DJ Yella speaks out on the rise and fall of hardcoreBy Eugene Bowen
Daily Arts Writer
The stormy breakup of Compton's Niggaz with Attitude (NWA) has been the stuff of rap music legend. Alleged mismanagement and unscrupulous actions by member Eazy-E led then-members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre to leave the group in '89 and late '91, respectively. These three members' constant heckling of each other was as public as it was potent. Yet throughout this time, Antoine Carraby -- better known as the light-skinned DJ Yella -- had remained virtually silent. Until now.
Yella released his first solo album ever on March 26 ("One Mo Nigga Ta Go," Scotti Bros./Street Life Records), a tribute to the late Eazy-E on the one-year anniversary of the rapper's AID- related death. With this release, Yella, always seen as NWA's quietest member, has begun to speak out, offering a fresh perspective on the rise and fall of hardcore rap's most influential group of yesteryear.
"The reason behind the breakup was simple: Egos started getting in the way," DJ Yella said. "NWA started making too much money, so everyone wanted more money. Eazy made more money 'cause he owned the label NWA was on (Ruthless Records) and had other groups under him making money. But everyone didn't see it that way."
Already friends from DJ-ing at the same club in L.A. for awhile, Yella's and Dr. Dre's first performance experience was with the Wrecking Crew. "But we weren't getting paid. So we were looking for a way out. And Dre already knew Eazy. So we waited for the right time and left the Wrecking Crew to start NWA in '86. Originally, there was six of us in NWA -- me, MC Ren, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Arabian Prince. But Prince was around for only the first couple of songs; he was just doing his own stuff, I guess. He dropped out a little after we took the picture for the `Straight Outta Compton' album.
"Ruthless Records started right at NWA. I really had nothing to do with the business side; that was Eazy's territory. It was his money that started it. Ren was one of the best rappers in NWA, on account of his strong voice. He wasn't a producer, though. Cube was just a writer; he just happened to write some of Eazy's first few songs.
"NWA was really about street music. I don't think NWA started West Coast, but I think we made the name for it. We was rapping about what we lived around, saw and what could happen. We was talking about real stuff in the ghetto, and that ghetto can be any ghetto, not just Compton ... Nothing phony; we just rapping about real living. We never changed in that respect, even when we began to cross over.
"Our music started crossing over, I think, when MTV banned our `Straight Outta Compton' video (in '88). Records sales took off with no radio play, no nothing. It was a trip because when we toured back in '89, 80 percent of the crowd was white. It shocked us, but back then the only way for a record to go gold or platinum was if it crossed over ... We had nothing against nobody. We wasn't racist or nothing like that. I guess they was buying our records 'cause it was stuff they never heard about. They wanted to know about Compton. Our music opened their eyes to the ghetto."
Their music also opened the NWA members' eyes to the threat of censorship. With the release of their "Fuck the Police" single back in '91, NWA earned the wrath of everyone from the FBI to United States Representatives. "We based this song on us, on how police were in the ghetto," Yella said. "We didn't know how the police in the suburbs were, but in the ghetto that's how they treat you. They treat you like nothing, ya know, just 'cause they got a badge or something.
"We was just making a song about what police do all the time: Stop you for nothing, have you outside of the car sitting on the curb, harassing you just because you're black, dress a certain way, whatever. One time or another you wanted to say `fuck the police' for some reason. Not all cops are bad, but a few bad ones make everyone look at police in a bad way.
"We expected a little flack for `Fuck the Police,' but not as much as we got. Concert places were kind of scared of us, as if we were causing riots. I don't know why; nothing ever happened on our tours. Nothing. No fights or anything. But we agreed to not perform that song at concerts."
Looking back at the start of NWA, Yella can't help but to be surprised himself by how such strong love can turn into such livid anger. "Dre and I was like brothers. We was tight, real tight," Yella said. "Them first few years we was all like family. Even when Cube left, the rest of us was like family ... When he left, we all talked about him, even Dre. That's when all those albums came out. Then Dre left and did an album with Cube.
"I remember when Dre told me he was leaving NWA and invited me to leave with him. I told him I'd get back with him. To this day I haven't gotten back with him to tell him no or yes. Eazy hadn't cheated me out of anything; I can't get mad at Eric just 'cause Dre's mad at him. I just stayed neutral. I was still with Eazy, but I never was in the videos where he dissed Dre either."
Allegations of Eric "Eazy-E" Wright's swindling money from the other NWA members have always run rampant. Yella fights this, saying, "I know he didn't cheat nobody. He never cheated me. Put it like this: You living in a million-dollar house; Eazy's living in a $2 million house. How can he be cheating you if you living in a million-dollar house? I mean, Eazy was supposed to make more money. He owned the label NWA was on, and he had other acts making money on his label, too."
DJ Yella truly believes that after the first couple of albums were released, the tension between the different members had ended. "But the press kept talking about it and playing it out.
"After Dre left, MC Ren sorta drifted off on his own some time in '92. By this time we didn't think about an NWA album anymore. We just concentrated on Eazy's next solo album. Me and Eric was going to do an another album, but then he died.
"I found out the night before the press conference about Eazy (testing HIV positive). In fact, that statement they read, he didn't even write. He was already on the machine by then. A buddy of ours, Big Man, told me everything. None of us (former NWA members) met up even then. We each saw Eric at different times, and MC Ren never showed up. After that his wife wouldn't let anyone else see him. That was messed up.
"I was the only (NWA member) at Eric's funeral. The excuse I heard from Cube was he was out of town, but they have planes flying all the time. As for the other two, I haven't the slightest idea. It seems to me that they would be there. I'm glad I was there from day one to the last day. Wherever he is, he can know I was down with him even through the tough times. Them, I know they have regrets."
As for rumors about making an NWA reunion video, Yella comments, "I heard about it, but no one has yet to talk to me. Now that Dre's left Death Row, maybe we can talk about it." And anything that's done, if DJ Yella has his way, will most certainly contain a million references to the group's founder.
"When I say Ruthless Records now, it's just a name," Yella said. "Eazy was Ruthless. It seems that people's just forgetting about him, and he did so much for so many." That's why Yella demanded, successfully, that Ruthless Records allow him to produce Eazy-E's posthumous "Straight off Tha Streetz of Compton." And that's why, throughout his debut LP, Yella fights to keep Eric Wright's music alive.
"I wanted to do something and dedicate it all to him. Losing him was like losing an arm. I wish times when me and him were talking business we could've talked about other things. I wish we'd done more things together -- just go fishing, anything. Just spend time together."