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Hanging Tough: Our April 1990 Interview with N.W.A.

This piece originally appeared in the April 1990 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 30th anniversary of NWA’s landmark 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, we’re republishing it here.

The numbers alone are impressive. Both NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and NWA member Eazy E’s solo album Eazy-Duz-It have sold over one and a half million units each without radio play, MTV support or major record company promotion.

Equally impressive is the $650,00 that NWA grossed on tour last year, of which manager Jerry Heller took $130,000. Ice Cube, meanwhile, whom many regard as the group’s chief spokesman, went home with $23,000. When Ice Cube asked about profits from NWA merchandise being sold on the tour he was told it was none of his business. That was about par for the course, according to the man who either wrote or co-wrote approximately half of the raps on the Eazy E and NWA album. This significant contribution to over three million records sold has s far earned Ice Cube $32,000.

Now that the disgruntled rapper has left the band, the question arises, has the soul and intelligence of NWA walked out of the door with him?

SPIN: Why did you leave NWA?

Cube: Financial reasons, man. I wasn’t getting paid. When you contribute to the sale of three million albums, you expect more than $32,000. Jerry Heller [NWA manager] lives in a half million-dollar house in West Lake, and I’m still living at home with my mother. Jerry’s driving a Corvette and a Mercedes Benz and I’ve got a Suzuki Side Kick. You know what I mean. Jerry’s making all the money, and I’m not. Jerry has no creative input into the group: he just makes all the fucked-up decisions and gets all the fucking money.

What do you mean “fucked-up decisions”?

Like refusing to do the Jesse Jackson chat show because there was no money involved. Jesse Jackson wanted to do an interview with NWA for his new show “Voices of America.” The topic of the show was the controversial music that kids are listening to today. There’s no way on this planet that NWA shouldn’t have been on that show. With the exception of Public Enemy, there’s no group more controversial than NWA. We should have been on that show, getting nationwide exposure and getting people on our side.

When you turn down something like that, you’ve gotta think that the man doesn’t want it for the group. He’s just in it for the short term so that he can make as much money as quickly as possible.

Jerry told me that one of the reasons you left NWA was that your publicist, Pat Charbonet, was filling your head with notions that you were a big star and you would be even bigger on your own. 

The only thing Pat Charbonet told me was to get a lawyer. They got mad when I did that. Jerry told me that lawyers were made to cause trouble. But lawyers only cause trouble if there’s trouble to cause.

What about the future?

I’m doing a solo album with Priority Records. [Public Enemy’s] Chuck D and [PE producer] Hank Shocklee are going to produce it. It’s going to be called America’s Most Wanted. There’s gonna be tracks like “Endangered Species.” Young black teenagers have now been added to the endangered species list.

There’s another track called “Turn Off the Radio,” which is about how black radio still doesn’t play a fair share of hip hop. NWA has gone platinum with little help from black radio. That song is telling kids, be your own programmer—turn off the radio and make your own tapes.

I was talking to the Luke Skyywalker [of The 2 Live Crew] recently about the media’s moral panic about supposedly obscene rap lyrics. He said that as long as hip hop remains solely a black thing, it could be as dirty as it wanted: it’s only when white kids start apeing black styles that the authorities get concerned.

Yeah! It’s like with the gang problem in Los Angeles. As long as the gangs stay in South Central Los Angeles, the authorities don’t mind. But when they move into Beverly Hills and Westwood—that’s when it’s a problem, that’s when the authorities kick in, that’s when the police come down to South Central and harass every black man in a T-shirt.

“We tried to settle this dispute diligently,” says Ice Cube’s lawyer, Michael Ashburn. “We bent over backwards to try and make a financial agreement that was acceptable to both sides. I was surprised how indifferent they were when it came to settling this dispute. It was like Jerry Heller didn’t care whether Ice Cube—someone who unarguably had made a major contribution to the group—left or stayed. Ice Cube would still be with NWA if our very reasonable financial demands had been met. They have us a statement showing that Ice Cube had been advanced $32,700. He’s owed at least another $120,000, plus his publishing royalties, which he hasn’t received a cent on so far. Ice Cube wanted to continue with NWA, but he just wasn’t getting paid.”

“Jerry Heller says I encouraged Ice Cube to leave NWA,” says publicist Pat Charbonet. “That’s the first time I’ve been accused of inciting slaves to riot.”

“The real reason that Ice Cube left NWA was that he was incredibly jealous of the notoriety and success of Eazy E,” says Jerry Heller. “He wanted to be Eazy E. He was jealous because not only is Eazy a key member of NWA with a successful solo career, he’s also the president of his own record company. Eazy E is a major star and a succesfull businessman. Ice Cube isn’t.”

A white-haired music biz veteran with an abrasive manner, Jerry Heller is an unlikely choice as the manager of a hip-hop group. In his heyday he ran Heller For Show, a booking agency that handled tours by top acts such as Elton John, Pink Floyd, REO Speedwagon, and ELO. By the 80s his star was in decline.

In October of 1987 he met Eazy E, a former drug dealer with bags of cash and two very talented friends—Dr. Dre and Yella—who would become the NWA production team. Together they set up Ruthless Records and scored a big pop hit with the corny electro hip hop jam “Supersonic” by JJ Fad—released on the associated label Dream Team. Heller tells the story of how, on receipt of a six-figure check from Atlantic (the major record company that licensed the song from Ruthless), he took Eazy to the bank and taught him how to open a checking account.

Today, Ruthless is living largely, as one of the most successful hip hop companies around, with a roster that includes (as well as NWA and Eazy) such new signings as Above The Law (“They’re pimps and players,” says Eazy, “rolling and clocking ho’s”); New York female rappers Bitches With Problems (“They make NWA look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” jokes Jerry Heller); R&B Diva, Michel’le (“She talks like a five year old and sings like a thirteen year old,” says Eazy), and The D.O.C., whose rapping career is undiminished by a recent car accident in which he flew through the back window and crushed his vocal chords.

“We’ve got the makings of a company that’s going to be to the 90s what Berry Gordy’s Motown was to the 60s,” says Jerry Heller. “And the creative nucleus is Dr. Dre, Yella and Eazy.”

It’s difficult to imagine Eazy E behind the trigger of an AK-47. A slight figure with processed hair and the brattish demeanor of someone to whom success has come too quickly, Eazy is inevitably described as an angry young black man from the ghetto. But in reality Eazy is the type of guy who only really gets mad when someone messes with his jheri curl. Public Enemy’s Chuck D tells a story about being on tour with NWA in Chicago where Eazy refused to leave the hotel room in case his hair got wet.

Fellow Los Angeles rapper Ice-T tells a joke about what he imagines an NWA recording session is like—Ice Cube in the corner scribbling down lyrics while Eazy chides him, “Make me sound tougher. You’re not making me sound tough enough.”

Is the departure of Ice Cube a big loss to the band?

Eazy: No, it means we get more money.

How would you assess his contribution to NWA?

No comment.

Well, Ice Cube has got comments. He says he wasn’t getting paid. He says that you and Jerry got all the money.

On to the next subject.

Let’s talk about “Fuck Tha Police.” Did you follow what was going on in Boston in January, where Chuck Stuart apparently murdered his wife and blamed it on a black mugger and everyone believed him? Is that what you meant on “Fuck Tha Police?”

No, I don’t know nothing about all that. We were just talking about what happens to us in Compton.

But racism isn’t something that just happens in Compton.

The black police in Compton are worse than the white police. Chuck D gets involved in all that black stuff, we don’t. Fuck that black power shit: we don’t give a fuck. Free South Africa: we don’t give a fuck. I bet there ain’t anybody in South Africa wearing a button saying “Free Compton” or “Free California.” They don’t give a damn about us, so why should we give a damn about them? We’re not into politics at all. We’re just saying what other people are afraid to say.

Tell me about the FBI letter accusing you of advocating violence against the police.

It was juice. We liked it.

Do you think it could hurt your career?

What are they gonna do? Put us in jail for making a record?

Did you get hassled by the police growing up in Compton?

Every day. They stereotype you and mess with you because you got a beeper, a little gold and a nice car. They figure you’re a drug dealer or gang member.

Some people say that NWA glamorize black-on-black crime. 

So what? They can say what the fuck they like. We’re not telling anybody to join a gang or do drive-by shootings or to rob, steal and kill. We’re just telling how it is in Compton.

Other people say you disrespect women.

We’re not disrespecting women, we’re disrespecting bitches.

What’s the difference between a bitch and a woman?

A woman is a woman. A bitch is someone who carries herself in a stuck-up way. A bitch is someone who fucks everybody except me.

At the start of the interview, I presumed that Eazy E’s laconic, don’t-give-a-shit manner was merely a case of the rapper playing a game of pin-the-tale-on-the-honky. By the end of our session, I realized that with the departure of Ice Cube, NWA’s collective IQ now barely makes it above room temperature.

But this is part of NWA’s appeal for some. Funkenklein of Red Alert Productions—a man whose opinions I normally trust implicitly—sees NWA as a welcome reaction against “all that righteous, political bullshit in hip hop at the moment. They don’t give a fuck. And that’s why they’re cool.”

Attempting to explain the differences between the more cultural type of hip hop you get in New York and what passes for rap music in Los Angeles, Greg Sandow—music critic of Entertainment Weekly and a strong supporter of the band—explains: “They’re two completely different societies. Try and find a credible black leader in Los Angeles. Even an Al Sharpton. Everything that happens in Los Angeles happens in a vacuum. There’s no political consciousness being developed, because there’s little community activism.”

There’s no doubt that Compton is a violent, troubled neighborhood, but from the outside, despite the gangs and drugs, it looks surprisingly bourgeois. “It doesn’t look like Germany after World War II,” says Jerry Heller. “It’s all houses with nice little lawns.”

Last year, Ice Cube’s comfortable, middle-class home was fired on in a drive-by shooting: the bullets were supposedly meant for a neighbor’s house. And Jerry Heller tells a story about signing a Compton rapper called E Rock on a Friday, who by Sunday had been shot dead. And Michel’le, on a recent visit to the hairdresser, was held up at gunpoint, her car hijacked, and her money stolen in broad daylight.

There’s been a lot of nonsense written in the media about NWA and their neighborhood. Typical was a piece in a recent edition of Option which talked about the band’s “threat to middle-class ideology” and the way they provide “a glimpse into the conditions of the inner-city, where poor or non-existent housing and little legal economic advancement have led people to extreme means.”

There is an element of documentary realism about NWA’s music, but that is largely overshadowed by the gleeful delight the band takes in demonstrating their supposed toughness. In reality, NWA have more in common with a Charles Bronson movie than a PBS documentary on the plight of the inner-cities.

The media myth that US crime is black is peddled daily in newsprint and nightly on the networks. Sadly, it’s a myth that NWA do little to dispel. Niggers With Attitude? Niggers With Activator, more like.