Too Funky for Gangsta Rap: Meet the Producer Who Left N.W.A Weeks before 'Straight Outta Compton'
His name is Arabian Prince, and he was one of the first to merge hip-hop with dance music.
In a Marina Del Rey shrimp shop, a small group of influential, but largely unknown hip-hop artists gather incognito for a birthday party. The birthday boy is a gentleman by the name of Egyptian Lover. At his side are old friends Arabian Prince, Greg Mack, as well as a man who goes by the name of Snake Puppy. The story of these men is little known, but they were pioneers in the formation of west coast hip-hop and were the amongst the first to mix dance music with rap, in the process creating a genre known as electro funk.
Their version of electro funk sounds like the bastard child of Kraftwerk, Rick James, and Parliament-Funkadelic. Usually clocking in around 130 BPM, its futuristic synths and 808-based beats were the soundtrack of the early 80s LA street scene. DJ crews like Uncle Jamm's Army threw parties at the Veterans Auditorium and would regularly sell out the 10,000 capacity LA. Sports Arena. The above mentioned Greg Mack, one of the original DJs at seminal LA hip-hop radio station K-DAY, took this mutant music style to the masses over the airwaves in 1983.
Today, Arabian Prince, real name Kim Lezan, is a far cry from the jerry curled Prince acolyte that he was back in 1982. The Los Angeles of that time was a freaky place to party. Ice T, the proto-gangsta rapper, had a conk-style bouffant and was popping and locking in the b-boy dance scene. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella were in the World Class Wrecking Crew, rocking eye shadow and sequined jumpsuits. In the thick of all this, Arabian Prince started off as a dancer at local jams. He grew to become an influential DJ, then rapper, then producer. He worked on electro funk tracks for Bobby Jimmy and the Critters, got a Grammy nomination for his work with JJ Fad, as well as self-producing his own material. In the process, Arabian Prince became close friends with Andre Young, better known to the world as Dr. Dre.
This age of innocence wasn't meant to last much longer, and Arabian Prince would be inadvertently at the root of its demise. Gangsta rap, the genre that evolved from the crack epidemic, police brutality and Reaganomics in the hood of 1980s LA, overran the african american cultural milieu and, in the process, burned down the house that electro funk built. The harbingers of this brave new world were a group called N.W.A.
Arabian Prince was a founding member of N.W.A and a major creative force before the group underwent their sharp turn from street-savvy electro funk into the hardcore gangsta rap icons they're known for being. He wrote and produced their first single "Panic Zone," while also rapping and producing on their first two albums, but you won't see him in the new hit movie Straight Outta Compton. Like Pete Best, the drummer that left the Beatles right before their fame, Arabian jumped ship from N.W.A. only weeks before the drop of their legendary second album "Straight Outta Compton" and was written out of history.
Arabian still has fond memories of that time. "Me and Dr. Dre met just hanging in the scene. There was a small circle of DJs on the West Coast in the 80s. Dre was with the Wrecking Crew, I was with Bobby Jimmy and the Critters at the time, and we just clicked. We lived in the same area, South Central, Compton. We would go to Skateland in Compton, go to the beach, chase women."
Dr. Dre brought Arabian Prince into Ruthless Records after he and Eazy-E began to work together. Arabian was the first in-house producer at Ruthless and considered himself a partner in the business. "Dre and I were sick of not getting paid," says Lezan. "We were producing a lot of records, making cash here and there, but we weren't making any royalties. Eazy was the neighborhood pharmaceutical technician, so he had some money. Dre came to me and was like 'Eazy's going to bankroll this project and you and I can be the producers. We're gonna call it Ruthless Records. It's gonna be a family thing, we are all gonna share in the profits.' In the end, it didn't quite work out that way. Between Jerry Heller and some other things..."
Jerry Heller was N.W.A.'s manager and Eazy E's consigliore. He is accused by Arabian, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and the hip-hop scene-at-large for illegally holding onto royalties and funneling profits from N.W.A.'s success into his own pocket. He functions as the villain in the film adaptation, and Arabian's recollection hold this representation to be accurate.
"Before the release of "Straight Outta Compton" (the album), we were doing a lot of shows and I remember thinking, 'Man, we are not getting paid like we should.' We'd get half the money and the other half would disappear, we wouldn't see any of the upfront cash. And then I started questioning Jerry Heller about royalties. We're selling millions of records but not seeing that money and not able to see any royalty statements. There was always an excuse."
He goes on: "I was making records as Arabian Prince and banking, but now that I was in a group that was selling millions of records, I was making less? How are we supposed to be hardcore gangsters, yet we getting screwed out of our own cash? People say I'm stupid for leaving N.W.A. so early, but eventually Dre and Cube left for the same reasons. I was just first."
The Arabian Prince penned-and-performed tune "Panic Zone."
The story of Arabian Prince exemplifies the notion that history is written by the victors. The movie Straight Outta Compton was produced by Eazy's widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, who also happens to be the recipient of several lawsuits filed against her by Arabian. "I'm not mad at them for leaving me out, they left out J.J. Fad too. They also had lawsuits against Tomica."
J.J. Fad, not N.W.A, was the first commercially successful act on Ruthless Records. Their Arabian Prince-produced album "Supersonic" was the first female hip-hop record to score a Grammy nomination and the single went on to sell a million records. One would think this would warrant mention in an N.W.A. biopic, but all camps were summarily ignored.
"If the reason we are not in this movie is because this woman has some kind of vengeance against us, man that's fucked up," says Arabian Prince. "She wasn't even there to see any of that. I know she's the executive producer and she has rights over most everybody. Probably Dre and Cube's hands were tied, but no one has reached out to me, so I don't know. In the end, the people that know the real history, the truth will come out."
Aside from Heller's embezzlement, the reasons for Arabian Prince's departure from N.W.A are a source of much speculation. Some say he was pushed out when Ice Cube returned from college. Others posit that his electro funk-tinged production was a bad fit for N.W.A's gangsta image. Either way, after leaving the group, Arabian stayed cool with the rest of the crew. "When they went to war against Cube after he left, I stayed out of that," he says. Arabian Prince continued to produce for Ruthless, creating tracks for J.J. Fad and his own solo record. He even nearly joined a young Death Row Records, but was swayed away after meeting the other villain of the film.
"After Dre left Ruthless, he and Yella came over to my crib in Burbank and invited me to come to the studio to maybe get some projects going," he says. "I went and Suge Knight was there, hanging with some of his boys. I knew Suge from my neighborhood and knew what kind of dude he was. At that point, I just felt that this wasn't the place for me. When we did N.W.A, it was family, it was people we knew. I didn't know none of those cats and no one there really had my back."
While on tour, Arabian witnessed the effects of one of the early video game systems ColecoVision and how it turned friends from potheads to hardcore gamers. Always eager to learn about the newest synths and production technology, his attention turned to video games and special effects. Arabian learned to program and became a game tester and tech polymath. His company Hypnotic FX has produced anime in Korea and motion-effects for movies like Independence Day.
Music, though, is still not far from his heart. "After N.W.A., I dropped an album (1989's Brother Arab). It wasn't a major hit like Cube's album but it was mine so I got paid from it. Egyptian Lover and I just got back from Europe where we've been touring for the past 20 years. I never stopped creating. As a matter of fact I am working on an EDM album with some big names as we speak, some top-secret shit. I Love electronic music and I really respect the guys who are doing it now. Respect goes to Flying Lotus, I have met him a few times, he's real cool."
Angeleno indie hip-hop institution Stones Throw Records released an anthology of Arabian Prince's music in 2008, and he promises that we'll be getting the exclusive drop when he releases his top secret E.D.M. project in the next few months. "You know, some people say that gangsta rap killed electro funk, but I think it just evolved into pop and EDM. A lot of the beats we were doing back in the day are resurrecting, it's just the artists that are different. Things evolve and in the end that's all I have ever tried to do. Some people say being an innovator is a curse, but that's who I've always been and I feel it's a blessing".
Jeremiah Alexis is on Twitter.