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Sometimes, something big happens as a result of a small event that seems inconsequential at first. The Chicago Fire of 1871 supposedly started when a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn. In 1928, penicillin was discovered because Dr. Fleming couldn't keep a tidy workspace in his lab.
And a revolutionary gangster rap group came together in 1987 because of...parking tickets?
In the summer of 1987, Dr. Dre found himself in jail thanks to a growing number of unpaid parking violations. As a member of the party rap group, the World Class Wreckin' Cru, Dre frequently relied on the group's leader, Alonzo Williams, to bail him out when the tickets piled up. Fed up with the amount of money he was spending to keep Dre out of jail, Williams finally told Dre to call someone else. Dre called a mutual friend, Eric Wright.
Now that Dre owed Wright a favor, Wright asked him to create a couple of beats for a rap collective Wright was putting together, to be called N.W.A. and the Posse. Dre, brimming with inspiration from groups like Run-DMC and happy to be away from the Wreckin' Cru, quickly agreed.
After putting together a rag-tag group of MCs, they got to work. Another recruit, Ice Cube, wrote a song called "Boyz-n-the-Hood," and they offered it to a couple of East Coast rappers calling themselves HBO. The two rappers hated it, and left the studio.
As it turned out, Ice Cube didn't even show up that day, and it seemed like rented studio time was going to go to waste. Under pressure from Dr. Dre and former Cru member DJ Yella to lay down a vocal track, Eric Wright drew the short straw, stepped to the mic, and became Eazy-E.
They didn't like the first cut much, mostly due to the fact that Eazy was an amateur. When Eazy began to rap, his friends knocked his delivery and the sound of his voice, which has been described as high-pitched and whiny. Maybe Eazy was never a great rapper in the technical sense, but he made up for it with charisma and drive.
After Eazy and N.W.A. finished the demo for "Boyz-n-the-Hood," Eazy intentionally sought out a down-on-his-luck record executive named Jerry Heller, aware of his previous music success in the 1970s, and eventually paid a mutual friend $750 just to get a meeting with him. When Eazy played the demo, Heller was struck by how unprofessional the voice sounded, but he was also captivated by the rawness of the lyrics.
Heller had been in the music business since the 1960s and had seen some of the world's biggest acts rise and fall, so he had witnessed poor, starving artists ascend to greatness. Not that Eazy was a poor, starving artist exactly: that first meeting eventually led to him investing $25,000 to launch Ruthless Records. In Heller's memoir, Ruthless, he remembers that Eazy had unmatched ambition and persistence in his dream to found a record label where black music artists would have the freedom and range to break new ground in the music business (Source, 62).
Eazy grew up in Compton, California, and had a reputation for being a quiet and well-connected crack dealer. Though he always deflected questions on just how a street kid from Compton raised the money necessary to found a record label, it was perhaps fitting that Ruthless Records was born from the same vices its artists constantly rapped about.
"Wow," was the word that Heller used to describe "Boyz-n-the-Hood." Heller writes:
I thought it was the most important rap music I had ever heard. This was the Rolling Stones, the Black Panthers, Gil Scott-Heron; this was music that would change everything. [...] There are three qualities I've tabulated that can lift an act to superstardom. The first is to actually be first, a trailblazer or innovator, like Louis Armstrong or Lenny Bruce. Second, you can simply be better than anyone else at what you do, like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. And three is to be unique. No one is ever going to mistake a Bob Dylan record for anything other than a Bob Dylan record, and the same could be said for Joan Armatrading, say, or the Beach Boys. Of the great rappers, Eazy fulfilled that quality of uniqueness. (Source, 63–64)
To everyone involved, it was clear that the first version of "Boyz-n-the-Hood" was just a dress rehearsal. As with the events that brought Eazy, Dre, Ice Cube and Jerry Heller together, N.W.A. and the Posse underwent a retooling and re-emerged simply as N.W.A. with a final roster of Eazy, Dre, Ice Cube and MC Ren.
Eazy-Duz-It, Eazy's debut album, was released only a few months after N.W.A. crashed onto the rap scene with Straight Outta Compton and captivated America with their tales of gang violence and the 1980s crack epidemic.
As an album, Eazy-Duz-It can be considered a corollary to Straight Outta Compton. Ice Cube wrote most of the album, Dre produced, and MC Ren frequently supports Eazy's verses. While a number of tracks on Eazy-Duz-It serve to build on the rap persona that Eazy introduced in Straight Outta Compton, "Boyz-n-the-Hood" shows off N.W.A. at the height of its powers.
The track opens with Cube, Dre, Ren, and Eazy hanging out in the studio. In what might be a nod to the circumstances of the original recording, Dre and Cube are reminiscing about the song that other people said wasn't gonna work. They call Eazy over, ask him to "bust this crazy s***," and the song begins. The remix version is a demonstration of Dre's sampling skills: he essentially pieced together the musical foundation from snippets of R&B, rap, and comedy tracks, and it creates the ambiance that surrounds Eazy-E's storytelling.
"Boyz-n-the-Hood" shares some of the aspects of Straight Outta Compton that made it a smash hit. When Eazy delivers the first line of "cruisin' down the street in my six-fo'," you're riding shotgun and Eazy is your tour guide. The track's upbeat tempo and playful use of samples make it easy to gloss over the actual events Eazy describes, including threatening rivals, shooting a former friend, hitting his girlfriend, wrecking his car, and witnessing a courtroom shooting.
None of which is outside the realm of possibility in Compton, California.
When N.W.A. set out to make music, they used brutal honesty and their own personal experiences to reveal the hidden world of L.A.'s inner-city neighborhoods. Eazy was always presented as a gangster superhero so untouchable that he couldn't help but laugh at the conditions of his environment. "Boyz-n-the-Hood" is memorable and has lasted because the music is catchy and fun. In addition, all of Dre's samples are from musicians in N.W.A.'s peer group, and surrounding Eazy's vocals with some of the most notable rap sounds of the day helped the lyrics of "Boyz-n-the-Hood" to stand out even more.
Listen to the song again and you'll notice something that isn't on Straight Outta Compton—almost every verse in "Boyz-n-the-Hood" ends with a punchline.
It's supposed to be funny even through Eazy knows he's rapping about the tragic. Think about the edgiest comedians from the past 60 years—Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Louis C.K.—they've all at one time or another have been accused of obscenity, racism, sexism, and just about every other "ism" you can think of. Why? Because they talk about controversial subjects and infuse it with comedy as a way to address and engage the topic. Their real talent lies in their ability to make you laugh and think at the same time, which is exactly what Eazy-E accomplished when he made "Boyz-n-the-Hood."
"Boyz" underwent another transformation on Eazy's EP, It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, "Boyz-n-the-Hood (G-mix)." The third version isn't memorable, as it came several years after the breakup of N.W.A. and was essentially white noise for the genre. Dre had gone on to develop a new G-funk sound with Death Row Records and enjoyed hit after hit (see "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang").
When the two began to diss each other on record, Eazy shot back with an EP that dealt with Dre on nearly every song. The album came off as a weak attempt to claw at Dre's success, and suggested that Eazy was jealous of the success that his former bandmates—Dre and Cube—were achieving without him.
In 2000, "Boyz-n-the-Hood" experienced a radio resurgence when rock band Dynamite Hack recorded a mellow, clearly tongue-in-cheek tribute cover on their album Superfast, which reached #12 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts.
But aside from covers, the style Eazy embraced on "Boyz-n-the-Hood" went on to inspire a number of other rappers and groups, including the Insane Clown Posse, Too Short, and most notably, Eminem, who has a handful of Grammys for Best Rap Album to his name.
If Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West are any indication that controversial rappers who tackle sensitive subjects with humor can be fully in the mainstream, they owe a debt of gratitude to "Boyz-n-the-Hood."