“When we broke up, the group was Number One on the Billboard chart,” N.W.A‘s DJ Yella, says. “I mean, groups don’t break up at Number One. They break up at Number 1,000.”
“It was, like, shit – all good things come to an end,” says bandmate MC Ren.
N.W.A issued their second and final album, Efil4zaggin — pronounced by the surviving members as “Niggaz4Life,” 25 years ago this weekend. They had attempted to pull off the impossible and one-up 1988’s brilliant, controversial gangsta-rap battle cry Straight Outta Compton. Even though they were over before it came out, they accomplished their mission: Efil4zaggin claimed the Number One spot on Billboard for one week and it was certified platinum later that year. “Hell has apparently frozen over,” Rolling Stone declared.
Although the making of Efil4zaggin wasn’t especially documented in last year’s Straight Outta Compton biopic, it was a sonic triumph that provided a crucial launching pad for the G-funk sound that producer and rapper Dr. Dre would usher in the following year. The LP’s fascinating history begins with Dre and Yella ditching samples by and large in favor of recording real instruments, for the tighter, deeper sound that would eventually turn gangsta rap into America’s popular music of choice. They fused metal with soul (“Real Niggaz Don’t Die”), wrote their own horror soundtracks (“Approach to Danger”) and indulged in dubby sex jams (“She Swallowed It”). The story ends with the group slowly imploding as Dre and associate D.O.C. sought to create their own greener pastures. It’s too big to fit in a film.
“I think we got the story told pretty good in the movie, it’s pretty close,” Yella says. “But there was just so much going on with that album. It would have to go into a ‘Part Two.'”
For all of the surprise success and notoriety the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Dangerous Group” achieved with 1988’s revolutionary Straight Outta Compton, from platinum plaques to withstanding FBI threats, that version of N.W.A wouldn’t make it through the decade. Ice Cube, the MC behind some of the group’s most cutting lyrics, clashed with Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller over payment and quit at the end of the 1989 tour. “He didn’t even ride back to L.A. with everybody else,” says the D.O.C., the Texas rapper and associate who wrote some of the group’s lyrics. “It was over after that. There was no more Cube.”
Undeterred, the members of N.W.A moved on. Dr. Dre had been busy in 1989 producing the D.O.C.’s classic full-length debut, No One Can Do It Better and R&B singer Michel’le’s self-titled debut. Early in the next year, he worked on Livin’ Like Hustlers, the first recording by Above the Law, the pioneering L.A.-area crew that predicted the G-funk sound. Before long, N.W.A regrouped to record their own statement of intent, the EP 100 Miles and Runnin’.
“We was just trying to put out something to let everybody know that we were still going,” Ren says.
The EP contained four new tunes with a noticeably different sound than Straight Outta Compton. Where tracks like “Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” contained several layers of gritty, tweaked samples, the music on EP standouts like “Real Niggaz” and “Just Don’t Bite It” sounded deeper, clearer and jazzier. As the music industry began heavily policing the use of samples in rap, Dre and Yella decided to bring in musicians to play the sounds they had in their heads and to replicate and tweak some of the samples they’d otherwise use. It was a turning point for Dre.
After a tour with Michel’le, bassist Colin Wolfe became friends with N.W.A, and Dre began inviting him to play bass and keyboards as well as help with engineering. Wolfe would later co-write several tracks on The Chronic. However, at the time of 100 Miles, he found himself refiguring a legendary musician who was hesitant to have his music anchoring a song about blowjobs.
“When we first did [“Just Don’t Bite It.”], the music underneath it was ‘Watermelon Man’ by Herbie Hancock, and it was dope as fuck, it was bananas,” Wolfe recalls. “But when Herbie heard it, he was like, ‘Oh, hell no.'”
“Herbie Hancock called us in the studio and said we couldn’t use it,” Yella says. “Dre and I looked at each other, like, ‘Why?’ I guess his wife said something … and he didn’t let us use it. We was like, ‘Really?'”
“He didn’t know he was turning down some icons in the hip-hop industry at the time,” Wolfe says. “How would he know that?”
Another addition to the studio at the time was Mike “Crazy Neck” Sims, a jazz guitarist and bassist who earned his nickname from Dre after moving his head to the groove of the tracks he was recording. He also found himself filling the role of “corny white guy” and racist cop on some of the album’s skits. “They never wrote down what they wanted me to say, they’d just tell me what to say,” he recalls. “It was kind of fun. I was also maybe a little nervous at times because they had me saying the N-word in a whole room full of brothers staring at me,” Sims laughs. “I was like, ‘Hey, this isn’t me saying this. It’s a character.’ They had me saying some stuff that was just awful.”
“Eazy-E told me, ‘You’re going to have to be the main cat on this album.’ – MC Ren
Beyond the music, the group also had to fill the void left by Cube. This placed a greater responsibility on Ren and the D.O.C., who became N.W.A’s chief lyricists. “I knew I had to step it up a notch,” Ren says. “The rappers were just me, E and Dre at that point; and E told me at one point, ‘You’re going to have to be the main cat on this album.’ So I knew I had to go in there and just go crazy. … I would listen to the other great MCs and work on my delivery all the time. I was listening to Chuck D, KRS, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, all the greats, studying them. My voice had to be tight. There wasn’t no room for error.”
A friend of Dre’s, the D.O.C. had moved from Dallas to Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties and found himself crafting words for the producer and Eazy-E. “Dre wrote his own raps for two days when I first got to L.A., and then he never wrote his own shit ever again,” D.O.C. says. The rapper made a brief appearance on Straight Outta Compton’s “Parental Discretion Iz Advised,” but for the most part stayed behind the scenes. In November 1989, he was hospitalized after he hit a tree while driving drunk without a seatbelt. His vocal cords were severed in the accident, turning his voice into a husky rasp and putting a damper on his rap career. Nevertheless, he continued to write for the group.
“I could only whisper,” he recalls. “So I couldn’t record the lyrics for them anymore. So I developed a code where you could decipher where the lyrics would go. I put a 0 over the downbeat and two, three and four corresponded to their beats. Dre learned to follow that system. With Eazy, I just whispered into his ear and he laid it. I was trying to give those guys the best work I could, considering the state of mind. It was a way to feel normal.
“I didn’t come from the West Coast experience, I came from Dallas and I was an introvert and a nerd,” he says. “I was writing from my imagination and stories I got from those guys. When I wrote for Eazy, I wrote for the character. Everybody knew Eazy loved girls, so I would make him funny, even though it was somewhat misogynistic.”
D.O.C. claims responsibility for writing the rhyme that sparked one of hip-hop’s most legendary wars on wax. On “Real Niggaz,” the only 100 Miles track that would also appear on Efil4zaggin, Dre raps about his former bandmate Ice Cube, “We started out with too much cargo/So I’m glad we got rid of Benedict Arnold.” D.O.C. would later write a verse on Efil4zaggin’s “Always Into Somethin” that referred to “your bitch O’Shea,” using Ice Cube’s real name. In the battle of words that followed, D.O.C. says Cube never targeted him. “He never lit my ass up like he lit their asses up, because I think Cube knew I was just doing my best to do a job,” he says. “It would be like beating up on a person that didn’t have all his faculties.”
Ice Cube returned with the venomous “No Vaseline” later that year, but time has proven that everyone involved in the diss tracks has moved on. But it’s a period that’s still raw for some members. “You’re trying to start something,” Ren tells Rolling Stone when the topic comes up. “I don’t even want to talk about that, man.”
Yella says the movie depiction of N.W.A’s reaction to “No Vaseline” was accurate, at least for him. “I said, ‘Hey, he got us,'” the DJ says. “It was just the way the actor did it. Once the group had broke up, them differences had been gone.”
When it came out in August 1990, the 100 Miles and Runnin’ EP made it to Number 27 on the albums chart and was certified gold within three months, eventually going platinum. But it was just the preamble. In the intro to 100 Miles’ version of “Real Niggaz,” Dr. Dre promised, “Wait until the motherfuckin’ album comes out. We’re gonna have some more of that good shit, the shit you just can’t fuck with. … We ain’t finished.” They ended the EP with a “Kamurshol” that teased the album’s title, playing it backwards, just as it would appear on the album cover: Efil4zaggin.
I came up with writing Niggaz4Life backwards when we was on the tour bus together in ’89,” Yella says. “I wrote it down on a piece of paper and held it in the mirror, and I was like, ‘Hey.’ We didn’t know if would be the album title or not but I remember having the name.”
“Going into Niggaz4Life, we knew what it had to be,” Ren says. “It was, ‘This is what everybody thinks about us. This is what we think about ourselves. This is how our group is.'”
The group spent months in the studio – working from about 10 in the morning to 7 at night – on an album they hoped would top Straight Outta Compton. It began with brainstorming song titles. Wolfe recalls “The Dayz of Wayback,” “One Less Bitch,” “Alwayz Into Somethin'” as songs that were titles first.
Ren brought the title “Appetite for Destruction” to the group for what would become a funky, syncopated paean to violent chaos. “I came up with that from Guns N’ Roses,” he says. “We hung out with them one time. They had a show at the Forum in Inglewood, and we went to hang out with them before and after the show. We had heard that Axl was an N.W.A fan.”
“I remember talking to Axl Rose backstage, and he started rapping.” – MC Ren
“I remember having a headache for three days, that music was so loud,” Yella says.
“They was real cool,” Ren recalls. “I remember talking to Axl backstage in the dressing room and he started rapping. I can’t remember how it went, but he busted a rhyme.”
“We were supposed to do a couple of shows with them, but our manager got too greedy,” Yella says. “They wanted to give us $25,000 for 10 minutes, but our management wanted $50,000 so it didn’t work. We might have ended up doing a whole bunch of shows with them.” Then-manager Jerry Heller tells Rolling Stone he does not recall a solid offer for Guns N’ Roses shows, but that he “probably” would have asked for more than $50,000, as he thought they were worth it.
Once the titles were decided on, Dre and Yella would work on the music. Sims learned early never to challenge Dr. Dre’s ear. “I remember working on ‘Niggaz 4 Life,’ we had the bass line down and he sang me a guitar part. Being the guy who studied music in college, I told him, ‘Dre, I don’t think is going to work.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Just play it, motherfucker.’ So I did and it blew my mind because it worked in a way that I would never have come up with. It was unbelievable. That’s when I knew that guy was a genius. He heard that in his head. From that moment on I never questioned him on anything. It was humbling. That moment changed my life.”
Wolfe recalls Dre playing a lot of records by Parliament, Roy Ayers, Bill Withers, Isaac Hayes and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum,” among others, for inspiration in the studio. It was around this time that Wolfe bought the crew’s first Moog keyboard, an instrument whose piercing sounds would later become a staple on The Chronic. “Sometimes we would listen to a record we like and change a note or two from the groove to make it our own,” Wolfe recalls. “If it wasn’t working, we’d shoot from the hip and figure something out.”
One track, the Eazy-E comedy showcase “I’d Rather Fuck You,” found Wolfe and his fellow musicians completely remaking Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You.” “That’s the stuff I grew up listening to,” Wolfe says. “So I stayed up all night practicing, just to get that groove right. Bootsy’s a legend. Can’t be half-stepping on something like that.”
The sessions were generally lax, and the musicians would generally show up to the sessions earlier than the rappers. Sometimes there would be big groups of people hanging out in the lobby – the studio area was always quiet – and other times it was more chill. Wolfe and D.O.C. remember meeting Snoop Dogg, a friend of Warren G’s, around this time, though Dre wasn’t interested in working with him at the time. Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, Rose Royce trumpeter Kenny Copeland and even Bootsy Collins stopped by for sessions, though neither Wolfe nor Sims recall if their recordings made the cut. “They flew Bootsy out for three or four days,” Sims says. “I got to play his bass, which was awesome.”
Heller rarely showed up, and Eazy-E, who was running Ruthless Records at the time, usually came only when he needed to record. The Compton biopic depicts Eazy-E as agitated during the sessions, yelling at everyone in the studio that they had to compete with Cube. However, this wasn’t the case.
“They had to Hollywood it up a little bit,” Yella says.
“Shit, he was cool,” Ren says. “He’d just be in there, clowning around, joking. Eazy always had jokes.”
“I don’t recall Eazy ever being stressed out, ’cause Eazy was getting all the fucking money,” D.O.C. says with a laugh. “He didn’t have to worry about the music, because he wasn’t doing any of it. Eazy was a blessed dude.”
The lyrics that Ren and D.O.C. wrote were at times violent and lewd, including the lascivious “She Swallowed It,” Ren’s fellatio-loving sequel to “Just Don’t Bite It.”
“It was just having fun,” he says vaguely. “Back then I was just young, in my early 20s. We were on tour, young, stuff was happening.” Does Ren regret writing any of N.W.A’s more notoriously misogynistic lyrics? “There are a couple,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about which ones, but there a couple. I’m older now.”
Although the D.O.C. wrote a good portion of Efil4zaggin, he feels N.W.A lost some of its essence when Cube left. “N.W.A was the realization of the streets becoming conscious of the shit it was drowning in, and Cube was its Chuck D,” he says.”When Cube left, it just turned into nigga shit. It was back to, ‘What can we say that could shock people or make people angry?’ All the soul was gone. The reasoning of why you were saying ‘nigga’ and all these things that could be considered vile was gone. The reason why you were angry or upset was gone.”
After his accident, D.O.C. recalls being very depressed, mad at himself and ashamed, feelings he couldn’t put into the lyrics. “I just tried to squeeze my nuts as hard as I could and be a nigga,” he says with a laugh. “I was trying to make those guys sound really good to people other than the people who are wowed by cursing. I wanted the wordplay to be special so that the people who really love hip-hop and rap could get into it.”
The seeds of N.W.A’s eventual breakup were sown when the group was still working on Efil4zaggin. When the D.O.C. got out of the hospital, he bought a house around the corner from Dre, Heller and Eazy. “So we’re all in this neighborhood that’s as white as you can get and they’re writing, ‘Nigger go home’ on Eazy’s garage in red paint and all of that shit. I found out through Suge [Knight] how [N.W.A management] had taken advantage of me throughout that whole process,” he claims.
Knight, a 6’2″ former defensive end for the L.A. Rams, had become a bodyguard and concert promoter who was working with the D.O.C. “He showed me that when they gave money to me, whether it was for that house or for that hospital bill, they were paying me with my own money and then charged me back for those payments,” D.O.C. says. “I told Dre. And I think what got his ears tingling was, ‘Well, [Eazy] did it to Cube, he did it to me, he could be doin’ this shit to you,’ and Dre thought about that for a while and asked for his paperwork. That started the whole ball rolling.”
For his part, Heller says it’s “possible” that Ruthless paid out money for D.O.C.’s hospital bills and then recouped it from his royalties. He also claims that he personally paid a down payment on the D.O.C.’s house and that he did recoup it out of his future royalties. “It wasn’t a gift, I lent him the money,” Heller says. Moreover, he claims that since they had a distribution deal with Atlantic, D.O.C.’s contract “conformed with whatever we were obligated to put in it to honor our contract with Atlantic.”
“I don’t know if Suge was the devil himself before the end, but he certainly turned out to be a cold motherfucker.” – The D.O.C.
“Dre is no dummy,” D.O.C. says. “Dre was doing 80 percent of the work. He wanted his just due and he went to those guys and tried to get those guys to do things the right way, but Eazy wasn’t havin’ it. So Suge, Dre and I decided that we would start our own thing together and that way we know that we’ll finally get what we deserve from this shit.”
Knight, who stopped by the Efil4zaggin sessions only a couple times, allegedly forced Eazy’s hand in nulling Dre’s contract. He, Dre and D.O.C. went on to found Death Row Records, which would issue Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle and Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez on Me, among other LPs that would define hip-hop in the mid-Nineties. “Suge was a great friend to me in the beginning,” D.O.C. says. “He helped out a lot. But money, prestige and fame change people, so I don’t know if Suge was the devil himself before the end, but he certainly turned out to be a cold motherfucker after that. He turned into something pretty negative.”
Knight is currently awaiting trial for the alleged hit-and-run murder associated with a commercial shot to promote the Straight Outta Compton movie.
D.O.C. says he genuinely liked the Straight Outta Compton movie but he felt its depiction of N.W.A’s breakup was too sanitized. “There are intangible things that could’ve made a difference to a younger generation coming up in the record industry that they could have included,” he says. “Like, ‘You niggas was fucked up, and you was fucked up with each other and you helped those white folks by being fucked up with each other instead of being true to one another and honest with one another.’ None of that shows up in the movie. It’s like it’s all Jerry’s fault, but he can only tell Eric, ‘If you do this, you can get all the money.’ It was up to Eric to actually do it. People can’t learn from mistakes if they don’t see them.”
By the time Dre began discussing contracts with Knight, the downfall was in effect. “We wouldn’t not finish the album,” Wolfe says. “When it was done, we just decided to leave the group.”
“If we did another tour, we probably would have stuck together.” – Yella
There was talk of a tour – Ren remembers working with production designers on a stage when things fell apart – but Yella says management got greedy. (“If I was greedy, I would have insisted that they go out and work,” Heller says, noting he got paid by a percentage of earnings. “I don’t know why we didn’t do a second tour.”)
“If we did another tour, we probably would have stuck together,” Yella says. “But a lot of little things happened with people coming in and talking behind the scenes. … When we mixed the first side of [Efil4zaggin], we took our time,” he continues. “But the second side was a rush job. That’s when all of the stuff started rolling down cause the group was almost technically broke up. It happened before the album came out.”
When Efil4zaggin came out, it claimed the Number Two spot and, within a month, displaced Paula Abdul’s Spellbound to take Number One. It was certified both gold and platinum on the same day. By that point, though, N.W.A was done.
“We didn’t have no big party,” Ren says. “The people in the streets loved it. That was basically the best review we could get anyway.”
“I remember picking up the plaque, but that was it,” Yella says. “No celebration dinner. None of that.”
“We was up in a big, old mansion, getting started on The Chronic,” Wolfe recalls of Dre at the time.
The Chronic came out in the fall of 1992, with lyrics that targeted both Eazy-E and Ice Cube. E fired back with the vicious Dre diss “Real Muthaphukkin’ G’s” on the EP It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, which features two tracks produced by Yella – who’d later go on to produce pornographic movies. Ren put out his first solo album, Shock of the Hour, on Ruthless that year. Ice Cube – staying relatively out of the fray after “No Vaseline” – continued to record and soon embarked on a successful movie career. Dre and D.O.C. worked together off and on but their friendship suffered recently when working on Dre’s Compton album. “When you talk shit to a presumed billionaire, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with the fallout,” D.O.C. says. “I think it’s probably best for me to figure something else out instead of waiting on my friend.”
Eazy-E, who had contracted AIDS, died in 1995. “We got back together right before he passed,” Ren says. “I remember me and Yella driving to his house and doing a demo for the song ‘Tha Muthaphukkin’ Real.’ He was coughing a lot when we were at his house, and we thought nothing of it. That was the last song he did.” The track appears on Eazy-E’s posthumously released 1996 album Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton.
Although the remaining members reunited in various recording and touring configurations, it wouldn’t be until the making of the Straight Outta Compton movie that the four would spend time together. The movie became a Number One hit, drawing hundreds of millions at the box office.
Ice Cube celebrated by inviting Ren and Yella to perform with him at some of his concerts, but the four living members would not appear together on a stage again until they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and they wouldn’t all perform together again until Coachella this past April.
“When we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I asked the guy who runs it, ‘How many people in here have had only two albums?'” Yella says. “He could not think of one person. (Ritchie Valens, the Sex Pistols and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five all got in with relatively tiny LP discographies, but it’s a rare feat nonetheless.)
After Coachella, the DJ says he hopes the group could work together again, in some capacity, whether on a couple of dates or on a tour. Ren simply says “sure” to the notion of everyone working together again. Yella contends that reunion shows are only at the speculation stage.
But one thing the DJ is sure about is where he places his favorite albums in N.W.A’s discography. “I do like the second album better than the first,” he says. “The first one had more hits, but production-wise I like this one better. It would have been great if Cube would have got on that album. But it sounds better, we put more into it.”