'Original Gangstas' Goes Beneath the Surface of West Coast Rap's Origin Story
Twenty years after Tupac Shakur's murder, Ben Westhoff digs into the legacy that made gangsta rap so fascinating to its listeners—and deadly to its artists.
Journalist Ben Westhoff is fairly confident about two things: that most reporters are actually pretty lazy, and that Orlando Anderson, a now-deceased affiliate of the South Side Compton Crips, killed rapper Tupac Shakur 20 years ago this month.
These two details helped inform the former LA Weekly music editor as he wrote his newest book, Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap (out September 13 via Hachette Book Group), which dives deep into the history of the West Coast gangsta rap music that both shocked and enamored America in the 90s. While that era of hip-hop, arguably the bloodiest and most dangerous in the genre's history, has been covered in depth before—most recently in last year's glossy biopic Straight Outta Compton—many details have been left out or skimmed over, according to Westhoff, leaving the door open for a closer look.
"My approach is basically just to assume that there's a lot more beneath the surface that hasn't been reported," he says. "If you do a little bit of digging, there's going to be stuff there."
Westhoff was motivated to write the book after gaining access to a number of prominent artists from the era for interviews, including Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, during his four year tenure at the Weekly. Eventually, he stepped down from his editor position to focus on the book full time, tracking down as many people involved in the gangsta rap scene as he could find, from Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of the late Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, to the Nation of Islam member who injected the NWA co-founder with an experimental drug from Kenya as a Hail-Mary attempt to treat his AIDS disease. Westhoff's mission was to not only summarize in detail how Compton artists like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre became the successful media moguls we know them as today, but to also dig into the juicy tidbits that made the genre so fascinating to its listeners—and deadly to its artists.
For instance, Westhoff devotes a portion of the book to the relationship of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, two of hip-hop's most beloved rappers who were tragically gunned down following a bitter spat on wax. Both murders remain unsolved—though, as mentioned, Westhoff does believe that Pac was killed by Anderson, a gang affiliate with whom he got in a fight on the night of his murder after a Mike Tyson boxing match in Las Vegas—leaving room to speculate that the shootings were related, but it's well known that at one time the two MCs were good friends. Through an interview with a member of the Outlawz, a group founded by Tupac, Westhoff finds out that their relationship was almost something much more: Supposedly, Biggie—at the time still relatively unknown outside of Brooklyn and riding the momentum of his single "Party and Bullshit"—asked Tupac to be his manager.
"It really showed that Tupac had really already advanced in his career both in music and film," Westhoff says. "Every year in the late 80s and early 90s was so packed with information that I'm not surprised when these sort of bombshell-sounding details come out."
The bombshells get more explosive than that, as the book examines touchy subjects like Dre's history of violence against women, the controversial death of Eazy and, of course, the make-up of Death Row Records co-founder and former bodyguard Suge Knight, who is currently in jail on attempted murder charges and is actually "more complicated" than people understand, according to Westhoff. But Original Gangstas, while chock full of divisive theories from the time, is much more a reflection of the dramatic nature of gangsta rap than a judgment of its rappers. After all, the genre itself is a reflection of the chaos of the "crack era"; groups like NWA were merely relaying the daily happenings of their neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles. Westhoff, who grew up in Minnesota but has been a fan of West Coast hip-hop ever since he heard albums like The Chronic and saw movies like Menace II Society in high school, wants to tell the stories of the artists who emerged from the turmoil.
"I've always loved the music, but as a journalist, I felt like there were such interesting stories here," he says. "It really was just about as violent and chaotic as the lyrics themselves."
We spoke with Westhoff by phone from his home in St. Louis to discuss writing the book and the stories he uncovered along the way.
NOISEY: I've heard stories of how guys like Eazy-E were street hustlers, but I've also heard how other guys in the scene, like Dre and Cube, weren't really about that life. How aware were they of their gangster image and its correlation with record sales?
Ben Westhoff: One of the most interesting things I came across was that both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre in their groups before NWA had anti-gang songs. Ice Cube was in a group called Stereo Crew and they had a song called "Gangs," and it's all about how being in a gang was bad news. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella were in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, and they had a song called "Gangbang You're Dead," which Dre co-wrote, and that's kind of mocking the colors and the styles and the general activities of gangs. On "Express Yourself" [off NWA's Straight Outta Compton], Dr. Dre famously said, "I don't smoke weed or sess cause it's known to give a brother brain damage." But then on his first solo album The Chronic he did a big 180. Later he was seen cooking up crack in a video, and you couldn't help but think this had to be related to an image he thought that would sell records. To give him a little more credit, it might have been something that was more of an interesting way to express the kind of music he was interested in making. Dr. Dre has always been about the music first and the beats first. I don't think it was all about selling records necessarily, but a lot of it was about complimenting the sound he wanted to make.
Seeing Dre embrace the street image more, could that also have been a reflection of the people he was hanging with after he got famous? Seems like the NWA guys started hanging with some rough characters after gaining fame.
Well, part of the issue was that Cube was really young when he was in his first groups. Like when I was in high school, at the beginning, I was like, "I don't drink, I don't smoke weed. That's totally wrong, I would never do that." Then of course by the end of high school it was a different story. Part of that is just natural after you've grown up a little bit. Dr. Dre famously said that he started smoking weed when Snoop Dogg really introduced him to it when they got together before The Chronic. And then Eazy-E started smoking weed for the first time around then, kind of after Dre had left [Ruthless Records].
Through your research, did you find that Suge Knight was actually as terrifying as he seemed?
I think he was definitely terrifying. He was a huge guy who wasn't afraid to pound people if they got in his way. As he became increasingly powerful, he had guys with them who were also huge and fearless. And he had the clout of this super influential record label, so he had a lot of different ways he could turn screws. [But] I didn't want my book to just be focused on what a bad guy Suge Knight is. And I think that's a little bit simplistic; we found all sorts of people who talk about how much money he donates to charity and how the people that came up with them—those same hulking guys who were in his entourage and would pound people if he gave them the word—were also guys from his neighborhood growing up that he wanted to help out and give jobs to. So he's more complicated than he's been presented. But yeah, definitely intimidating and probably would still be today if you ran into him and he wasn't in jail.
In terms of some of the touchy subjects you get into in the book, like Dre's violence against women, how worried were you about publishing facts related to those things?
I didn't really have many doubts about the veracity of the material I published. And if there was an instance where I had doubts, I made sure not to state it as fact but to say, "According to the allegations of such-and-such…" These new allegations against Dre are backed by court documents and an eye witness, so that part I wasn't too worried about. I just wanted to make sure… I wasn't trying to judge people in this book. There's no doubt that domestic abuse is always wrong; violence against women is always wrong. But I didn't come from the same background as some of the people in my book. So it's important for me to, even while condemning this type of behavior, tell the whole story.
One portion I found really interesting was Cube and Eazy's connection to the Nation of Islam. Why were so many rappers of the time tied to the Nation?
Well, for one thing, I think a lot of leaders—community leaders, religious leaders, political leaders—both black and white were very critical of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s, and Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam really supported hip-hop and its artists. Also the Nation has kind of a history of working with celebrities; there have been a number of celebrities that have used the Nation for security at a time when they might not trust the police to give them the kind of protection they need. Louis Farrakhan was a musician himself in his younger days and always had a lot of admiration for musicians and rappers. So especially in the golden era and conscious era for Ice Cube, he looked to the Nation for a lot of its ideals about black empowerment and about doing what was best for African American culture.
I've read about Cube's relationship with them and have seen images of him being escorted by an entourage of its members. I didn't know about Eazy's connection, though.
Eazy didn't have the same kind of relationship with the Nation that Cube did. The Nation mainly came to provide security for him when he was in the hospital and had HIV and then AIDS. He brought them on at the behest of his girlfriend whom he married on the hospital bed, Tomica Woods-Wright. And what's interesting about his relationship with them is that they tried to find a cure for AIDS and give him what they believed was the cure for AIDS, which was this experimental drug from Kenya known as Kemron. They gave him that for a time in the hospital. This was really early in the dark era of AIDS treatments, and there weren't much of anything on the market, so people really went to this experimental drug as a potential life saver.
Did you talk to the Nation about this?
I did speak to the guy from the Nation who did inject the Kemron.
Was he defensive at all?
Defensive? No, no. He led a security detail to protect Eazy while he was in the hospital. Eazy's wife pulled him off the detail, and so that's when he was asked to stop administering the Kemron, is what he told me.
You mentioned how Cube's relationship with the Nation was partly based in their views on black empowerment. Listening to songs off his solo records from back then, as well as NWA's first album, I find that a lot of the stuff they're talking about in terms of race is still relevant today. Do you think gangsta rap has a role in movements like Black Lives Matter?
I think there a lot of ties. If you look at first "Fuck The Police" [by NWA], that was a song that became the soundtrack for the LA riots, and it's still played at protests today, whether it's in Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, or other places around the country. And then if you look at Tupac and his political ideals and the messages he brought across in his music and in interviews, it's a lot of the same points that Black Lives Matter is about today. So I really think that Ice Cube and Tupac in particular really informed the movement we see today.
What about gangsta rap's influence on hip-hop's sound today? Do you hear it in West Coast MCs like Kendrick and YG?
YG and Schoolboy Q definitely have elements of the kind of golden era of West Coast gangsta rap in them. YG's new album [Still Brazy] has a lot of that sound, too. I think gangsta rap has never really gone away, it's just taken on different names; ratchet and trap and stuff like that have a lot of similarities to gangsta rap.
There's a lot of theories floating around about that era, including about Eazy's death, which happened so quickly after he was diagnosed as HIV positive. How much of your book did you want to devote to taking on those theories?
I heard all these theories from the people I interviewed, and I really tried to take all of them seriously and systematically go through them one by one to separate fact from fiction. I talked to doctors; I talked to AIDS experts. I looked at all the old stories and stuff like Eazy's death certificate.
When you tell people about this book, how often is their first question, "Do you know who killed Tupac?"
That's something that people definitely want to know about because after all these years not only is there no conviction, there's also not really a clear idea in the public mind about who did it. There's been so many theories over the years, so even if you are a fan of his music, it can be hard to keep up. There's like a cottage industry basically of theories of who killed Tupac. I feel really confident in the conclusion that I came to in the book. A lot of that stuff was informed by [the book and film] Murder Rap by Greg Kading, a former LAPD detective who worked on the murders of both Biggie and Tupac and gathered a lot of critical evidence.
You support the theory that he was killed by Orlando Anderson, but what about the idea that it was Puff Daddy who paid him to do it?
I would be careful about that because, as for Puffy's involvement, it's basically his word against the word of Keffe D, who was Orlando Anderson's uncle. [He] said that Puffy offered them a million dollars to kill Tupac, and Suge and said he was in the car when Orlando Anderson killed Tupac. But again, that's Keffe D's word against Puffy, and Keffe D was also bargaining to stay out of prison, so that's why he was cooperating [with the police]. He changed his story, too; he didn't originally say that Puffy had anything to do with it.
So when you say you're "confident" in this theory, it's mainly Orlando Anderson's involvement.
Yeah, I'm a lot more comfortable with that. There's the motive because Tupac and the Death Row contingency jumped him after the [Mike Tyson] title fight. Let me put it this way: Basically everyone I talked to believes Orlando Anderson murdered Tupac. And compounded with Greg Kading's evidence, that to me seems like a fairly safe bet.
Reed Jackson is a journalist based in NYC. Follow him on Twitter.