On the 20th Anniversary of Tupac’s Death, a New Book Takes a Gritty Look at Los Angeles Hip-Hop
Original Gangstas tells the story of several of West Coast rap's biggest stars, including Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre.
Illustration by Fred Harper
One could argue with the ease of claiming B.I.G. and Pac’s eternal rap-game dominance that music fans want every speck of background on their favorite
On the other hand, it’s clear many pop culture fanatics like for the legacies of their heroes to be scrubbed and romanticized. For
Cultural consumers of the revisionist mind who wish to learn about the rise of California rap should view Straight Outta Compton, the candy-coated 2015 big-screen dramatization of the saga behind N.W.A., hip-hop’s first explosive Los Angeles export. Those who crave the dirty details, however — no matter how horrendous, despite how some characterizations may impact one’s feelings for beloved classics — will prefer to digest Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. Authored and intensely researched by former LA Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff, the volume is as eloquently written as it is immensely raw. To borrow one from Ice Cube, it’s a “no vaseline” sort of affair.
In a recent chat about his latest effort, Westhoff couldn’t recall the precise nature of his original pitch to publishers. He knew that he was rolling into familiar and even well-charted territory, but he also knew that while contributions like Have Gun Will Travel, Ronin Ro’s 1999 book subtitled The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, as well as a few other select works spelunk into various cracks in the often-inaccurate popular narrative, there was still a mess of information buried in participants of varying significance. Add in the extraordinary social unrest and the crack epidemic from which West Coast hip-hop was in large part born plus the unwieldy conspiracy theories that cloud almost any discussion of the subgenre — especially around the deaths of Eazy-E and Tupac — and Westhoff saw an opportunity to weave together puzzle pieces and fill gaps left by the legions who have mined similar spaces and begun to tell some of the taller tales.
Of course, reality is crazier than fiction, and it’s impossible to turn more than a couple pages in Original Gangstas without shaking one’s head in amazement at the insanity of daily life at N.W.A.’s Ruthless Records — from the number of children and artists Eazy and Dre fathered to the Nation of Islam’s bizarre attempt to cure the former’s AIDS before his death in 1995 (a happening reported here in detail for the first time). While Westhoff started researching before he had a focus, eventually the through line became obvious: Dr. Dre, born Andre Young, whose career as a party-rocking teenage DJ — and then later as the leading architect behind an evolving West Coast sound and the region’s chief rap impresario — transformed countless heavyweight careers.
With a guiding light on Dre, Westhoff says his approach was notably different from the one he took with Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop. Whereas that book reads more like a travelogue (and hearkens to the cult immerive NOLA rap scene dispatch Tricksta by Nick Cohn) than, say, Brian Coleman’s comprehensive Check the Technique series, which lets the artists do most of the talking directly, Original Gangstas reads like classic investigative journalism and stands alongside Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang and The Big Payback by Dan Charnas as a standard-bearer sure to age like a Dre track.
With the responsibility of turning an investigative eye on Ruthless Records and Death Row, the latter the infamous imprint of iconic criminal boss Suge Knight that fostered the massive careers of Snoop Dogg and Tupac, came the duty of attending to a series of domestic assaults which took place throughout the halcyon years. It’s not a stretch to say that beating women is an especially major plotline in any story involving Dre; such behavior was so normalized among N.W.A. members, in fact, that one is left to question the intentions of the Straight Outta Compton screenwriters or of any other biographer who masks these black eyes. One account by Westhoff of a beating Dre gave then-TV host Dee Barnes at a club in West Hollywood stands out among the most despicable:
"He grabbed me by my hair, picked me up and started slamming me into a brick wall,” said Barnes, who is nearly a foot shorter than Dre and weighed about half as much. Dre’s bodyguard held back the crowd, she added in a statement. According to eyewitness accounts, Dre began kicking her and tried to push her down a flight of stairs. She fled to the bathroom, but Dre followed her in and began beating her more. [N.W.A. promoter] Doug Young said the room full of spectators watched and did nothing.
In these respects, Original Gangstas is a grueling read even for those who may be vaguely familiar with some of the violent side of this story, and especially for anyone who grew up hanging pictures of these guys on their walls, an experience that I personally share with Westhoff (and that the Minnesota-bred author notes in brief throughout the book, using his own impressions as a way to show the far-reaching impact of Compton rap). But while atrocious acts against women — their victims almost always were women, one might acknowledge, as N.W.A.’s security handled the male threats — turn up on page after page, Westhoff doesn’t let those acts hijack the narrative. And why should they? This is, after all, the dirty version. Extensive scars considered, Dre himself should probably be happy with the book, since it proves him to be among the
As a critical addition to existing accounts of these episodes, Original Gangstas is a reliable and accessible historical document, from Westhoff’s diligence in finding sources who were difficult to track down — Westhoff believes his interview with recently deceased Jerry Heller was the former N.W.A. business manager's last substantial interview; as he writes, in their short time together in October 2014 the mogul was “alternatively calm and heated,” oscillating “between saying he doesn’t care what anyone says about him, and vehemently denying various allegations” — to others who were more amenable, like J-Dee of Da Lench Mob, who is currently serving a substantial sentence for murder in the California Men’s Colony. In our chat, Westhoff said that coverage from Vibe magazine was particularly thorough, though he made sure to note that the publication, for reasons satisfactory or otherwise, drew criticism from some corners for fueling the violence that erupted between warring rap factions. Even with these many living documents to pluck from and fact check, Westhoff managed to produce a seriously compelling page-turner. Never too far from his early music critic roots, the author clearly knows his shit, which is more than can be said for most people writing about rap for national audiences. From his description of the frenzy over the 1988 release of Straight Outta Compton:
The album’s most memorable songs feature an assault of abrasive textures, marching drums, sample fragments, and break beats mined from Roadium swap meets. Straight Outta Compton’s bombastic sound matches its rhetoric. To hear it as a child of poverty was to nod in affirmation; to hear it as a person of privilege was to gasp in horror.
On an important side note, underground heads should be happy to know that Westhoff, a longtime music scribe who has covered many facets of the genre, appropriately notes intersections between rap honchos and the subterranean element around them — from the involvement of Cube’s cousin Del
Westhoff, who began working on Original Gangstas before Straight Outta Compton was announced, said that he and his publisher debated rushing up their drop date to align with the biopic.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.