As one-fifth of the group that “started this gangsta shit,” Compton’s own Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby never was the most vocal on record. Until now.
Some 26 years following the release of Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A legacy seems to be on track to become more relevant than ever before, continuing to laugh in the face of conservative mainstream commercialism similarly to way back then.
Recently nominated for entry into the class of 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with a huge N.W.A biopic in the works courtesy of director F. Gary Gray, responsible for the commercial successes that were Friday, The Negotiator and Law Abiding Citizen, it would seem as though a whole new generation are about to be introduced to the men behind the attitude and Raiders caps—a force that hit the music industry with such velocity that it broke down doors for many Hip Hop artists today.
In this exclusive interview with HipHopDX, the most slept on member of N.W.A breaks his silence to speak regarding laying down the foundations for the self-proclaimed world’s most dangerous group and the production process behind the music that helped bring a then-relatively unknown musical genre, labeled by the mainstream as Gangsta Rap, from the swap meet to our stereos.
Yella discusses his early musical influences, the rise and fall of Ruthless Records following the acrimonious departure of Dr. Dre, and tells us why he never jumped from the sinking ship when asked by his fellow co-producer to follow him to Death Row, as well as what’s around the corner for Hip Hop’s very own fifth Beatle.
DJ Yella Recalls Meeting Dr. Dre & Eazy-E
DX: Take us back to the beginning pre-N.W.A. Did you always have a taste for music from an early age?
DJ Yella: I played drums. I was the only musician in the group. I started playing…it had to be around elementary maybe. No one taught me anything. I just got on the drums and played them. One of my oldest brothers was a drummer too. I don’t know where it came from.I loved Parliament Funkadelic and Bootsy [Collins], so when I graduated from high school, I became a DJ in a club. I was actually a DJ before anybody. It was [a local hangout named] Eve After Dark, and it changed its name to Penthouse. I started first for about a year, and that’s when Dre came around.
DX: And that’s how you met him and subsequently went on to form the World Class Wreckin’ Cru?
DJ Yella: Well the DJ crew was called the Wreckin’ Cru. We saw how easy it was to make music and just decided to make it ourselves...so simple.
DX: I heard that you didn’t get paid much for your part in the Wreckin’ Cru. Can you elaborate on that situation?
DJ Yella: [Laughs] We didn’t get paid at all! Only when we did shows. Not for the records…never.
DX: So you met Dre that way, I assume you met Eazy through Dre or through the club?
DJ Yella: I didn’t know Eazy. Dre knew him from another part of Compton. Dre’s grandmother stayed right around the corner from the club, so I guess he was staying there, and that’s why he was coming to the club.
DX: So how did N.W.A come about?
DJ Yella: Well, “Boyz ‘N Tha Hood” was meant for another group—a New York group. It wasn’t meant for Eazy to do the song. But the other guys didn’t wanna do the song, because they were from the East Coast, so they didn’t think it was their style or whatever their reasons were. And that’s how Dre convinced E to do the song, because E wasn’t a rapper…he wasn’t a rapper at all. It’d take him all day to do lyrics. That was the hardest thing: to get him into the studio to do them. And when he finally got there it would take all day.
DX: Yeah, is it true Eazy used to rap in the dark, with the lights out?
DJ Yella: In the studio? Oh, yeah.
How N.W.A Went From Trunk Sales To Ruthless/Priority Records
DX: [Laughs] Was he insecure about rapping?
DJ Yella: I don’t know [laughs].
DX: Was Eazy the visionary behind N.W.A or was it a collective decision?
DJ Yella: I really don’t know. It might’ve been collective I think. It was supposed to be a super-group of people from different groups and stuff made into one.
DX: “Boyz ‘N Tha Hood” was the first single that was actually done as a group. I understand that was sold out of the trunk of your car?
DJ Yella: Yeah, I mean, you go to the little small record shops and that’s how you sell—the swap meet and stuff like that. There wasn’t any radio play or anything, so you just find out where all the stores are, go to them and see if they wanna buy some records. When we did it, we never thought we’d get past the trunk. We thought it’d just be the trunk, that’s it. Gold? That was not in the works!
DX: So next you released the N.W.A. And The Posse album, which was on Macola?
DJ Yella: Yeah, it started on Macola [an independent LA-based record pressing plant], and then Priority put it out. Macola was small, and they were kinda funny with the money. You know, they might’ve been pressing these, but pressing something out the back door. And I mean, pressed out the back door. It was hard to trust people back then. Going from that to Priority wasn’t much different, because E made a deal as a distributor, not as being signed to the record label. That’s what he held out for. He wanted his label to be on the records—Ruthless on them with Priority at the bottom.
DX: So how did the name Ruthless Records come about?
DJ Yella: You know something, I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know if E came up with it or Dre or…it might’ve been Ice Cube. One of the three came up with it.
DX: I presume signing through Priority was word of mouth because of the success of that song, as well as the N.W.A. And The Posse album?
DJ Yella: Yeah, it had to be; because all Priority had was the The California Raisins [a novelty based claymation act]. I think they went gold or platinum or something, but that’s all they had. So that’s why Priority was hungry, and that’s why they got behind it so well. If you get caught up in the big companies, then you get lost up in all the red tape, but with Priority, that’s all the stuff they had to put out. They didn’t put out any Raisins after that!
DX: [Laughs] And then Straight Outta Compton came shortly before Eazy-Duz-It. Could you tell me a bit about the concept of Straight Outta Compton and how you got together as a group and said, “Right, let’s make this album?”
DJ Yella: If you think about it, people don’t realize we were two groups, but we were one entity. We made it look like Eazy-E and N.W.A, but they were all the same people. Though, once we did Straight Outta Compton, we did it pretty quick, and then we got to doing Eazy-Duz-It.
DJ Yella Explains Why N.W.A Never Recorded Demos
DX: I’m sure a lot of readers would be interested in the process behind making an N.W.A record. Can you explain that?
DJ Yella: Somebody came up with the name…you know, people would come up with the titles. We were probably coming up with titles first, and then the tracks and then the lyrics. It only took a month to do Straight Outta Compton. We didn’t make demos back then. When we went to the studio, we recorded something. We never did demos, and that’s why there’s no extra tracks lying around.
DX: That’s a shame in a way, because people would be itching for more.
DJ Yella: There were a couple of tracks lying around, but there were no lyrics. I mean a handful. That’s it.
DX: That’s some legacy to leave behind; to go into a studio and release everything you put down on wax.
DJ Yella: We shipped gold, which was unheard of back then—500,000 in the first week. Although people don’t know that Ruthless’ first gold record was J.J. Fad. That’s the gold single and the gold album before Eazy-Duz-It [laughs].
Yella Revisits His Chemistry With Dre & N.W.A’s 1989 Tour
DX: That’s funny, because Eminem recently paid homage to J.J. Fad on one of his latest singles, “Rap God.” Plus you got a mention, along with Eazy, Ren and Dre. I don’t know if you’ve heard the track.
DJ Yella: No, I haven’t heard the track, but if you think about it, there are a lot of groups who wouldn’t be where they are. And it all goes back to me and Dre.
Dre told me back in ‘98… I was sitting in his house, and he told me something I’ve never forgotten. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he told me, “If it wasn’t for me and you, none of this would be happening.” And he was sitting in his $10 million dollar house. He looked around and said, “None of this would’ve happened without me and you.” We started from in the beginning, and we had to dig the whole ditch. We had to do everything.
DX: You and Dre were producers on the N.W.A stuff. How was it working together as a team?
DJ Yella: We knew each other, and since the Wreckin’ Cru, we were doing the same thing. I’d be on the board, and he’d be on the drum machine. So I’d go over there and program all the stuff on the machine. We were just like a team. We didn’t have to be like, “I do this, and you do that.” It was like Batman and Robin. That’s just how it was. Me and him would be in the studio most of the time until they come and put their lyrics down. Usually it was me and him, or we had a bass player there, or a guitar player or whoever. We couldn’t play instruments.
DX: What about the drums you mentioned earlier?
DJ Yella: I only played the drums a few times—once on each album. Eazy-Duz-It, Straight Outta Compton, and I played on the D.O.C.’s album, on “The Grande Finale.”
DX: Did you think N.W.A would blow up as big as it did?
DJ Yella: Never! If we’d thought that, we wouldn’t be talking today. We had no idea. We thought it wasn’t going past the trunk of a car: sell a couple of thousand, make a couple of bucks and that’s it. We never expected it to go gold, platinum, double platinum…never. That was not in the works. We never thought that.
DX: Then you toured after Straight Outta Compton. How was that?
DJ Yella: Well, we did the one tour. We did plenty of smaller cities before the tour, but we did the one tour in ‘89.
DX: Any funny stories from the tour?
DJ Yella: I would have to really sit back and think about that [laughs]. It was more like work to us, because we did four cities in a row, and then we’d take a couple of days off. We’d do the show, get on the bus and go to the next city. But it was fun though. Everybody that was on that tour said it was the best fun they ever had—Too Short, Public Enemy… We met up with Public Enemy when we did D.C. or somewhere for one or two shows. Our tour hooked up with LL Cool J’s tour when we were in the Mid-south or somewhere. It was fun though. The funny thing is, me and Dre felt more like stars when we was deejaying. It’s crazy. Once we got into the records and our shows, it felt like work.
Why N.W.A Broke Up With A #1 Charting Album
DX: Was that because it was more intimate deejaying in the clubs, as opposed to performing in front of thousands of people?
DJ Yella: Oh, yeah. I mean it was just more fun deejaying. I don’t know, it was just different. When you’re in front of 10,000 people you can’t really talk to a certain person to the side of the DJ booth.
DX: Ice Cube was one of the main lyricists of the group. Were you guys worried when he jumped ship?
DJ Yella: Nah, we never thought about it. There wasn’t any bad blood or nothing. He left and that was it. Then we came out with the EP, 100 Miles And Runnin’, then we came out with the album [Efil4zaggin]. That album was supposed to be Eazy’s album, but he was jiving around and wouldn’t come into the studio to do his lyrics, so we changed it to an N.W.A album. We would probably have done another Eazy-E album. Straight Outta Compton was out, then Eazy-Duz-It. Then we were supposed to go straight back to E’s album, but we never got to his album, because he was not coming to the studio too much. So it was like, “Okay, this is an N.W.A album now.” It wasn’t meant to be, but it ended up that.
DX: You’ve got to admit; Efil4zaggin took things to a whole new level.
DJ Yella: Yeah. That album to me, musically and sound-wise, was better than the first album. On the first one we used more samples. But musically, this one was much better…way better than the first album.
DX: Plus you actually speak on this album, on the track “Real Niggaz.”
DJ Yella: Yeah, we were talking to people saying, “Bow down to the Kings and Raiders hats, talking about us.” That was the only time I talked.
DX: For that reason, whenever anyone saw you there’d be a certain mystique, because you’d keep your mouth shut. You didn’t say much. You’ve previously said you never wanted to rap. Did you ever try?
DJ Yella: Nah, I ain’t no rapper, and I know not to rap. I’d rather be in the back producing, whatever it is.
DX: What was your reaction to how big N.W.A blew up upon the release of Efil4zaggin?
DJ Yella: You know, the craziest thing people don’t realize is, when we put that record out, it was #1, and the group broke up at #1.
DX: So during the recording process, how were relations between Eazy and Dre?
DJ Yella: It was okay, until the last minute, then we started rushing to mix the record. And I’m like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but we normally don’t rush.” We’d actually mixed the first half of the album. One side was better than the other side, because we took our time to mix, but the second half was mixed in one day. We normally don’t mix the whole half of an album in one day, and it was a rush job. I didn’t know what was going on, and I never got into it. I never asked about it. I just stayed and that’s it.
DX: Did you ever feel like you wanted to jump ship after Dre left and went to Death Row?
DJ Yella: [Eazy-E] asked me if I wanted to go, and I just never answered him. I never said no, yes or nothing. He asked me, and I said, “Okay, I’ll let you know,” and that was it. To this day I’ve never answered that question.
DX: I’ve heard rumours that there was gonna be a new N.W.A, with you, Eazy-E, MC Ren, B.G. Knocc Out, Gangsta Dresta and Scarface. How true is that?
DJ Yella: Nah, I ain’t ever heard that one.
DX: Eazy’s last album was Str8 Off Tha Streetz Of Muthaphukkin Compton. Dresta and Knocc Out are also featured on that.
DJ Yella: Yeah, actually those tracks were actually made a while ago. They were made quite a while before E passed. Once he passed, I just left the album in the studio. I didn’t even touch it for a whole year, and I forgot it was even there. Other people would’ve taken it and held it for ransom but not me. I just let it stay there, and nobody asked for it—it was just there. One person wanted to buy the album from me, and I was like, “Nah…nope.”
DX: Can you name who?
DJ Yella: Ahhh, I’ll save that for the book.
DX: That sounds intriguing. Have you read Jerry Heller’s book?
DJ Yella: Nope. I won’t believe anything in it! Don’t be fooled. I never said anything about anybody, but don’t be fooled. That’s all I gotta say about that [laughs].
DJ Yella On Ruthless Records Demise & Venturing Into Porn
DX: Speaking on the subject of Jerry Heller, I heard that towards the end, Eazy had fired Heller as manager and had recruited the help of the Nation of Islam in order to oversee the office side of things. Can you substantiate that?
DJ Yella: It wasn’t Nation of Islam…nothing like that, no. They might’ve been something else, but it wasn’t them.
DX: And the rumor about Eazy firing Jerry?
DJ Yella: Oh yeah, he was out. That was late ‘94 when he got rid of him; it was a little bit after the summer or something.
DX: What was the reason behind the firing?
DJ Yella: I don’t know, and I never asked! I don’t get into anything. I just mind my own business.
DX: Going back to Eazy-E’s posthumous album, you did quite an emotional track called “Eternal E” featuring Roger Troutman where you seemed to speak from the heart. What was the original idea behind that track?
DJ Yella: What happened was they made the track and that was it...never got to the words.
DX: Any unreleased vocals by Eazy-E at all?
DJ Yella: There was one, and it was a dis song. That’s why I didn’t put it on that album. That’s about it. I don’t even think it was a whole song, but maybe about half of it. I was like, “Nah, I’m not gonna put that on that album. This stuff is old.” So I didn’t even put it on the tracks.
DX: There’s something on YouTube called “When the Ice Crumbles” featuring both you and the E. Is that a snippet from a genuine dis track?
DJ Yella: I’ve seen that. That’s from an interview and they just put it on some track or something. I’ve heard some of it and thought, “Naaah.” I don’t click on anything that’s dissing somebody. At all. I just keep scrolling past, and I don’t get into that stuff.
DX: A year after Eazy’s death you released One Mo Nigga Ta Go - Dedicated To The Memory Of Eazy-E. I like the way you commandeered the whole album and took that approach. Why didn’t you put that out on Ruthless?
DJ Yella: Well, nobody said anything to me. Once I started doing it, then they wanted it. I was like, “I already signed papers; you’re a little late.” They were gonna buy the album from me at first and put it out on Ruthless, but it never happened.
DX: Speaking of Ruthless, the company seems to have fallen by the wayside since Eazy’s death. Tomika Wright [Eazy’s wife] took over the helm. What do you think of the state of Ruthless now and what’s happened since Eazy’s passing?
DJ Yella: It’s not Tomika. It’s just no artists came there, and no artists wanted to go there. Bone [Thugs-n-Harmony] was the last of the groups. If you think about it, there were no other releases besides Bone, and that was it. Even though Bone sold millions of records, you know, with “Tha Crossroads” and stuff like that, that was it. No other groups came out.
DX: You went on a different path shortly after Str8 Off Tha Streetz, which was into the porn industry.
DJ Yella: Oh yeah, I did that for over 12 years. Apart from the directing, which my buddy did, I did all of it—the filming, the editing and the pictures. I jumped in like I did with a record—you know, when I did records I did everything. And I shot about 300 movies. It was fun!
Yella Talks Returning To Deejaying & Eazy-E’s Hologram
DX: And now I understand you’re back to your main passion, which is deejaying.
DJ Yella: Yeah, I’ve always loved it. It’s just this is what I wanna do. I did it a few times and I’m like, “Okay, I like this.” I don’t use the turntables anymore, I use the Pioneer DDJ-SX.
DX: Can you talk us through the process of making the hologram?
DJ Yella: Eazy’s son, who helped make the image of the hologram was supposed to have lost weight when we filmed it, but he didn’t. Actually, he would’ve been looking a little bit bigger, but they kind of stretched him out, so he could thin out a little bit. If they hadn’t a stretched him out he would’ve been a little frumpier [laughs].
DX: How was it standing next to Eazy-E again?
DJ Yella: You know, I’m standing right next to him, but you can’t see him when you’re on stage, only when you’re facing him. The hologram comes out from the ground, and there’s a mirror on the ground. That’s the only way I could see where it is.
DX: It must’ve been quite a trip to see the hologram at first.
DJ Yella: Yeah. When I walked into the studio where they made it and I saw him up on the stage, I was like, “Ahh,” but I realized it was just a hologram. It was amazing how it looked though, and it was like a real person standing there.
DX: It must’ve been quite emotional for you, performing on stage with the late Eazy-E one last time.
DJ Yella: It was kind of okay. It was just different, you know? I was glad to do the entire track for it, put it all together, and do the voices. It was just like old times, and I love work.
DX: And now you’re nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2014.
DJ Yella: Yeah, it’s the second time we’re up, but Public Enemy got us last year. What I wanna do is get to deejaying there. That’s what I wanna do.
DX: You’ve also got the N.W.A movie coming out next year. What’s going on with that?
DJ Yella: I’ve seen the script. They’ve gotta make a couple of changes, but it’s going to be a major movie. Matter of fact, a major studio bought it from a smaller one. So now, one of the biggest film companies are doing it. The script is pretty accurate. From what I’ve seen, some of the places and people are out of sync, like the D.O.C. wasn’t around in the Wreckin’ Cru days, but the story is pretty accurate.
DX: It looks like a lot is coming up for you guys. Speaking of which, do you still see Dre?
DJ Yella: I saw him about a few months ago. Well, when I was in the studio, he was workin’ on a new Eminem song [from MMLP2]. I heard something for Detox, but that was three years ago. They were great tracks, but you know, I don’t know if he really wants to put it out or…he’s such a perfectionist that if it ain’t perfect, it ain’t gonna be out. So I don’t know, and he doesn’t have to put it out. There’s no need to.
DX: In closing, if you could summarize the impact N.W.A has had on the music industry today, what would it be?
DJ Yella: We started something that we had no idea we’d done, that changed the whole impact of music. I mean, it’s just amazing. We never planned it, never thought it, but we changed music. It’s crazy. We didn’t start Hip Hop, but we started our brand of music and it just keep on going.