Dre. Cube. Eazy. Ren. That dude who left the record biz to make porn. Together they redefined hip-hop, freaked out the FBI and went multi-platinum. Now, 27 years after their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, their story is a movie called… Straight Outta Compton. As they approach billionaire status, study up on the crucial facts and events of N.W.A.
It’s an odd origin story: Compton-based African-American drug dealer in his early 20s (Eazy-E) teams with down-on-his-luck white music industry vet in his 40s (Jerry Heller) to form Ruthless Records… and launch a rap group.
Eazy-E recruits members of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru (Dr. Dre and DJ Yella) and the C.I.A./Cru in Action! (Ice Cube) in 1986, with MC Ren joining before their debut album. The group goes by Niggaz Wit Attitudes, or N.W.A for short.
The classic N.W.A. lineup of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren is together for only debut album Straight Outta Compton, made in 1988 for roughly $8,000. At 24, Eazy-E is the oldest member.
With a group name considered obscene and songs filled with violence, profanity and other stuff I found just awesome as a suburban teenager, radio airplay is not a priority: This super-group never had a single crack the Top 100, much less Top 40.
With this boost from the G-Men, N.W.A. emerges as “The World’s Most Dangerous Group,” sparking serious sales. Compton hits #37 on the charts and sells over three million albums.
In 1991, Ice Cube makes his film debut as Doughboy in Boyz in the Hood. Ice Cube establishes himself as a full-fledged star with 1995’s Friday (which he co-wrote with DJ Pooh). Its director, F. Gary Gray, will helm Straight Outta Compton 20 years later.
In 1991, Dre also decides he’s being ripped off and leaves the group. He will form Death Row Records with former UNLV football player “Suge” Knight, who allegedly uses threats of violence to get Eazy-E to release Dre from his contract.
With Dre gone, N.W.A. goes on hiatus. Talk of a reunion occurs after Eazy-E splits with Jerry Heller, but ends with Eazy-E’s 1995 death from AIDS at age 31. He leaves behind an acknowledged seven children by six mothers.
Between Ice Cube’s departure and Eazy-E’s passing, N.W.A. releases records attacking Cube, Cube releases records attacking N.W.A., and Eazy-E and Dre release records attacking each other.
The most famous is Cube’s “No Vaseline,” in which he blasts Eazy-E’s dealings with Jerry Heller. “You let a Jew break up my crew.”
Eazy-E scored off this photo from Dre’s World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. “All of the sudden Dr. Dre is the G thang/But on his old album covers he was a she-thang.”
Post-N.W.A., DJ Yella focuses on directing pornography—he describes his approach as wanting films to feel “reality-based.” His works include H.W.A.: Ho’s With Attitude 1 and 2.
By 1996, Dre flees Death Row Records and Suge Knight. (The label has since gone bankrupt and Suge currently faces murder charges.) Dre founds Aftermath, home to Eminem and the 100 million-plus albums Slim Shady has sold worldwide.
As insanely wonderful as the rumor Dre secretly founded Nevada’s Burning Man festival is, the deeply romantic letter to his future wife appears to be a forgery.
In 2000, N.W.A. “reunites” on USA Network’s Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub.com, with Dre, Ren, Cube, no Yella, and substitute Snoop Dogg. (The “Jimmy” from the title is Jimmy Iovine, whose dealings with Dre include co-founding the lucrative Beats by Dre headphones line.)
Today, half the surviving members of N.W.A.—pictured above with Compton director F. Gary Gray and stars O’Shea Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins— are believed to be worth at least $100,000,000. Ice Cube is just cracking nine digits and Dre is worth up to 700 mil. Gangsta gangsta indeed.