dre pioneered gangsta rap and his own variation of the sound, G-funk. BDP's early albums were hardcore but cautionary tales of the criminal mind, but Dre's records with N.W.A. celebrated the hedonistic, amoralistic side of gang life. Dre was never much of a rapper -- his rhymes were simple and his delivery was slow and clumsy -- but as a producer, he was extraordinary. With N.W.A. he melded the noise collages of the Bomb Squad with funky rhythms. On his own, he reworked George Clinton's elastic funk into the self-styled G-funk, a slow-rolling variation that relied more on sound than content. When he left N.W.A. in 1992, he founded Death Row Records with Suge Knight, and the label quickly became the dominant force in mid-'90s hip-hop thanks to his debut, The Chronic. Soon, most rap records imitated its sound, and his productions for Snoop Doggy Dogg and Blackstreet were massive hits. For nearly four years, G-funk dominated hip-hop, and Dre had enough sense to abandon it and Death Row just before the whole empire collapsed in late 1996. Dre retaliated by forming a new company, Aftermath, and while it was initially slow getting started, his bold moves forward earned critical respect.
Dre (born Andre Young, February 18, 1965) became involved in hip-hop during the early '80s, performing at house parties and clubs with the World Class Wreckin' Cru around South Central Los Angeles and making a handful of recordings along the way. In 1986, he met Ice Cube, and the two rappers began writing songs for Ruthless Records, a label started by former drug pusher Eazy-E. Eazy tried to give one of the duo's songs, "Boyz-n-the Hood," to HBO, a group signed to Ruthless. When the group refused, Eazy formed N.W.A. -- an acronym for Niggaz With Attitude -- with Dre and Cube, releasing their first album in 1987. A year later, 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 "DONT SAY THE F WORD 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.
Most of the group's political threat left with Cube when he departed in late 1989 amid many financial disagreements. While Eazy appeared to be the undisputed leader following Cube's departure -- and he was certainly responsible for the group approaching near-parodic levels with their final pair of records -- the music was in Dre's hands. On both the 1990 EP 100 Miles and Runnin' and the 1991 album Efil4zaggin ("Niggaz4life" spelled backward), he created dense, funky sonic landscapes that were as responsible for keeping N.W.A. at the top of the charts as Eazy's comic-book lyrics. While the group was at the peak of their popularity in 1991, Dre began to make efforts to leave the crew, especially after he was charged with assaulting the host of a televised rap show in 1991. The following year, Dre left the group to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight. According to legend, Knight held N.W.A.'s manager at gunpoint and threatened to kill him if he refused to let Dre out of his contract.
Dre released his first solo single, "Deep Cover," in the spring of 1992. Not only was the record the debut of his elastic G-funk sound, it also was the beginning of his collaboration with rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg. Dre discovered Snoop through his stepbrother Warren G, and he immediately began working with the rapper -- Snoop was on Dre's 1992 debut, The Chronic, as much as Dre himself. Thanks to the singles "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," "Dre Day," and "Let Me Ride," The Chronic was a multi-platinum, Top Ten smash, and the entire world of hip-hop changed with it. For the next four years, it was virtually impossible to hear mainstream hip-hop that wasn't effected in some way by Dre and his patented G-funk. Not only did he produce Snoop's 1993 debut, Doggystyle, but he orchestrated several soundtracks, including Above the Rim and Murder Was the Case (both 1994), which functioned as samplers for his new artists and production techniques, and he helmed hit records such as Blackstreet's "No Diggity," among others, including a hit reunion with Ice Cube, "Natural Born Killaz." During this entire time, Dre released no new records, but he didn't need to -- all of Death Row was under his control, and most of his peers mimicked his techniques.
The Death Row dynasty held strong until the spring of 1996, when Dre grew frustrated with Knight's strong-arm techniques. At the time, Death Row was devoting itself to 2Pac's label debut, All Eyez on Me (which featured Dre on the breakthrough hit, "California Love"), and Snoop was busy recovering from his draining murder trial. Dre left the label in the summer of 1996 to form Aftermath, declaring gangsta rap dead. While he was subjected to endless taunts from his former Death Row colleagues, their sales slipped by 1997 and Knight was imprisoned on racketeering charges by the end of the year. Dre's first album for Aftermath, the various-artists collection Dr. Dre Presents...The Aftermath received considerable media attention, but the record didn't become a hit, despite the presence of his hit single, "Been There Done That." Even though the album wasn't a success, the implosion of Death Row in 1997 proved that Dre's inclinations were correct at the time. Both 2001 and its companion instrumental version followed in 1999.
Ice Cube was the first member of the seminal Californian rap group N.W.A. to leave, and he quickly established himself as one of hip-hop's best and most controversial artists. From the outset of his career, he courted controversy, since his rhymes were profane and political. As a solo artist, his politics and social commentary sharpened substantially, and his first two records, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and Death Certificate, were equally praised and reviled for their lyrical stance, which happened to be considerably more articulate than many of his gangsta peers. As his career progressed, Cube's influence began to decline, particularly as he tried to incorporate elements of contemporary groups like Cypress Hill into his sound, but his stature never diminished, and he remained one of the biggest rap stars throughout the '90s.
For such a revolutionary figure, Cube (born O'Shea Jackson) came from a surprisingly straight background. Raised in South Central Los Angles, where both of his parents had jobs at UCLA, Cube didn't become involved with b-boy culture until his late teens. He began writing raps while in high school, including "Boyz-n-the Hood." With his partner Sir Jinx, Cube began rapping in a duo called CIA at parties hosted by Dr. Dre, and he eventually met Eazy-E, then leading a group called HBO, through Dre. Eazy asked Cube to write a rap, and he presented them with "Boyz-n-the Hood," which was rejected. Eazy decided to leave CIA, and he, Cube, and Dre formed the first incarnation of N.W.A. Cube left to study architectural drafting at Phoenix, AZ, in 1987, returning the following year after he obtained a one-year degree. He arrived just in time for N.W.A.'s breakthrough album, Straight Outta Compton. Released late in 1988, Straight Outta Compton became an underground hit over the course of 1989, and its extreme lyrical content -- which was over-the-top both lyrically and politically -- attracted criticism, most notably from the FBI.
N.W.A. may have been rivaling Public Enemy as the most notorious group in hip-hop, but Cube was having deep conflicts with their management, resulting in him leaving the band in late 1989. He went to New York with his new posse, da Lench Mob, and recorded his first solo album with Public Enemy's production team, the Bomb Squad. Released in the spring of 1990, his debut AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted was an instant hit, going gold within its first two weeks of release. While the record's production and Cube's rhythmic skills were praised, his often violent, homophobic, and misogynist lyrics were criticized, particularly by the rock press and moral watchdogs. Even amid such controversy, the album was hailed as a groundbreaking classic within hip-hop, and it established Cube as an individual force. He began his own corporation, which was run by a woman, and he produced the debut album from his female protégée, Yo-Yo. At the end of 1990, he released the EP Kill at Will, which was followed in the spring by Yo-Yo's debut, Make Way for the Motherlode. That summer, his acting debut in John Singleton's acclaimed urban drama Boyz 'n the Hood was widely praised.
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted may have been controversial, but it paled next the furor surrounding Cube's second album, Death Certificate. Released late in 1991, Death Certificate was simultaneously more political and vulgar than its predecessor, causing more outrage. In particular, "No Vaseline," a vicious attack on N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, was perceived as anti-Semitic, and "Black Korea" was taken as a racist invocation to burn down all Korean-owned grocery stores. The songs provoked a public condemnation from the trade publication Billboard. It was the first time an artist had been singled out by the magazine. The furor over Death Certificate didn't prevent it from reaching number two and going platinum. During 1992, he toured with the second Lollapalooza tour in a successful attempt to consolidate his white rock audience. He also converted to the Nation of Islam during 1992, which was evident on his next album, The Predator. Upon its release in December of 1992, The Predator became the first album to debut at number one on both the pop and R&B charts. The steady-rolling single "It Was a Good Day" and the Das EFX collaboration "Check Yo Self" made the album Cube's most popular.
However, Cube's hold on the mass rap audience was beginning to slip. His former colleague, Dre, was dominating hip-hop with his stoned G-funk, and Cube tried to keep pace with 1993's Lethal Injection. While the album debuted at number five and went platinum, its funkier sound wasn't well-received. Lethal Injection was Cube's last official album for several years. In 1994, he wrote and produced da Lench Mob's debut Guerillas in tha Mist, and produced Kam's debut, Neva Again, releasing a remix and rarities collection Bootlegs & B-Sides at the end of the year. In 1995, he kept quiet, appearing in Singleton's film Higher Learning and making amends with Dre on their duet "Natural Born Killaz." The following year, he acted in the comedy Friday, which he wrote himself. He also formed Westside Connection with Mack 10 and WC, releasing their debut album, Bow Down, at the end of the year. It went gold within its first month of release. In the spring of 1997, Cube starred in the surprise hit horror film Anaconda. War & Peace, Vol. 1 (The War Disc) followed in 1998; its sequel, The Peace Disc, followed two years later.