From Rap To Riches

by Otis Stokes

“Yesterday” has been a staple in this magazine since its inception over 40 issues ago, and has always featured what is considered iconic, legendary, and in most cases, groundbreaking artists who paved the way for the stars of today. All of these historic artists share something in common: they’re all musicians and/or singers, with abilities to play instruments and vocalize along with other music related talents. This writer has also made a point of not including artists from the “Rap” genre because of the fact that most of them are not musicians in the true sense of the word, not possessing singing or instrumental talents.
Having a purist attitude toward the art of music, it is difficult to include a category of artists who create something lacking most of the elements and attributes that are required to satisfy the basic definition of “music.” And unfortunately for music enthusiasts, with the advent of rapping to tracks, “sampling” and “interpolation” in the late 70s and early 80s, the landscape of music would forever be compromised by any person aspiring to be in the music business, having only the ability to operate computers and drum machines. Musicians could now be tech-savvy individuals equipped with nothing more than a desire to be a recording artist.
That being said, because of the undeniable success of this genre, we are compelled to feature seminal rap group N.W.A. These five gangstas turned rappers, forever changed the music industry because of their misuse and abuse of the First Amendment right to “freedom of speech,” shielding themselves behind a liberal definition of “artistry” in order to promulgate their profanity-laced rhymes filled with messages of anger and rebellion against racism and police brutality.
Such a brazen act opened the floodgates for others who felt the need to express themselves in similarly profane ways, thereby creating what is now called “Gansta-Rap.” This revolutionary rap group was comprised of Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Eric “Eazy E” Wright, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby, and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, with the more than suitable name “Niggaz Wit’ Attitude,” aka “N.W.A.”
The two main protagonists, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, have, as a result of their affiliation with N.W.A., achieved more goals in the entertainment industry than I’m sure they could have imagined, and garnered accomplishments much too great to be ignored. They used what they had, a defiant and fearless attitude, along with Dr. Dre’s innate ability to create infectious beats and produce records, to build a foundation that has legitimized them as artists and actors. Not bad for a group of guys whose original objective was just to be “ghetto stars.”
In the early 80s, Andre Young started as a DJ in a club called Eve After Dark initially under the name “Dr. J,” borrowed from the nickname of Julius Erving, his favorite basketball player. At the club, he met aspiring rapper Antoine Carraby, later to become member DJ Yella of N.W.A. Soon after, he adopted the moniker “Dr. Dre,” which was a mixture of previous alias Dr. J and his nickname and then began referring to himself as the “Master of Mixology.”
Eve After Dark had a back room with a small four-track studio and that’s where Dre and Yella began to record several demos. Dre joined the Wrecking Crew and had his first hit with a song called “Surgery,” which sold 50,000 copies in Compton alone.
In 1986, Dr. Dre met rapper O’Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube, who collaborated with Dre recording songs that neighborhood drug dealer Eazy-E financed. Eazy would form Ruthless Records along with music manager Jerry Heller releasing their first successful single, “Boyz-N-The-Hood, that was produced by Dre and featured the rap stylings of Eazy-E. The label’s first full-length release was N.W.A.’s landmark album, “Straight Outta Compton,” which was eventually certified multi-platinum, and was catapulted by the hit “F*** tha Police.”
The record became a major success, despite an almost complete absence of radio airplay or major concert tours. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sent Ruthless Records a warning letter in response to the song’s content. A letter that the group first expressed concern about and then defiantly ignored.
After Ice Cube left N.W.A in 1989 over financial disputes, Dr. Dre produced and performed for much of the group’s second album “Efil4zaggin.” He also produced tracks for a number of other acts on Ruthless Records, including Eazy-E’s 1988 solo debut “Eazy-Duz-It,” Above the Law’s 1990 debut “Livin’ Like Hustlers,” Michel’le’s 1989 self-titled debut, The D.O.C.’s 1989 debut, “No One Can Do It Better,” J.J. Fad’s 1988 debut, “Supersonic” and funk rock musician Jimmy Z’s 1991 album, “Muzical Madness.”
After a dispute with Eazy-E, Dre left the group at the peak of its popularity in 1991 under the advice of friend, and N.W.A lyricist, The D.O.C. and his bodyguard at the time, Suge Knight. Knight, a notorious strongman and intimidator, was able to pressure Eazy-E into releasing Dre from his contract and co-founded Death Row Records with the producer as his anchor.
In 1992, Dr. Dre released his first single, the title track to the film “Deep Cover,” a collaboration with rapper Snoop Dogg, whom he met through Warren G. Dr. Dre’s solo debut was the cutting-edge album, “The Chronic,” released under Death Row Records with Suge Knight as executive producer. Dre ushered in a new style of rap, both in terms of musical style and lyrical content, while introducing a number of artists to the industry including Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Daz Dillinger, RBX, The Lady of Rage, Nate Dogg and Jewell.
“The Chronic” became a cultural phenomenon, its “G-funk” sound dominating much of hip hop music for the early 1990s. In 1993, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified the album triple platinum, and Dr. Dre also won the Grammy Award for “Best Rap Solo Performance” for his performance on “Let Me Ride.” For that year, Billboard magazine also ranked Dr. Dre as the eighth best-selling musical artist, “The Chronic” as the sixth best-selling album, and “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” as the 11th best-selling single.
Besides working on his own material, he produced Snoop Dogg’s debut album “Doggystyle,” which became the first debut album for an artist to enter the Billboard 200 album charts at number one.
In 1995, Death Row Records signed rapper 2Pac, and began to position him as their next major star. He collaborated with Dr. Dre on the commercially successful single “California Love,” which became both artists’ first song to top the Billboard Hot 100.
Tired of the turmoil, corruption, financial dishonesty and dispute with Suge Knight over his contract, Dre left Death Row to form his own label Aftermath, which was distributed by Interscope Records. Meanwhile, his former partner in gangsta rap, Ice Cube, was having his own rebirth and career ascent. Propelled by the success of his debut solo album, “AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted,” Cube formed his own label, Lynch Mob Records.
Being accused of misogyny and racism because of lyrical content on his record, Ice Cube appointed the female rapper Yo-Yo (who appeared on “AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted”) to head his record label and helped produce her debut album, “Make Way for the Motherlode.” This was followed by a critically acclaimed role as Doughboy in John Singleton’s violent crime drama, “Boyz ‘n the Hood.”
Releasing several more rap albums of differing degrees of success, Ice Cube found his stride as a screen writer and actor with the screenplay for what became the 1995 hit comedy “Friday,” in which he also starred, alongside then up-and-coming comedian Chris Tucker. “Friday” earned $28 million worldwide on a $3.5 million budget, and spawned two sequels, “Next Friday” and “Friday After Next.”
In 1997, Ice Cube starred in the action thriller “Dangerous Ground” as a South African exiled to America who returns 15 years later. He also had a supporting role in the film “Anaconda” that same year. He wrote, executive produced, and made his directorial debut in “The Players Club” in 1998, and in 1999 starred along with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in the critically acclaimed “Three Kings.”
In 2002, Ice Cube starred in the commercially successful movie “Barbershop,” as well as “All About the Benjamins.” In 2004, he appeared in Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” and “Torque.” 2005 brought a starring role in the action movie “XXX: State of the Union,” as well as the family comedies “Are We There Yet?” and “Are We Done Yet?,” co-starring Nia Long. The “Are We There” movies have since spun off into a television series on TBS starring Terry Crews.
Cube also starred in the 2014 box office hit “Ride Along” with comedian Kevin Hart and is expected to release a sequel in 2016 titled “Ride Along 2.”
With the two primary creative forces from N.W.A. having incredible success on different sides of the entertainment spectrum, it was only a matter of time before the longtime friends would hook back up on another collaborative project. That time came in March 2009, when it was announced that a film based on the life and careers of the members of N.W.A. was in development at New Line Cinema, with S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus writing, and Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s widow), Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre set to produce the film named after the group’s debut LP, “Straight Outta Compton.”
After six years of development and production, the film was released on August 14, 2015, receiving positive reviews from critics, and has grossed over $121 million as of this writing.
Dr. Dre, now a mega-millionaire after the $3 billion dollar Apple, Inc. purchase of his and partner Jimmy Iovine’s Beats By Dre headphone company, has released what he claims to be his final album, titled “Compton.” It is inspired by the N.W.A biopic and is a compilation-style album, featuring a number of frequent collaborators, including Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Xzibit and The Game, among others. It was released exclusively for iTunes and Apple Music and debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number 2.
If you take all that has transpired in the lives of the members of N.W.A., and in particular Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s over the past 27 years, you get a hip-hop version of the American dream, which simply put is “from rap to riches.” Add that to the fact that someone could take something that started out so seemingly destructive, and by and large, turn it into a defining chapter in America’s musical and cultural history, and that amounts to quite an accomplishment for anyone. It is even more impressive that it was achieved by five young brothers outta Compton.