N.W.A, the unapologetically violent and sexist pioneers of gangsta rap, are 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 in 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 ones that fulfilled the fantasies of the teenage white suburbanites who 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 Although the group was no longer active, their influence -- from their funky, bass-driven beats to their exaggerated lyrics -- was evident throughout the '90s.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 their original incarnation N.W.A were hardly revolutionary. Eazy-E (born 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 (born Andre Young) -- a member of the World Class Wreckin' Cru -- and Ice Cube (born 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 N.W.A -- an acronym for N***az With Attitude -- with Dre and Cube, adding World Class Wreckin' Cru member DJ Yella (born 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 (born Lorenzo Patterson) 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 "F*** 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. A nasty feud between N.W.A and the departed rapper began that would culminate with Cube's "No Vaseline," an attack on the group's management released on his 1991 Death Certificate album. By the time the song was released, N.W.A, for all intents and purposes, was finished.
In the two years between Cube's departure and the group's dissolution, N.W.A was dominated by Eazy's near-parodic lyrics and Dre's increasingly subtle and complex productions. The group quickly released an EP, 100 Miles and Runnin', in 1990 before following it up early the next year with Efil4zaggin ("N***az 4 Life" spelled backward). Efil4zaggin was teeming with dense, funky soundscapes and ridiculously violent and misogynist lyrics. Naturally, the lyrics provoked outrage from many critics and conservative watchdogs, but that only increased the group's predominately male, white suburban audience. Even though the group was at the peak of their popularity, Dre began to make efforts to leave the crew, due to conflicting egos and what he perceived as an unfair record deal.
Dre left the group to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight in early 1992. According to legend, Knight threatened to kill N.W.A's manager Jerry Heller if he refused to let Dre out of his contract. Over the next few years, Dre and Eazy engaged in a highly publicized feud, which included both of the rappers attacking each other on their respective solo albums. Ren and Yella both released solo albums, which were largely ignored, and Eazy continued to record albums that turned him into a complete self-parody until his tragic death from AIDS in March 1995. Before he died, Dre and Cube both made amends with Eazy. With his first solo album, 1992's The Chronic, Dre established himself as the premier hip-hop producer of the mid-'90s, setting the pace for much of hardcore rap with its elastic bass and deep, rolling grooves. Gangsta rap established itself as the most popular form of hip-hop during the '90s -- in other words, N.W.A's amoralistic, hedonistic stance temporarily triumphed over the socially conscious, self-award hip-hop of Public Enemy, and it completely rewrote the rules of hip-hop for the '90s.
Eric B. & Rakim
They never had a mainstream hit of their own, but during rap's so-called golden age in the late '80s, Eric B. & Rakim were almost universally recognized as the premier DJ/MC team in all of hip-hop. Not only was their chemistry superb, but individually, each represented the absolute state of the art in their respective skills. Eric B. was a hugely influential DJ and beatmaker whose taste for hard-hitting James Brown samples touched off a stampede through the Godfather of Soul's back catalog that continues up to the present day. Rakim, meanwhile, still tops fan polls as the greatest MC of all time. He crafted his rhymes like poetry, filling his lines with elaborate metaphors and complex internal rhymes, and he played with the beat like a jazzman, earning a reputation as the smoothest-flowing MC ever to pick up a mic. His articulation was clear, his delivery seemingly effortless, and his influence on subsequent MCs incalculable. Together, their peerless technique on the microphone and turntables upped the ante for all who followed them, and their advancement of hip-hop as an art form has been acknowledged by everyone from Gang Starr to the Wu-Tang Clan to Eminem. While certain elements of their sound might come off as slightly dated today, it's also immediately clear how much of a hand Eric B. & Rakim had in leading hip-hop into the modern age.
Eric B. was born Eric Barrier in 1965 in Elmhurst, Queens; his future partner, William Griffin Jr., was born in 1968 and also hailed from the suburbs of New York, specifically Wyandanch, Long Island. At age 16, Griffin converted to Islam and adopted the name Rakim Allah. Barrier played trumpet and guitar early on, but switched to the turntables in high school, and eventually landed a job as the mobile DJ for radio station WBLS. It was there that he met Rakim, and the two officially formed a partnership in 1985. Their first single -- "Eric B. Is President" (an ode to Barrier's DJ skills) b/w "My Melody" -- was released on the tiny Harlem-based indie label Zakia. It was a street-level sensation during the summer of 1986, and the duo was picked up by the larger 4th & Broadway imprint. The equally monumental singles "I Ain't No Joke" and "I Know You Got Soul" sampled James Brown and his cohort Bobby Byrd, respectively, and their utter funkiness began to revolutionize the sound of hip-hop. Moreover, Rakim's line "pump up the volume" on the latter track was in turn sampled itself, becoming the basis for M/A/R/R/S' hit of the same name.
In 1987, 4th & Broadway issued the duo's full-length debut, Paid in Full; accompanied by a mighty underground buzz, the record climbed into the Top Ten on the R&B LP charts (as would all of their subsequent albums). Additionally, the British DJ duo Coldcut remixed the title cut into a bona fide U.K. smash. The exposure helped make "Paid in Full"'s drum track one of the most sampled beats this side of James Brown's "Funky Drummer"; it provided the foundation for Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True," among many other, more credible hits. On the heels of Paid in Full, Eric B. & Rakim signed with MCA subsidiary Uni and consolidated their reputation with another landmark hip-hop album, 1988's Follow the Leader. The title cut took its place among the classic singles already in their canon, and Jody Watley soon tapped the duo for a guest spot on her 1989 single "Friends," which brought them into the pop Top Ten for the first and only time.
The 1990 follow-up Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em proved relatively disappointing from a creative standpoint, although 1992's slightly jazzier Don't Sweat the Technique was a more consistent affair that bolstered their legacy. As it turned out, the record also completed that legacy. The duo's contract with MCA was almost up, and they had discussed the possibility of each recording a solo album. Unfortunately, the resulting tension over the future of their partnership ultimately destroyed it. In the aftermath of the breakup, various legal issues prevented both parties from starting their solo careers for quite some time. The only recording to appear was Rakim's first solo cut, "Heat It Up," which was featured on the soundtrack of the 1993 film Gunmen. Finally, in 1995, Eric B. issued his self-titled solo debut on his own 95th Street label. Rakim, meanwhile, signed with Universal and delivered a pair of acclaimed comeback albums, 1997's The 18th Letter and 1999's The Master.