It's fun to picture it: the late rapper, record mogul, N.W.A. founder, and master troll Eazy E salivating over the prospect of middle-American tourists gazing in confusion and awe at his black-capped visage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum. Who knows if such aspirations ever crossed Eazy's mind while he was was alive, but he was no stranger to making himself at home in unlikely places. In N.W.A.'s prime, Eazy and his label, Ruthless Records, platinum records crossed right over into white America's front yard and catapulted the inner city gangsta mythos into global consciousness. In 1991, he and manager Jerry Heller had the audacity to attend a fundraising reception for the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle on (accidental!) invitation from then-senators Phil Gramm and Bob Dole. Eazy wasn't especially inclined to share his fortune with the rest of N.W.A., but—shrewd businessman that he was—he didn’t think twice about spending $1250 for "a million dollars' worth of press."
N.W.A. didn't make the final cut for the 2015 Rock Hall induction class, but the fact that the group was nominated in the first place—alongside Nine Inch Nails, the Smiths, and Kraftwerk—surely has Eazy making his signature "pistol hands" in his grave. Perhaps it would be enough for him that the museum now proudly displays the warning letter that Priority Records (Ruthless’ distributor) received from the FBI in the summer of 1989, a pivotal moment that only intensified the popularity of the group's seminal 1988 classic Straight Outta Compton; the Rock Hall's website praises N.W.A. for its "aggressive, boundary smashing, don't-give-a-f**k perspective [sic]," in its surprisingly edgy descriptions of the 2015 nominees.
On the one hand, by nominating N.W.A., the Rock Hall makes itself look like a progressive institution, and while you can split hairs all you want, N.W.A. certainly belongs in the conversation when it comes to iconic paradigm changers—especially considering that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and N.W.A.'s spiritual twin the Sex Pistols have already been inducted.
Yet, amidst the canonical celebration their work deserves, viewing N.W.A.’s lyrical misogyny in the light of 2015 is jarring, especially coming out of a 2014 that felt like an apocalypse in terms of rape culture in popular culture, and the discussions and outrage that centered on Janae and Ray Rice. N.W.A.'s second and final album, 1991’s Niggaz4life, contains scenes where members of the band: callously murder a prostitute then dump her body just before approaching a group of "bitches" to woo for sex; sodomize a groupie with a broomstick; grudge-fuck a crack-addicted prostitute who rejected MC Ren in high school ("the bitch makes me sick," Ren reasons, "but I hear that she sucks a good dick"); coerce various women into prostitution; and then kill them when they short their upstart pimps on payment. In one such case, Dr. Dre describes tying one woman to a bed and killing her—but not before allowing his "niggaz" to gang rape her first. Finally, in perhaps the most controversial verse of all, five men have sex in the back of a car with the "neighborhood ho," who also happens to be 14 years old and the daughter of a preacher. MC Ren delights in telling the audience that, as the sixth man to join in, he can't even see the girl's face, just "the pussy and the chest."
Niggaz4life seethes with an especially virulent brand of misogyny—and comes off as surprisingly bitter for a bunch of dudes who had recently taken to partying with bikini-clad co-eds on MTV as a consequence of their newfound fame. Presumably, after making such a big splash with Compton, N.W.A. felt it was necessary to follow-up by baiting even more controversy. Unfortunately, instead of packing a punch by rendering a more incisive portrait of street life, they overshot the mark and landed in horror-rap territory, a choice that drags down what should otherwise be celebrated as some of the most intricately layered and moody production of Dre's career. Sure, as much as Eazy E enjoyed using the word "real," N.W.A. didn't always mean for the audience to take what they said literally. In an interview from the Straight Outta Compton era, Ice Cube, Ren, Dre, and Eazy sound perfectly reasonable when they admit that they don't partake in the acts they describe in their music. "Anybody with any kind of sense," argues Ice Cube, "would look at [what we're rapping about] and say 'I wouldn't wanna get involved [in gang life]'" Adds Dre: "The only thing you can get out of gang-bangin' is going to jail or [ending up] dead." (Then, in a priceless twist, Ren, who sounds like a concerned parent, points the finger at heavy metal videos that glorify devil worship!)
Clearly, then, there were times when N.W.A. dropped the facade and gave us a glimpses of their true perspective—glimpses of the intelligence operating behind the remorseless group persona. But the danger with playing a role is that it can become real, as it did when Dre assaulted Dee Barnes, then host of Fox TV show "Pump It Up", at an industry record-release party in 1991. Dre, inebriated and reportedly angered by how N.W.A. was portrayed in Barnes' interview segment with the recently departed Ice Cube, is according to Barnes’ statement (and an eyewitness account) alleged to have repeatedly slammed Barnes’ head against a brick wall and kicked her in the ribs while attempting to throw her down a flight of stairs—all as his bodyguard held onlookers at bay with a gun. Barnes fled into a bathroom, where Dre pursued and cornered her and, according to her account, proceeded to punch her repeatedly in the back of the head. Dre has never really had his feet held to the fire over the incident, while Ren and Eazy responded with shrugs, saying "bitch deserved it" and "bitch had it coming." It's hard to fathom the reaction that such an assault might spark today in the age of instantaneous Twitter outrage. But it's also hard to imagine that there would be lasting consequences either.
To be fair, singling out N.W.A. and protesting the Rock Hall nomination won't resolve any of the broader messes the group is still managing to rub our noses in. The Hall is full of artists whose albums exhibit exhibit equally retrogressive ideas about women. Likewise, the Madonna-whore complex which Niggaz4life illustrates with such explicit venom is hardly exclusive to gangsta rap. Everywhere you turn, evidence abounds of the pandemic hostility that men exude not only towards women who reject their sexual advances, but also towards the women who make their own. Like so much of the male sexual expression we see across the board, Niggaz4life projects self-hatred, ambivalence, and confusion onto the very people whose attention and physicality its male protagonists hunger for with such desperation—a desperation that, in a void of introspection, metastasizes into sadistic malice.
Niggaz4life opens with an announcement that "the muthafuckin' saga continues," and the Rock Hall nomination proves as much at least about how much misogyny in music is status quo to the point of being, seemingly, unremarkable. "Their most famous single," reads the Rock Hall website, "was 'F**k The Police [sic],' a minimalist classic that described the frustration and anger young black men felt toward the LAPD, years before the Rodney King riots broke out. Some call them the Beatles of hip-hop because of their massive influence and sonic power." Fair enough (even if the Beatles comparison is overblown) but when it comes to N.W.A.'s insistence on dehumanizing others, we still turn a blind eye; you can expect polite applause at the ceremony if this induction ever does in fact come to pass. Stay tuned—the muthafuckin' saga does indeed continue.