At Universal Records, somebody has been digging through the crates, sorting through old school rap records for reissue purposes. Under the campaign “Respect the Classics,” they’ve already begun re-releasing landmark LPs like Gang Starr’s landmark Step in the Arena, the lyrical wonderland of The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, N.W.A’s pre-G funk/uzi-spraying extravaganza Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s sophomore masterpiece, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Releasing their biggest (some might say best) albums in 1988, both N.W.A and Public Enemy were my favorite groups during that crazy period when hip-hop was beginning to concentrate more on making brilliant albums as opposed to a few great singles. Besides Ice-T—who didn’t have much of a verbal flow, but wrote cool-breeze narratives inspired by the player life—N.W.A were the only Los Angeles-based rappers I allowed into my Harlem home that year.
Like my then-favorite rock band Guns n’ Roses, those dudes from Compton recording for Ruthless Records sounded hardcore crazy, spitting lyrical venom at the police, various women and anybody else who wasn’t down with their dope dealing, gun shooting ways. On songs like “Fu*k tha Police,” “If It Ain’t Ruff” and “I Ain’t tha 1,” those boys sounded like they were on a mission from hell, and they weren’t going to be content until it was complete.
While Ice-T’s brand of outlaw was the gentleman gangster, N.W.A proclaimed themselves “Gangsta Gangsta.” On that same song, Ice Cube (the Jheri-curl wearing best MC in the crew) declared, “Do I look a motherfu*kin’ role model?” Certainly, they did not.
Dr. Dre’s gritty production on Straight Outta Compton wasn’t yet full-blown G-funk, but one could see where he was headed. Yet through all the gun smoke and nightmare imaginary, these fools constructed Straight Outta Compton as a criminal minded album that still sounds as fresh as tear gas in a morning raid.
Public Enemy was already the ying to N.W.A’s yang. Signed to Def Jam, the legendary label that LL Cool J and Slick Rick also called home, P.E. modeled themselves on the style of Black Panthers, the revolutionary stance of Malcolm X, the poetics of Amiri Baraka and the sonic wildness of Miles Davis, Brian Eno, Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin.
Discovering the crew’s thrilling debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show the year before while hanging out at Sounds Record Shop on St. Marks Place, the record was the perfect intro to that crew of rappers and producers who’d met as students on Long Island. Lead rapper Chuck D, a former graphics art major who also designed the group’s bull’s-eye logo, was perhaps the first grown up to get on the mic. Indeed, with a baritone inspired by sportscaster Marv Albert, he sounded like a real grown up. Coupled with everybody’s favorite dropout Flava Flav, together they tackled lyrics like Batman and Robin.
As much as I dug Chuck and Flav’s urban call and response, it was the pure illness of their production collective, the Bomb Squad, that pulled me into their musical matrix. Featuring the knob-turning, samples-transforming wizardry of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Carl Ryder (Chuck D himself), they made some of the most noise-induced funk on the planet. If Phil Specter was the architect of the Wall of Sound, then the Bomb Squad was the aural wreaking ball that destroyed whole buildings.
While Yo! hinted at Public Enemy’s political ways, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a full-scale assault on Ronald Reagan (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”), music critics (“Don’t Believe the Hype”), drug dealers (“Night of the Living Baseheads”) and junk television (“She Watch Channel Zero”). The music itself was a sinister wail of sirens, screams and sheer madness.
Two years after the release of Straight Outta Compton and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the damn near unthinkable happened when Ice Cube fled N.W.A and joined forces with the Bomb Squad crew. Mad because his money was funny at Ruthless, he moved to the Big Apple in 1990 with notebooks full of lyrics he had penned for N.W.A.
Cutting off his S-curls, Cube holed up inside Greene Street Studios for 60 days and delivered the devastating results a few months later. While Cube’s bicoastal power move sounds like business as usual in 2013, back in the day stuff like that just wasn’t done.
Without a doubt, it was as though he had surrendered to the enemy (pun very much intended) and happily collaborated with them. Their artful artifact, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (also part of the Respect the Classics reissues series) was one of the best albums released in 1990.
Although AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was made in New York City, lyrically it was still a Left Coast record, an almost cinéma vérité version of Cube’s notorious Compton ’hood. He captured the brutality and decadence of his world, detailing dangerous visions of gang life, housing project strife and blood in the streets. Without apology, Cube’s words were often as disturbing and misogynistic as his surroundings.
Far from the cuddly actor he would become a decade later, songs like “Once Upon a Time in the Projects,” “Who’s the Mack?” and “You Can’t Fade Me” were as brutal as a Holloway House novel penned by Monster Cody. Throwing even more lyrical dirt in the eyes of his ex-homeboys, Cube duets with Chuck D on the wicked “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside),” and also allows newcomer Yo-Yo to call him out on “It’s a Man’s World” about his highly charged sexism.
As for the Bomb Squad, they did what they did best: a chaotic, cinematic, aggressive soundtrack mixing multi-textured funk samples with live instrumentation. Years later, Cube told XXL magazine that Dr. Dre wanted to produce the project, but was vetoed by Ruthless Records owners Eazy-E and Jerry Heller.
Though Cube would later become a successful actor, screenwriter and producer, when he came to New York City to work with the Bomb Squad, he had nothing to lose and gave his all to the project. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted paved the way for him to become the celebrated L.A. rap laureate of the early 1990s.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.