After passing over N.W.A for the past three years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters are including the seminal gangsta rap group from Compton, California, among its 31st annual group of inductees on Friday night (April 8) — along with first-time nominees Chicago, Cheap Trick and The Steve Miller Band and third-timer Deep Purple. N.W.A becomes only the fifth rap group to be so honored, joining Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy.
Perhaps the success of the hit biopic Straight Outta Compton gave them the extra push they needed. While the film garnered just one Oscar nomination — for Best Original Screenplay — it was one of the top 20 movies of 2015, raking in over $160 million domestic gross that year alone. How’s that for “The Strength of Street Knowledge”? Whether the group ends up rapping at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at the Barclays Center (Ice Cube says no), they will be permanently immortalized for changing the face of hip hop, pop music, and American culture with songs like these:
10. Ice Cube feat. N.W.A, “Hello” (2000)
Released on Ice Cube’s 2000 album War & Peace Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc), this reunion of Cube, Dr. Dre and MC Ren occurred nine years after the group officially disbanded. But the song serves as a look back of the group’s legacy. “I started this gangsta shit,” goes the hook, “And this the motherf—in’ thanks I get?” Dre’s beat, a steaming slab of future funk circa Chronic 2001, and his verse may steal the show, but Cube and Ren represent well, showing that the old chemistry was still there and making “Hello” a fitting farewell to the N.W.A era at the dawn of a new millennium.
- N.W.A, “Dopeman” (1987)
First released as the B-side to Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood,” this aggressive slice of life opens with a skit in which a desperate cokehead tries to trade a rope chain for a $20 bag of cocaine. The rawness of the track, with its rapidfire drum-machine rolls, provided a perfect complement to Ice Cube’s aggressive flow: “N—a begging for credit, he’s knocking out teeth/ Clocking much dollars on the 1st and 15th.” How real is that?
8. N.W.A, “Real N****s Don’t Die” (1991)
As the first track off N.W.A’s second album N—az4Life (often written as Efil4Zaggin), the group’s first full release since Ice Cube’s acrimonious departure, this song was more than just highly anticipated — it was a true show-and-prove moment. The remaining core members knew they had to come extra hard on this one to show they had not lost their edge. Sampling the hook from Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate,” Dre did his best to set a carefree tone, but all the shots at Cube made it clear that the stakes were very high.
7. N.W.A, “Alwayz Into Somethin‘” (1991)
Hailed as an early example of the G-Funk sound Dre would unveil the following year on The Chronic, this rough and rugged track — featuring guest ad-libs from dancehall reggae artist Admiral D — contains a pointed reference to former member Ice Cube (government name O’Shea Jackson): “Dre I was speakin’ to your bitch O’Shea.” Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.
6. N.W.A, “100 Miles and Runnin'” (1990)
The title track from a 1990 EP released in the wake of Ice Cube’s departure from the group, this song was the opening shot in a beef that ended when Cube dropped the knockout punch that was “No Vaseline.” Taking an early lead, MC Ren, Dre and Eazy do their best to paint Cube as a fugitive on the run, although he left the group over a contractual dispute. “You don’t really think you’re gonna get away do you?” an ominous snatch of movie dialog says. Later, Dre raps, “Started with five and, yo, one couldn’t take it/ So now there’s four ’cause the fifth couldn’t make it.” Turning industry chatter into musical drama, this seemed like a savvy move until Cube got the last laugh. “100 Miles…” still stands as a dope record as well as a document of history.
5. N.W.A, “Gangsta Gangsta” (1988)
Sampling BDP’s “My Philosophy on the hook — “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” — Dr. Dre set forth a mission statement of sorts for the group. N.W.A’s version of reality was hardcore “street knowledge,” a force so powerful it would lead to a genre of music lucrative enough to fund countless music industry salaries. Although N.W.A dressed and rapped as if they were gang members, only Eazy had really made a living in the streets. The other members of the group were speaking from a very genuine place as young black men who had been marginalized by society and harassed by police as if they were criminals for most of their lives. So when they said, “You don’t like how I’m livin’, well f— you!” that was their reality. “Gangsta Gangsta” ends with an Eazy-E verse that contains an ominous exchange, foreshadowing his eventual demise from HIV: [female voices] “We want to f— you, Eazy!” “I want to f— you too.” That was reality too.
4. Eazy-E, “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood” (1987)
Though not officially an N.W.A record, this was the single that started it all. Pressed up on the now-defunct Macola label and sold at the Compton Swap Meet, “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood” was a viral hit before the rise of the Internet. What Eric Wright lacked in microphone skills, he more than made up for in conviction. His high-pitched voice was not the usual MC sound, but the blunt force of his lyrics — usually penned by Ice Cube — stood out. The song was so raw, so unlike anything else before it, that the streets had to have it. Not only did this record’s success jump-start the formation of the group N.W.A, it also gave its title to John Singleton’s 1991 coming of age flick, which would launch Cube’s acting career.
3. N.W.A, “Express Yourself” (1988)
Built around an irresistible James Brown sample, this was the group’s least profane and most radio-friendly record. The brilliance of Dre’s opening couplet: “I’m expressing with my full capabilities/ And now I’m living in correctional facilities” has been somewhat overshadowed by the irony of his claim not to smoke weed “’cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage.” Four years later, of course, he would release his solo debut, The Chronic.
2. N.W.A, “F— Tha Police” (1988)
Fearlessly speaking truth to power, the second track of Straight Outta Compton was incendiary enough to put these young black men and their record label on an FBI watch list. The controversy around the song’s lyrics was put into a new context four years after its release when L.A. erupted in mass riots following the police beating of Rodney King. The song — whose title has become a rallying cry for rebel movements across the globe — remains as relevant as ever, with police violence continuing to spark protests across the U.S. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Police Commission called for an overhaul of the LAPD’s guidelines on the use of deadly force, after learning that L.A. police officers used force almost 2,000 times last year, including 21 fatal shootings.
1. N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)
Though it might not be the most dangerous part of the Los Angeles metro area, this working-class city just south of downtown L.A. became a symbol for everything that was wrong with urban America thanks to the first track from N.W.A’s 1988 album of the same name. Dr. Dre’s relentless beat, punctuated with screeching tires and machine-gun fire, provided a fitting sounded for a “crazy motherf—er named Ice Cube” to catch wreck alongside MC Ren and Eazy-E. As Cube noted, the song was “a murder rap to keep y’all dancing,” but N.W.A were also “the world’s most dangerous group.” Hip-hop would never be the scene.