“When the average person looks back on hip-hop in 1991 they’ll probably remember NWA’s Niggaz4Life as the fat tape booming out of their system, the one that got the heaviest rotation.”
– The Source, January 1992.
As most HipHopDX readers probably know, next month will mark the premiere of Straight Outta Compton, a highly-anticipated biopic directed by F. Gary Gray (who helmed the classic Ice Cube comedy, Friday) about the “World’s Most Dangerous Group,” better known as N.W.A. (Niggas with Attitude, for this site’s younger readers). Universal Pictures and the group’s surviving members (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella) have done an outstanding job promoting the film over the past few months and there is likely to be a renewed focus on the small but potent music catalogue N.W.A. produced in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as a result.
Despite The Source’s declaration that N.W.A.’s final LP Niggaz4Life (stylized in reverse, efiL4zaggiN, in order to avoid censorship) is an “18 cut masterpiece,” the majority of the public’s focus will almost surely be on the group’s 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton (which was analyzed by HipHopDX’s own Soren Baker for that album’s 20th anniversary edition). There are a number of reasons why Compton burns brightest. For one, the majority of N.W.A.’s best known songs are on that album (the title track, “Fuck tha Police,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” and “Dope Man,” among them). For another, Straight Outta Compton was the last N.W.A. release featuring all five of its original members (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella).
The World’s Most Dangerous Group
But why has Niggaz4Life, the first “hardcore” Hip Hop album to ever reach the summit of Billboard’s top 200 pop album chart (Straight Outta Compton peaked at number 37), merited so little discussion since its release almost twenty-five years ago? What follows is an earnest attempt to place Niggaz4Life in its historical context, to answer why it is underappreciated by critics and listeners, and argue that it should be venerated alongside Straight Outta Compton as one of the classics of the genre.
The history of N.W.A. is one of the most fascinating in music and certainly worthy of the big screen. Within two years of its founding, N.W.A. had already laid claim to the title of “World’s Most Dangerous Group.” The video for “Straight Outta Compton” had been banned by MTV because of its violent content, concert venues were demanding million dollar insurance policies before permitting the group to perform, and the F.B.I. had sent a letter to Priority Records (one of N.W.A.’s distributors) in August 1989 accusing N.W.A. of encouraging “violence against and disrespect for” law enforcement officers. Even young white suburbanites like me were affected by the furor surrounding the group. The elementary school I attended prohibited students from wearing Los Angeles Raiders and Kings attire because of N.W.A (who often sported uniforms and baseball caps embroidered with the logos of those teams). I am sure I do not have to tell you how interest in N.W.A. skyrocketed among us youngsters the instant we were informed of the ban. With all of this controversy swirling around them, Cube, Dre, Eazy, Ren, and Yella seemed poised to continue pissing off old white people like Darryl Gates (the LAPD’s chief) and Tipper Gore (the currently estranged wife of Al Gore and anti-rap / heavy metal crusader) for years to come.
It was not meant to be, however. After touring in support of Straight Outta Compton in late 1989, Ice Cube (perhaps N.W.A.’s most visible member) began chafing that he was not being fairly compensated by the group’s label, Ruthless Records, which was run by its co-founders, Jewish music executive Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti in the upcoming film) and Eazy-E (the most business-minded member of the group at that time). Shortly thereafter, Cube did the unthinkable, leaving N.W.A. in order to team with the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production group) for Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, one of Hip Hop’s most beloved albums. At the time, some wondered if Cube’s abrupt departure would splinter N.W.A. but the rest of the group quickly reunited for 100 Miles and Runnin’, an EP released in 1990 that was merely an appetizer in advance of N.W.A.’s true follow-up to Straight Outta Compton, Niggaz4Life.
The months leading up to Niggaz4Life’s release in the late spring of 1991 were the perfect set-up for a record with such combustible content. The beef between Cube and N.W.A.’s surviving members was heating up in the Hip Hop press, Dr. Dre was under fire for assaulting Pump It Up! host Dee Barnes over an interview she did with Cube (Eazy-E brazenly recounted the incident in a September 1991 Spin magazine interview: “He grabbed the bitch by the little hair that she had. Threw the bitch to the bathroom door. Pow!! . . . She was fucked up worse than Rodney King!”), and Eazy-E was stirring up a shit storm of his own by dining with then-President George H. W. Bush at a March 1991 luncheon (“It was a publicity stunt. I paid $2500 for a million dollars worth of press. Thank you. I ain’t no goddamn Republican.”).
Events outside N.W.A.’s control made their anti-authority message even more relevant shortly before Niggaz4Life appeared on store shelves. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was viciously beaten by LAPD officers following a high-speed chase. The beating was caught on videotape by George Holliday (a bystander) and caused tremendous controversy, which N.W.A. attempted to capitalize on. Prior to the release of Niggaz4Life, the group sought King’s participation on a “Fuck tha Police” remix but King declined, leading Eazy-E to explain, “[Rodney] has to go through the white wash.” The King beating ultimately sparked the Los Angeles riots almost a year after Niggaz4Life’s release when the officers involved (Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno) were exonerated on April 29, 1992 (Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Ice Cube’s The Predator were highly influenced by the riots).
Building The World’s Most Dangerous Album
Surprisingly, the chaos enveloping the group in 1991 never infiltrated the recording studio. According to Colin Wolfe (who assisted Dre and played bass on most of the album), the Niggaz4Life sessions were very structured with no discernible tension among group members despite Suge Knight’s frequent presence (Knight would later lure Dre away from Ruthless to Death Row Records). Yella would get to the studio early in the morning (the entire album was recorded at Audio Achievements in Torrance, California) and Dre, Ren, and Laylaw (who later produced the original version of 2pac’s “I Wonda If Heaven’s Got a Ghetto,” among other songs) would arrive around noon. Dre methodically built each of the album’s songs and skits, first coming up with a song title and concept before using an Akai MPC60 or E-mu SP1200, Moog synthesizer (first used on “Alwayz into Somethin’”), and library of Lucasfilm sound effects to construct the beat. At some point in the afternoon, The D.O.C. (a talented emcee whose vocal cords were irreparably damaged in a near-fatal 1989 car accident and who wrote lyrics for Niggaz4Life), Kokane, and other rap artists would show up to contribute. Eazy, who was more involved on the business side of things, came only when needed to record vocal tracks. At around six every evening, Dre would regularly put aside Niggaz4Life to work until about midnight on Muzical Madness, an unusual album by saxophonist Jimmy Z put out by Ruthless that spawned “Funky Flute,” a minor hit featuring verses by Dre.
Eighteen tracks later (five of which are skits / interludes), N.W.A. handed Niggaz4Life off to Brian “Big Bass” Gardner for mastering (Gardner has put the finishing touches on hundreds of albums including Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, Dr. Dre’s 2001, and 2pac’s All Eyez On Me, among other important Hip Hop records). The album’s creation was topped off by Peter Dokus, who shot the cover depicting the disembodied spirits of N.W.A.’s members arising from chalk-outlined corpses, suggesting that the album should have been titled Niggaz4Eternity. (MC Ren explained the album’s actual title in The Source’s July 1991 issue: “We named our album that because everybody always asks us why we call ourselves ‘niggaz.’ No matter what you do, everybody’s gonna call you that, so fuck it – we named the LP that.”)
Why “Niggaz4Life” Is A Masterpiece
A major part of why Niggaz4Life lives in the shadow of its predecessor becomes apparent before you even listen to the album. Looking at the tracklist on the cover’s reverse, Niggaz4Life reads like a West Coast gangsta rap hybrid of Brett Easton Ellis’ satirical novel American Psycho (published to great controversy earlier in 1991) and the Geto Boy’s horrorcore stylings. The album’s first half (which could have been titled the “niggaz” side) is an outrageously profane and violent “fuck you” to the critics (both black and white) who had dogged N.W.A. the previous three years (Ice Cube included). Featuring track titles like “Real Niggaz Don’t Die,” “Niggaz 4 Life,” and “Appetite for Destruction,” the album’s first half sheds much of Straight Outta Compton’s social commentary in favor of nihilistic braggadocio. MC Ren, a highly gifted rhymesmith, takes on a larger role in Cube’s absence and his lyrics don’t disappoint (“All I see is niggas getting harassed / They can’t do nothin’ about it but get a foot in they ass, yo / But if every nigga grabbed a nine / And started shootin’ motherfuckers it would put ’em in line”).
As observed by RapReviews.com’s Tom Doggett, the first half of Niggaz4Life is what the N.W.A. parents thought they had heard the first go around (“Why do I call myself a nigga you ask me? / Because my mouth is so motherfuckin’ nasty / Bitch this, bitch that, nigga this, nigga that / In the meanwhile my pockets are gettin’ fat”) – gone are the radio-friendly tracks like “Express Yourself” and “Something 2 Dance 2” that rounded out Straight Outta Compton. It is as if N.W.A. is parodying the “ruthless villains” the media was so eager to portray them as. Like many satires, there is also a heavy dose of twisted humor in Niggaz4Life’s opening act, much of it provided by Eazy-E (see, e.g., Eazy’s “ten commandments” on “Appetite for Destruction”).
As hard to swallow as much of Niggaz4Life’s first half might be for today’s listeners, it is the second half (which might be titled the “bitches” side and starts with “To Kill a Hooker (Interlude)”) that really rubs people the wrong way. There, N.W.A. goes into full “don’t give a fuck” mode, blessing jaded Hip Hop ears with songs like the murderously misogynistic “One Less Bitch” and a quartet of exceptionally vulgar sex anthems titled “Findum Fuckum & Flee,” “Automobile,” “She Swallowed It,” and “I’d Rather Fuck You” (one of which features the least romantic crooning ever immortalized on wax). Clearly, any parent who took the time to even glance at Niggaz4Life’s tracklist would have had serious misgivings about purchasing this album for their children at the time of the album’s release. If there is a more anti-feminist collection of tracks than the second half of Niggaz4Life, I have not heard it. In today’s increasingly politically correct climate, it should be no surprise that Niggaz4Life is the least discussed in Dr. Dre’s collection of classic albums.
Admittedly, the over-the-top and incessant sex and violence that pervades the closing half of Niggaz4Life can make for a difficult listen, whether you accept the lyrics as tongue-in-cheek or not. Particularly disturbing is the fact that the album was released only months after Dr. Dre was accused of assaulting a female Hip Hop journalist. Apart from “Approach to Danger” (which sounds more like a horror film soundtrack than anything else Dre has produced) and “The Dayz of Wayback” (a reggae-tinged reminiscence), the last nine tracks of Niggaz4Life are almost exclusively devoted to bashing women. (The misogyny is not limited to the album’s lyrics either: the uncensored video of the first single, “Appetite for Destruction,” features a nude Eve and large snake seducing Adam to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden). Were it not for Dr. Dre’s studio wizardry, I might not be writing this article defending Niggaz4Life’s importance.
And that wizardry is truly something to behold. The production on Niggaz4Life represents a “quantum leap” in Dr. Dre’s growth as a musician and is the bridge between earlier works like Straight Outta Compton and No One Can Do It Better and more mature works like The Chronic, Doggystyle, and 2001. Listening to Niggaz4Life is like hearing music history in the making. The building blocks of g-funk are all here: bottomless bass, whining synthesizers, funk samples, live instrumentation, and even an uncredited Warren G guest appearance on the “1-900-2-Compton” skit. A fair argument can be made that Niggaz4Life is the crucial step in Dre’s development. While he later smoothed out Niggaz4Life’s rough edges into a more palatable sonic package at Death Row, this album is arguably the breakthrough moment in the commercialization of West Coast gangsta rap and its powerful impact on the pop charts is strong evidence of that.
The End Of An Era
Niggaz4Life was released on May 28, 1991 at the very beginning of the Soundscan era. Prior to Soundscan (a sales tracking system that was first implemented on March 1, 1991 and is still in use today), the industry used a far less reliable system of reporting that was reliant upon estimates provided by music store employees and marginalized the sales of Hip Hop and other alternative genres. The music industry was therefore taken by surprise when Niggaz4Life debuted at number two on Billboard’s top 200, the highest debut since Michael Jackson’s Bad four years earlier. A week later, Niggaz4Life sat atop the pop chart, the first hardcore rap album to do so (the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill became the first rap album to hit number one in 1987).
Critical reaction was mixed. The Source, the most prominent Hip Hop publication at the time, declared it one of their albums of the year but more “mainstream” publications like Rolling Stone condemned the album. In a two star review (out of five), Rolling Stone critic Arion Berger attacked Niggaz4Life as “so hateful toward women, and in such a pathetic and sleazy manner, that it’s simply tiresome.” Mark Blackwell, of Spin magazine, similarly opined in his interview of N.W.A. that Niggaz4Life “wears thin pretty fast. The main problem is that the old ‘niggas’ and ‘bitches’ thing – whether offensive or not – is getting a little tired” before conceding that “Dre and Yella’s production is peerless.”
The backlash was not limited to print either. On June 4, 1991, 25,000 copies of Niggaz4Life were seized by Scotland Yard on the day after it was released in the United Kingdom (16,000 copies had already been sold) and the album was temporarily banned there until the case was tried. Four months later, on November 11, 1991, Island Records (Niggaz4Life’s UK distributor) was vindicated when the British magistrates ruled that the album was not obscene and ordered the police to pay Island’s court costs. Niggaz4Life is the first and only album to be seized and tried under Britain’s obscenity laws, a well-earned distinction for an album featuring the command,“suck this dick for daddy.”
Many of N.W.A.’s members went on to bigger and better things following Niggaz4Life and the group’s dissolution almost immediately thereafter: movies, platinum plaques, wealth beyond their wildest dreams, etc. Whether the upcoming film immortalizing their lives honestly captures what they represented, if anything, during their brief time together or not remains to be seen. Either way, the music they created will last for as long as people continue to listen. Though its subject matter is often repugnant, Niggaz4Life is a musical masterpiece and truly one of the best produced albums in Hip Hop history. If you won’t take my word for it, ask Outkast’s Big Boi: Niggaz4Life is one of his top 25 albums of all-time.
Michael Namikas is a writer and longtime Hip Hop listener who practiced law in a past life and is currently writing a listener’s guide devoted to the music of Tupac Shakur, the first volume of which will be published in the first quarter of 2016. He frequently posts on Reddit as /u/Mikeaveli2682 and can be followed on Twitter @Mikeaveli2682.