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Near the start of Gerrick D. Kennedy’s PARENTAL DISCRETION IS ADVISED: THE RISE OF N.W.A. AND THE DAWN OF GANGSTA RAP (Atria Books, $26), we meet, too briefly, Verna Young, the mother of Andre Romelle, aka Dr. Dre. Verna loved music. Her LP collection was filled with Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and Earth, Wind & Fire. When she got home from work, she’d put a record on the turntable before switching on the lights. As a teenager she had performed with a musical group, and when her son was that age she designed and sewed the costumes his dance team wore to pop and lock. She bought him his first mixer and let the neighborhood kids hang at her place. On the nights that Dre deejayed at Eve’s After Dark, Compton’s all-ages club, Verna set an alarm for one in the morning so she could pick him up after his set.

“N.W.A., 1990,” a photograph by Lynn
Goldsmith.

Getting the band together is usually the fun part of the story, and Parental Discretion is no exception. By the time Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella have gone their separate ways, the plot has devolved into standard pop tragedy. Yes, N.W.A. will go down in history for their aggressive, original sound, their lyrics about race and crime, and the authorities’ attempts to censor them. But the dis tracks and lawsuits were about the same thing they always are: money. Eazy, the first rapper to own a successful record label, was making lots of it; the other guys were getting screwed. As Dick Griffey, the founder of Solar Records, said of the artists on the Ruthless roster: “They had the worst contracts I had ever seen in the history of the record business.”

Kennedy leans on interviews with Ice Cube and the D.O.C., but Eazy is the most colorful character. He fronted a group whose single “Fuck tha Police” became the unofficial anthem of the LA riots but attended the Rodney King trial to support Theodore Briseno, one of the police officers involved in the beating. “Sure, I’ve seen that little stomp Briseno does on the video, and I’m not saying it’s justified,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “But we don’t know what it was about, do we?” He bragged on a solo album, “I may be a woman beater, but I’m not a pussy eater,” and once offered encouragement to a man on the street who was hitting his wife: “Beat that bitch’s ass, beat her fucking ass.” Kennedy notes that he also gave money to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and City of Hope, and took busloads of kids to Six Flags. Okay, whatever.

“Forms & Records No. 6,” a photogram by Doug Fogelson. Courtesy Sasha
Wolf Projects, New York City

In 1988, the only major label willing to distribute N.W.A.’s debut was Priority Records, whose biggest act was the animated quartet of Motown cover artists known as the California Raisins. Kennedy gives a nuanced account of the group’s vexed relationship with their manager, Jerry Heller, and includes players who were sidelined in the recent biopic Straight Outta Compton: J. J. Fad, the group whose hit “Supersonic” helped Ruthless score a distribution deal, as well as Dee Barnes, Michel’le, and Tairrie B, three women whom Dre assaulted. He covers the rise of Snoop, the crimes of Suge Knight, and Eazy’s death from AIDS-related complications, following the trail to 2016, when the surviving members reunited at Coachella. The biggest surprise of the book comes early on, in a vignette about young Eazy’s career as a crack dealer. Whenever someone paged him — an 8 for an eight ball, a 12 for half an ounce — he’d walk to the corner of Caress Avenue and Alondra Boulevard, in his white T-shirt, tube socks, and Dickies, to close the deal at a pay phone. “The phone is still there today, dusty and unused,” writes Kennedy. It must be the last pay phone in America.

Photograph of J. J. Fad, 1988. Courtesy Juana Sperling

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