The following editorial first appeared on Afropunk.com as a response to Ice Cube headlining the widely successful event.
To understand what Ice Cube and N.W.A. may be doing at AFROPUNK, it is first important to recognize that there is more than one way to be both black and ‘other,’ and that black American counterculture has become a melting pot of ideas about what happens when a person’s racial identity is at odds with their individuality. Since its inception, AFROPUNK has thoughtfully considered black punk as a reappraisal of what it means to be black, not an alternate lifestyle that exists outside of “traditional blackness.” It is impossible to police both who is and isn’t black and who is and isn’t punk. AFROPUNK was created as a safe space and a communal place for all those individuals existing as ‘other.’
Punk exclusivity is also not as limiting as it once was. It’s no longer uncommon to find someone who loves the Sex Pistols and Ice T, or lionizes Black Flag and Public Enemy. If it were, we wouldn’t have Death Grips or Yeezus. AFROPUNK has adapted to these times, embodying liberation for all persons identifying as ‘other,’ booking artists such as Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, and D’Angelo, as well as Chuck D, and Body Count, creators who epitomize black freedom. AFROPUNK has always been for the bold and the brave, and there are few acts bolder than Ice Cube and N.W.A, voices of insurrection for an entire generation of disenfranchised black rebels. Who could be more vital, more timely, or more inexplicably punk?
To recognize N.W.A as a punk band, one must first understand punk’s stance not as a genre but as a subculture, and what it’s meant to the black punks who’ve identified with it. Since the earliest days of the Ramones, punk rock has been a device of the young and oppositional, challenging authority and embracing the role of a social pariah. These ideas helped some black punks reaffirm their blackness, and allowed others to express blackness as an ingrained societal remove. To be punk is to be a nonconformist, and to be black is to be born into dissidence, a foe of a broken system. Therefore, the link between being black and being punk is intuitive and inherently political. And on those terms, N.W.A. was as unconventional a punk force as you’ll ever find.
N.W.A. was born out of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, an electro group made up of DJ/turntablists Alonzo “Lonzo” Williams, Antoine “Yella” Carraby and Andre “Dre” Young. They emerged from mid-’80s Los Angeles club culture built on DJ battles, and soul and funk records. The group’s hits — “Juicy,” “Surgery,” and “Cabbage Patch” — operated at the intersection of genres such as disco, electro, and the then-upstart rap scene. At times, the Wreckin’ Cru played parties with a trio of young rappers, C.I.A. (Cru’ In Action), featuring Dre’s cousin Anthony “Sir Jinx” Wheaton and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, whose only single, “My Posse,” Dre produced as part of a possible label deal.
Across town, a popular local drug dealer named Eric Wright used his gains to start Ruthless Records with music manager Jerry Heller, and in 1987 he signed rapper MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson) to the label. Wright arranged a meeting with Dre, and alongside Ice Cube and another popular local rapper, Arabian Prince, they formed N.W.A, Niggaz Wit Attitudes. The 1987 compilation, N.W.A and the Posse, featured C.I.A.’s K-Dee, the Fila Fresh Crew from Dallas (featuring future Compton stalwart D.O.C., then performing as Doc-T), Microphone Mike (later Myka 9 of the influential alt-rap group Freestyle Fellowship, and the Project Blowed collective), and Wright performing under the name Eazy-E. Soon after, Ren, who was also featured on the compilation, and Wreckin’ Cru’s DJ Yella joined the group. Ruthless would go on to sign and produce acts such as J.J. Fad, Michel’le, Yomo & Maulkie, Tairrie B, Jimmy Z, and Above the Law.
From the offset, N.W.A. personified the punk ethos, firmly anti-establishment in its response to social inequity and LAPD militancy. Its very name was a statement of resistance: Niggaz Wit Attitudes. In a country that demands acceptable blackness be docile and silent, being opinionated and uncompromising is in itself an act of protest. Ice Cube’s lyrics abandoned coded language in favor of a merciless plain-speak: “a young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown/ and not the other color so the police think, they have the authority to kill a minority.” Or, “just because I’m from the CPT/ punk police are afraid of me, huh?” Nothing could be more punk than reprimanding the enforcing arm of an oppressive state without fear of consequences.
“Fuck tha Police” is probably N.W.A’s best-known anti-brutality anthem, and one of the all-time great black punk songs. Yet the group’s finest, most punk declaration of defiance is “Real Niggaz Don’t Die,” a song that swaggers proudly with each passing second, surging downhill on a cascading wave of heavy guitar notes, exuding sheer invincibility. Sampling the Last Poets’ “Die Nigga!!!,” the song sends a powerful message: Even when faced with institutional barbarism and violence, black power is indomitable and eternal. It’s a message of empowerment. N.W.A’s ideas are always stunningly clear and well articulated. They also usually have one goal: Be loud and brash without care. This is a primary punk value.
But it isn’t just the group’s not-so-civil disobedience that makes them a symbol of AFROPUNK’s free spirit. A song like “Express Yourself” embodies everything the punk movement stands for: being uniquely, uncompromisingly yourself (“it’s crazy to see people be what society wants them to be/but not me”) and opposing poses (“they want reality but you won’t hear none/ they rather exaggerate a little fiction”). “Parental Discretion Iz Advised” pushes the subculture’s anti-mainstream ideals (“I don’t give a fuck about radio play”) and its clear sense of self and purpose (“pure simplicity, see, it’s elementary/ you hear one of the hardest motherfuckers this century”). And then there’s “Straight Outta Compton,” the hometown anthem with its pride of place. More punk values prized by their rowdy forbearers.
Influences from across musical subcultures are buried throughout N.W.A.’s canon. The group’s songs sample the black post-punk band ESG, the heavy guitar rock-band Mountain, and Beastie Boys, who were the ultimate marriage of hardcore rock and rap sensibilities. Ice Cube’s solo albums sampled the Lafayette Afro Rock Band, David Bowie, Queen, and Steely Dan, among many others. The collective discographies of other N.W.A. members host countless jazz, funk, soul, and R&B samples, which are layered carefully to form the bedrock of their entire aesthetic. The music may have been explicitly rap, but it implicitly built a world of sound. 25 years later that speaks directly to AFROPUNK’s diverse worldview.
After all, both punk and hip-hop emerged from the same urban DIY culture of the 1970s, separated only by stylistic variances and the names of the neighborhoods. It’s a spiritual connection expressed by songs like the Cold Crush Brothers’ “Punk Rock Rap” and Blondie’s “Rapture.” And few contemporary genres are more closely linked to the DIY ethic than turntablism, a trial-and-error-heavy form of music-making that requires self-production and as much listening as creating. In fact, the whole foundation of the group was the various arts of the DJ — it rose from the ashes of World Class Wreckin Cru’, a cabal of DJs, and it was built on Dre’s rep as a local DJ and budding super-producer.
Since its debut, N.W.A and its individual members have influenced countless acts, helping redefine what it means to make black music. Beyond Dre’s multi-platinum work with Death Row (Snoop and 2Pac), the group’s branches extend to Hieroglyphics (through Del the Funky Homosapien, first signed to Ice Cube’s Lench Mob Records), and to DaM-FunK and Terrance Martin (through Snoop Dogg). It influenced the trajectories of Black Eyed Peas (both will.i.am. and apl.de.ap were members of A.T.B.A.N. Klann, a Ruthless Records group), Freestyle Fellowship, Black Hippy (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock), and Anderson .Paak. It also produced figures prominent in mainstream rock culture, including producer Mike Elizondo, who’s worked with Fiona Apple, Alanis Morrissette, and Tegan & Sara. That a group this insubordinate could have such a lasting impact is a testament to the weight of their message, and its musical acumen.
Earlier in 2016, on the heels of their colossally successful biopic, N.W.A were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some critics and aging rockers wondered if the group was fitting of the distinction. Ice Cube, as is his way, was direct in his explanation: “Now, the question is, ‘are we rock and roll?’ And I say, ‘you goddamn right we rock and roll.’ Rock and roll is not an instrument; rock and roll is not even a style of music. Rock and roll is a spirit.”
At the end of the day, “punk,” like “rock and roll,” is a tag that has outgrown its original meaning. It has become something bigger and more affecting than any of its progenitors could’ve envisioned. It is bigger than a sound or a look. It is, as Ice Cube put it that Hall of Fame speech, “not [about] conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path, in music and in life.” It is that sheer will to be different against all odds, scoff at things as they are and dare to embody the change. N.W.A challenged a world that wasn’t ready for its existence to get ready or get bulldozed. No rap group is more punk.