20 N.W.A. Songs That Made You a Fan
"You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge," Dr. Dre states before N.W.A.'s 1988 track "Straight Outta Compton" kicks off. Those words showcase the goal of one of the most influential, highly controversial rap groups of all time: to illustrate their experience and lifestyle growing up in the streets of Compton.
While the group was only together for about five years, their music made waves that still impact hip-hop decades later. They weren't the first gangsta rappers, but they were certainly a driving force in making gangsta rap a dominant style in the late '80s and '90s. Their lyrics shocked the media and garnered threats from parental groups and law enforcement.
As hip-hop moved to a more grim tone with the rise of gangsta rap, N.W.A. created some of the biggest stars of the era. Eazy-E would become a street legend before his untimely death in 1995. Ice Cube, one of the group's primary writers, launched a massively successful solo career and eventually turned himself into a movie star as well. Dr. Dre went on to soundtrack much of '90's West Coast gangsta rap, pioneering his massively influential G-funk style and helping make stars out of people like Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Nate Dogg. MC Ren and DJ Yella never reached the same heights as the rest outside of the group, but their contributions to N.W.A. make them legends nonetheless.
With the release of the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton coming this week (Aug. 14), it's the perfect time to dive back into their catalog and rediscover the 20 N.W.A. Songs That Made You a Fan.
N.W.A's original run ended in 1991, as Dr. Dre left Ruthless Records to join Death Row. Unfortunately, it took the death of Eazy-E for N.W.A. to reunite in anything close to a full capacity. Ice Cube was out of the group as early as 1989, but he settled his differences with MC Ren and Dr. Dre after Eazy's tragic death. In the late '90s and early 2000s, the newly reunited N.W.A. released two tracks: "Chin Check" from the Next Friday soundtrack and "Hello" from Ice Cube's War and Peace Vol. 2 album. "Hello" is the better of the two tracks as Cube, Dre and Ren look back at their time in N.W.A. Dre provides a fresh beat straight out of his 2001-era brand of G-funk and also has the best verse (likely written by then-rising star Eminem). Despite the years they spent apart, the rappers still have their chemistry from the good old days intact.
"Panic Zone" is probably the most un-N.W.A.-like track the group ever released. It's included on this list more for its historical context than for its quality. Before the group started receiving mass media attention, Arabian Prince was a member. His contributions to N.W.A were on the much more lighthearted side than what the group would eventually be known for. Prince would show up once more on "Something 2 Dance 2" from Straight Outta Compton, but it was clear that his style stuck out when compared to the other members' contributions. "Panic Zone" isn't necessarily a bad track, but it's clear this wasn't the music the group was meant to make.
The D.O.C. was never an actual member of N.W.A, but his contributions to the group are undeniable. After Cube and Ren, The D.O.C. contributed the most lyrics to Straight Outta Compton, and his influence within the group only increased after Ice Cube left. Here he gets his chance to come out from the background and gives a great intro to an underrated gem from Straight Outta Compton. The track is also notable for being the only one on the album to feature all of the rapping members of the group.
When N.W.A. wasn't rapping about the streets and the gangsta lifestyle, they were probably rapping about girls. Especially after Cube left, the group's content got significantly more sexually explicit. The 100 Miles & Runnin' EP and especially N----z4Life featured a lot more raunchy material. This may have been to further the controversy in the media, or maybe the gang just liked mixing in a little crass humor with the harder raps. "Just Don't Bite It" is a good representation of the directional shift the group went in after Straight Outta Compton.
"N----z 4 Life" directly addresses some of the criticisms brought upon N.W.A. The title track from the group's second album is all about them defending their use of the N-word not just to the media, but to the black community. N.W.A attracted controversy during their entire run, but this is one of the few times they actually addressed the criticisms straight-on. "Why do I call myself a n----, you ask me? / Well, it's because motherf---ers want to blast me / And run me outta my neighborhood / They label me as a dope dealer / Yo! And say that I'm no good," raps MC Ren.
"Real N----z Don't Die" is the first track off of N----z4Life and one of the immediate highlights from the record. Backed by an insane beat with an excellent guitar riff and chimes, and featuring a hook sampled from Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate," the song is a perfect statement to start off their sophomore album. It shows that even though Cube might be out of the group, they haven't lost their edge.
MC Ren never reached the heights as his group mates, but it's not for lack of skill. "If It Ain't Ruff" is Ren's time to shine on Straight Outta Compton and he flashes his lyrical ability over a perfect Average White Band sample that keeps things bouncing. It's one of the shorter cuts from the project, but Ren makes his presence known and doesn't waste the time he has on this solo joint.
This track might be one of the more controversial moments from Niggaz4Life as Dr. Dre and MC Ren describe their respective experiences with women, and at the end of each verse, they end up killing each one. Dre's sexual encounter with Clara finds her "pushing daises" and he doesn't skimp on the graphic details. "Now listen up and lemme tell you how I did it / Yo, I tied her to the bed, I was thinking the worst / But yo, I had to let my n----s f--- her first yeah / Loaded up the forty-fo', yo / Then I straight smoked the ho," he rhymes. "One Less Bitch" is yet another attempt at shock to provoke politicians and parental groups. Tracks like this would influence Dre's later career, particularly when it came to the shock value of Eminem's earliest records.
"Approach to Danger" is one of N.W.A.'s shortest tracks, yet it's also one of their most memorable. The song is all about Ren, Dre and Eazy-E approaching the danger of the streets and how they themselves are part of that danger. The real highlight is in the instrumental, which has a very sinister vibe and sounds almost like something that came out of a horror movie. The instrumental single-handedly makes this already grim track into something darker altogether. We can thank DJ Yella and Dr. Dre for that.
Before Straight Outta Compton arrived, there was the 1987 project N.W.A. and the Posse, which actually served as the first album for the rap group. As a result, "Dopeman" is one of the first N.W.A. tracks ever released, and our first real taste of Ice Cube's talents. It's a tale of the adventures and problems that come as being a drug dealer. The song is also significant for Dre sampling the Ohio Players' "Funky Worm," a synthesizer sample with a sound that would define the G-funk era, as well as giving a taste of what would eventually transform into Dr. Dre's signature sound. When Straight Outta Compton was released as the group's official LP on a major label, a remix to the song came along with it, but the song as it is from the N.W.A. and the Posse compilation is where it all started.
Speaking of G-funk, "Alwayz Into Somethin'" is the closest thing to the genre that's heard in N.W.A's time together. The song is the lead single off of N----z4Life but it's one of the few instances where the beat of the song outshines the group's lyrics. "Alwayz Into Somethin'" is a groundbreaking song because it's a stepping stone in the career of one of the greatest producers of all time. One year after this song dropped, Dre would perfect this sound on his legendary The Chronic. It also showcases the feud between Ice Cube and N.W.A. as Dre takes shots at the former group member in his verse: "Hoppin' the fence and it was Ren on the mothaf---in' trigger / He got in the Benz and said / 'Dre, I was speakin' to yo' bitch O'Shea.'”
"Gangsta Gangsta" was one of the singles off Straight Outta Compton, but in history, the track has been outshined by some of the other more iconic numbers from the album. That's a shame, because "Gangsta Gangsta" is one of the best songs to showcase the group's lyrical style. In the first verse, Ice Cube drops lines like, "You don't like how I'm living? Well, f--- you!" and "Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money." Lyrics like these would come to define the entire attitude and themes of gangsta rap for years to come.
After Ice Cube left N.W.A. due to monetary disputes over his writing credits, the remaining members of the group started firing shots his way. They would take shots throughout 100 Miles and Runnin' and N----z4Life, but "Real N----z" is a complete diss track aimed at Cube. They call Cube a traitor and compare him to Benedict Arnold ("We started out wit too much cargo / So I'm glad we got rid of Benedict Arnold / Yo, N.W.A., criticize for what we say / But I'm a do the s--- anyway"). This diss would eventually inspire Ice Cube to fire back on his sophomore solo album Death Certificate, most notably on "No Vaseline," one of the greatest diss tracks of all time.
The D.O.C.'s No One Can Do It Better album is unlike his work as a writer for N.W.A. His style as a solo artist was more focused on being lyrical than shocking listeners with overly violent content. However, his more gangsta rap-friendly friends in N.W.A. show up to do what they do best. With an absolutely funky beat courtesy of Dre, Cube, Ren and Eazy get their time to shine. Cube would rather kill weak MCs then give them a chance on the mic ("Sit in the electric chair, grab a hold / Pull the switch, your body twitch, your eyes explode / Out your skull 'cause being dull on a flow / Is an N-O") while E gives the middle finger to fame ("Get me paid and then rap / 'Cause all the other bulls--- money ain't jack"). Then The D.O.C. comes in to absolutely destroy the final verse, demolishing everybody else who was on the track with him. However, the Dallas-bred rhymer gives much respect to the West Coast family that embraced him: "I got raw when I came to Cali." "The Grand Finale" is one of the standard bearers when it comes to old school posse cuts, and the verses still hit hard.
The second single off of N----z4Life, "Appetite for Destruction" is a full-on lyrical assault. Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and MC Ren show up here to serve rhymes written by the latter, The D.O.C. and Kokane. N.W.A.'s hunger can only be satisfied by destroying everything in their presence. The combination of this track, "Real N----z Don't Die" and "N----z 4 Life" serve as a great start to the album and prove the group is still going hard despite only have three members left at this time. Unfortunately, the second half of the N----z4Life album delves more into the territory of N.W.A.'s more sexual themes, which don't work nearly as well as their gangsta raps.
Like "Dopeman," "8 Ball" first appeared on N.W.A. and the Posse and was remixed for Straight Outta Compton. While "Dopeman" was a showcase for Ice Cube, "8 Ball" helps get us acquainted with Eazy-E. It's a storytelling track to highlight Eazy's lyrical style. We learn the Compton rhymer enjoys listening to Marvin Gaye's greatest hits while "cruising down the street in my six-four." The original version of the track isn't as explicit as the remix and suffers from some poor mixing, but it showcases how Eazy and the group would evolve in the next few years.
"100 Miles and Runnin'" is a fast-paced jam about N.W.A. running from the police. Even Dre, whose style was traditionally more laid-back than the rest of the crew, steps out of his comfort zone and shows he can keep up with Ren and Eazy here. It's a necessary move, too. This is the first track N.W.A. released after Ice Cube left, and Dre would have to pick up the slack and step out from the more behind the scenes role he played earlier on in their career as a group. And of course, the disses aimed at Cube kept coming on this track. "100 Miles and Runnin'" is the first and best N.W.A. track recorded after Straight Outta Compton.
"Express Yourself" stands out in N.W.A.'s catalog for a variety of reasons. Most of Dre's involvement on Straight Outta Compton is behind the boards, and outside of a few verses on the less prominent tracks this is the only solo showcase for him as a rapper on the album. On a project noted for its explicit lyrical content, Dre doesn't even swear, which is a total surprise. N.W.A.'s lyrics center on drugs throughout the album, and Dre talks about how he doesn't even smoke weed (only a few years before he'd eventually release The Chronic). It's also an incredibly positive track on an otherwise bleak record. Most importantly, it's damn good. The Charles Wright sample used on the beat is one of the most iconic samples in hip-hop history, and the album proves that the group can do more than just shock with their violent lyrics.
There is no other N.W.A. track as relevant in today's culture than "F--- tha Police." As we look at police shootings of unarmed black men, and the protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other places, it's easy to look back on N.W.A's words in 1989. Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E detail the struggles of being racially profiled in California. Hearing lines like, "A young n---- got it bad cause I'm brown," and "They have the authority to kill a minority" resonates today as we see what happened to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and countless other people who have been killed by police.
There's no other song that can be No. 1 on a list of 20 N.W.A. Songs That Made You a Fan. "Straight Outta Compton" is one of the most iconic tracks of all time, and helped change the course of hip-hop history. This was many hip-hop heads' first taste of gangsta rap, and helped set the stage for what was to come. Without "Straight Outta Compton" and the waves it made, would people have paid attention to the rest of the album? It's hard to see N.W.A. becoming the controversial and influential group they are without this song bringing them into the mainstream conversation. Ice Cube lets listeners know he's playing no games from the jump: "Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf---er named Ice Cube / From the gang called N----s Wit Attitudes / When I'm called off, I got a sawed-off / Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off." For better or worse, N.W.A. made gangsta rap into something that would be at the forefront of hip-hop for over a decade, and they accomplished that with "Straight Outta Compton" and the album named after it.
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