After more than a half-dozen books and a hit Hollywood film, what more could be said about N.W.A, the West Coast rap group that put the gangsta into gansta rap?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Ben Westhoff spent five years researching his new book, “Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap.”
His time was well spent.
Westhoff manages to knit together all the group’s outsized personalities, feuds, fist fights and drama into a stunning and entertaining read.
There’s Eazy-E, the cool-headed crack dealer who used to walk around with $2,000 stuffed into his socks.
At 5-foot-4, the kid named Eric Wright knew what it took to get respect. He talked tough and amassed flashy cars, clothes and sunglasses.
But Westhoff describes a more complicated figure than most fans know. In his early 20s, Wright would wake up early to read the Los Angeles Times. He didn’t get high and didn’t drink. Later as Eazy-E, the 40-oz bottle of malt liquor he brandished onstage was actually apple juice.
He only started messing around with rapping after slinging drugs got too stressful.
Problem was, Wright couldn’t rap. Dr. Dre coached him through Ice Cube’s “The Boyz in the Hood.” Wright used his drug money to press 10,000 vinyls.
Dr. Dre, real name Andre Young, was a brilliant musician but a nasty, nasty man. At 17, he had his first child, Curtis, whom he didn’t acknowledge for decades. Dre was busy seducing 14-year-old Lisa Johnson. Johnson gave birth in 1983, but by the time she was pregnant again, she discovered another women was also carrying Dre’s child.
According to Johnson, Dre beat her five times over the course of the last two pregnancies.
Michel’le Toussaint has bravely gone public, often and loudly, with the story of her repeated abuse at the hands of Dre.
Toussaint, who had a son, Marcel, with Dre and later married Suge Knight, says Dre repeatedly beat her and once broke her nose so badly she had to have a nose job. One night he fired a shot that barely missed her.
Then came the public beatings of rapper Tairrie B and television host Dee Barnes.
Tairrie B had signed with Eazy E’s label, Ruthless Records. She and Dre got into a vicious fight at a Grammys after-party in 1990. Dre punched her “hard, really” hard in the eye and followed up with a shot to the mouth that sent her sprawling to the ground.
Barnes might have gotten it even worse.
She tells a sanitized version of what actually happened the horrific night in 1991 when Dre savagely beat her at a record-release party in a West Hollywood nightclub.
Dre wasn’t happy with a segment about NWA that Barnes hosted on her show “Pump It Up.” Instead of a hello, Dre greeted Barnes with a punch to her face so hard that she went down like a sack of potatoes. He then grabbed her by the hair, repeatedly slamming her into a brick wall.
His bodyguard held back the crowd while he kicked her and tried to push her down a flight of stairs. She fled to the bathroom and Dre came after her, beating her more.
“I was thinking, ‘he’s trying to kill me,'” Barnes recalls.
Dre was hustled out before the cops and an ambulance arrived — and the court gave him a wrist-slap sentence of community service.
While Dre’s long, happy marriage to Nicole Threatt has produced two children, Johnson claimes he only grudgingly supported his out of wedlock children.
She goes on to say, that in 2004, a badly shaken Dre by an assault he believed Suge Knight had paid for, showed up at Johnson’s home at midnight, promising $500,000 to the family of four.
The money never materialized.
Despite his brutal history with women, there’s no question Dre is a genius in the studio. While Eazy-E is widely hailed as the visionary and marketing force that drove N.W.A., it was Dre who shrewdly focused on producing music that would also appeal to white youths.
The white suburban audience that embraced N.W.A was a phenomenon Dre strategized for by white-testing his music.
One white Ruthless Record employee told the author that Dre would bring him out to his Nissan Pathfinder to play the group’s latest work.
“You think white kids will like this?” he’d ask.
They called it gangster rap for a reason. When N.W.A hit the stage, they carried fake guns, but their tour bus was loaded for war with automatic and semi-automatics.
Eazy wanted his guns fitted out with red-eyes and night vision.
One guy who got a look at the arsenal blurted out, “What kind of tour are you guys going on? Vietnam?”
Their manager, Jerry Heller, wisely made sure the guns were on one bus, the ammunition on another.
Heller, vilified in the movie, “Straight Outta Compton,” had a deeply complicated, father-son relationship with Eazy. Sure as shooting, Suge Knight didn’t do well by Dre when he muscled him out of Ruthless.
No question Heller could roll with anything Eazy threw off. Eazy once summoned Heller to his hotel suite to discuss royalty statements. When the manager arrived, his client was being fellated on the toilet.
When Eazy ended it with Heller, not everyone thought it a wise move. But Ice Cube was right to refuse to sign the contract with Heller, even with a $75,000 check waved under his nose. His artistry soared with his own deal with Priority Records.
Westhoff’s exhaustive reporting uncovered several intriguing tidbits that “Straight Outta Compton” glossed over.
In the movie, for instance, Cube is shown busting up Priority’s office with a baseball bat. But Bryan Turner, its head, said he saw Cube carefully selecting his targets, only going for the cheapest objects in any room.
Meanwhile, Knight insinuated himself into Ruthless. No question, Knight menaced Dre free of Ruthless. Things got scary ugly. Heller hired Mike Klein as head of security, a mysterious guy with a background in “Israeli security forces.”
In the battle against Death Row Records, he brought in the Jewish Defense League, regarded by the FBI as a “right-wing extremist group” for its violent tactics.
Dre had it rough at Death Row, but one pairing was divine. Snoop Dog introduced him to weed when they teamed on “The Chronic,” the street name for potent, sticky weed.
Later, Snoop was deathly afraid for his life after making his own exit from Death Row. Snoop denies it, but the author uncovered court papers in which Knight’s wife, Sharitha, makes the claim.
She also said that Snoop hired a 24-hour armed security force and drove around in an armored tank with gun ports.
The author describes Tupac Shakur’s bonding with Knight as akin to nuclear fusion. In fact, Westhoff’s detailed recounting of the long history of Death Row is required reading even for those who may think they know the story.
Westhoff’s careful examination of the who-killed-Tupac scenarios led him to conclude that only one has legs. One man, Keffe D, a Southside Crip, claims his now-deceased nephew Orlando Anderson killed Tupac after being offered a million dollars by Puff Daddy to kill Tupac and Suge Knight.
The heartbreak of N.W.A is that Cube, Dre, and Eazy had only just found their way back to each other when Eazy was felled by full-blown AIDS.
Again, Westhoff does a serious job sifting through the many questions as to how Eazy contracted HIV. In the end, the answer is who cares. But plenty of murder theories have floated in the years since, spawned in part by the fact that he died only a month after diagnosis.
Knight publicly offered one of the more intrigues ones, describing to Jimmy Kimmel how it was possible to inject someone with a vial of tainted blood. When asked about it by Westhoff, Cube didn’t accuse Knight, but he refused to discount conspiracy theories about Eazy’s death.
Many others point fingers at the widow, claiming inept medical care.
Yes, the Nation of Islam imported a controversial treatment, Kemron, from Africa. It didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt. Eazy died of complications from AIDS on March 26, 1995 in what was the dark ages of treatment.
Eazy was buried in his Compton hat, lowered in a golden coffin. Only one member of N.W.A, DJ Yella, attended.
A truly sad ending to an incomparable era.