Fact-Checking Gangsta Rap Songs
An excerpt from Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap
Though hardcore rap pioneers like Schooly D, Ice-T, and Eazy-E first gained fame in the 1980s, gangsta rap lyrics didn’t reach a fever pitch until the 1990s, when increasingly hostile, real-life beefs began playing out on record. In an era before the internet, disses on wax moved at a glacial pace, and it was hard to know who was telling the truth.
In Ben Westhoff’s new book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, however, the award-winning journalist fact-checked some of the era’s most notorious diss tracks, from N.W.A, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, and Biggie Smalls, in order to separate fact from fiction.
Below, enjoy the final installment in a series of exclusive previews from Original Gangstas. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts, The Controversy and Brilliance of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate and Gangsta Raunch: The Making of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle.
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“Message to B.A.” (1991)
Artist Dissing/Being Dissed: N.W.A/Ice Cube
Background: “Message to B.A.” references Ice Cube – i.e. a traitor like Benedict Arnold, since he left N.W.A in 1989. It’s actually a short skit, featuring “answering machine messages” of people dissing Cube.
Claim #1) “I was at The Celebrity… and I was wonderin’ how that punk Ice Cube got his ass beat by ATL!”
True or False? Somewhat true
On April 7, 1990, the Anaheim Celebrity Theatre hosted a show headlined by Above the Law, a tough gangsta group signed to Ruthless Records, Ice Cube’s former label. Cube had dissed the group in a Los Angeles Times story, and before the show came by the dressing room of the group’s leader, Cold 187um. “I guess he tried to come to my dressing room to apologize to me but I’m thinking he still wanna fight,” Cold 187um remembered to me. “Soon as he stepped in my dressing room he said, ‘What’s up?’ and I give him a right.” To say Cube got “his ass beat” might be an exaggeration, however. “It wasn’t really no fight, was just a little scuffling,” said Sir Jinx, Cube’s producer.
Claim #2) “The nigga was sayin’ he’s from Compton, he ain’t from Compton.”
True or False? True
Ice Cube is from South Central Los Angeles. But for N.W.A’s debut Straight Outta Compton, Cube shouted out Compton just like everyone else in the group. “[I]t just felt silly yelling ‘South Central’ when everyone else was yelling ‘Compton,’” Cube told me. “And, Compton and South Central is two sides of the same coin, so to speak.”
“No Vaseline” (1991)
Artist Dissing/Being Dissed: Ice Cube/N.W.A
Background: Ice Cube didn’t diss N.W.A on his first album, but after they began attacking him he came back hard with “No Vaseline,” considered one of the greatest diss songs ever.
Claim #1) “Living with the whites / One big house and not another nigga in sight”
True or False: Some truth
Of all the N.W.A members, Eazy-E got rich first, and in the late ’80 and early ‘90s he bought a number of houses. The first was a fairly modest home in Norwalk, which is east of Compton, and racially mixed. He later bought a mansion in Calabasas, two doors down from the group’s manager Jerry Heller – and Dr. Dre bought one only blocks away. An ultra-wealthy enclave 40 minutes west of L.A., Calabasas is largely white, although black celebrities like Kanye West and Drake later moved there.
Claim #2) “You can’t be the Nigga 4 Life crew / With a white Jew telling you what to do”
True or False? False
Much of “No Vaseline”s venom (and its anti-Semitic insults) are directed at Jerry Heller. But though it’s often said that Heller was in charge at Ruthless Records, it was in fact owned by Eazy-E, who was responsible for major decisions.
“Fuck wit Dre Day (and Everybody’s Celebrating)” (1992)
Artist Dissing/Being Dissed: Dr. Dre/Eazy-E
Background: Dr. Dre left N.W.A in 1991, complaining he was being underpaid by Eazy’s label, Ruthless. His 1992 album The Chronic, featuring Snoop Dogg, throws shots against Eazy and others.
Claim #1) “The hoods you threw up with, niggas you grew up with / Don’t even respect your ass”
True or False? False
Eazy-E came up gang-banging and selling crack in Compton. To the end, he was respected in his neighborhood and his city as a gangsta rapper whose rhetoric more-or-less matched his life story.
Claim #2) “You fucked with me, now it’s a must that I fuck with you”
True or False? Somewhere in between
“[Eazy] took advantage of me not knowing the record business back in the day,” Dre claimed, and indeed he wasn’t paid as much as one might expect, considering that the albums he produced made tens of millions of dollars for Ruthless. Dre also said he and Eazy founded Ruthless together, and thus he was entitled to an owner’s share of the profits, rather than simply an artist’s share. That may be true; Ruthless rapper Toker told me Eazy admitted as much to him before Eazy’s death.
“Real Muthaphuckkin G’s” (1993)
Artist Dissing/Being Dissed: Eazy-E/Dr. Dre
Background: Eazy had no idea Dre was going to diss him on The Chronic, and was unprepared. But he spent much of 1993 regrouping, and came roaring back that October with an EP called It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa.
Claim #1) “‘Dre Day’ only meant Eazy’s payday”
True or False? True
When Dr. Dre joined forces with Suge Knight in 1991 to start Death Row Records, he was still under contract with Ruthless. And so, lawyers worked out an agreement: Dre could leave, but some of his future proceeds would go to Ruthless. According to Jerry Heller in his memoir Ruthless, the label would get 10 percent of Dre’s producing proceeds, and 15 percent from his own albums, as well as a “huge advance.” Eazy said the terms were to last for six years.
Claim #2) “All of a sudden Dr. Dre is the ‘G’ thang / But on his old album covers he was a she-thang”
True or False? Elements of truth
In the mid-‘80s, before N.W.A, Dre was in an electro group called World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and for some of their photo shoots they wore makeup, sequins, and glammed-up outfits. This was largely owing to the influence of Prince, and they were hardly unique. Makeup was a must for many acts of the era (to say nothing of the hair metal bands up on the Sunset Strip). Besides, Eazy knew about all of this when he and Dre were in N.W.A, and it didn’t bother him back then.
“Hit ‘Em Up” (1996)
Artist Dissing/Being Dissed: Tupac Shakur/Biggie Smalls
Background: On November 30, 1994, Tupac was shot, beaten, and robbed at Quad Recording Studios in New York. Believing Biggie – his former close friend – knew in advance he was going to be set up, Tupac went on the offensive.
Claim #1) “You claim to be a player, but I fucked your wife”
True or False? Only Faith Evans knows for sure
In the summer of 1994, Biggie married R&B singer and fellow Bad Boy artist Evans, barely a week after their meeting. A year later, shortly after his release from prison, Tupac met Evans, who was in L.A. writing for an R&B group. They clicked, recording a song together called “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch.” She denied sleeping with Tupac, although he loudly claimed otherwise.
Claim #2) “Five shots couldn’t drop me, I took it and smiled / Now I’m back to set the record straight”
True or False? Mostly false
Tupac claimed to have been shot five times at Quad studios, including in the head and through his scrotum. Forensic evidence, however, seemed to indicate he accidentally shot himself. As for Tupac’s claim that Biggie knew in advance he would be set up? Biggie denied this. Though a Los Angeles Times article later claimed it was true, the article was ultimately retracted.
“Long Kiss Goodnight” (1997)
Artist Dissing/Being Dissed: Biggie Smalls/Tupac Shakur
Background: Despite Tupac’s onslaught against him, Biggie largely refrained from musically dissing Tupac while he was alive, with the exception of his somewhat-ambiguous “Who Shot Ya?” “Long Kiss Goodnight” is considered a somewhat more overt diss, though it wasn’t released until after Tupac was murdered.
Claim #1) “When my men bust you move with such stamina / Slug missed ya, I ain’t mad at cha.”
True or False? False
The line seems to reference Tupac’s song “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” as well as the Quad studios incident. But if it really is referencing Tupac’s 1994 shooting, it goes against Biggie’s own claim that he had nothing to do with it.
Claim #2) “Heard through the grapevine you got fucked four times”
True or False? Likely false
In December, 1994, Tupac was convicted of sexually abusing a 19-year-old woman named Ayanna Jackson, and during his stint at an upstate New York prison a rumor surfaced that he’d been raped. But there’s no evidence whatsoever to back this up. In fact, it’s not even entirely clear Biggie was referencing Tupac with the line.
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Ben Westhoff is an award-winning journalist whose upcoming book, Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, will be published September 13, 2016 by Hachette Books. He writes regularly about hip-hop for The Guardian, and has also written for Rolling Stone, Vice, Pitchfork, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s the former music editor at L.A. Weekly and his 2011 book on southern hip-hop, Dirty South, was a Library Journal best seller. You can pre-order Original Gangstas here.
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