Backstabbing, Moogs and the funky worm: how gangsta rap was born

In an edited excerpt from his book Original Gangsta, Ben Westhoff recalls how one of music’s most controversial genres began and who truly invented it

NWA’s first EP was called Panic Zone. Released in 1987, it features Dope Man, a song written by a teenage Ice Cube that foreshadowed the group’s sound and image to come. It alternately glamorizes and condemns the drug pusher and his lifestyle, ending with a stern warning voiced by Mexican-American rapper Krazy Dee: “You sold crack to my sister and now she’s sick / But if she happens to die because of your drug / I’m putting in your culo a .38 slug.”

For Dr Dre, the group’s main producer, it was his first use of the “funky worm”, the high-pitched, irresistible Moog synthesizer sound whose name was coined from a song by the 70s funk group Ohio Players.

The sound was next heard on NWA’s second full-length album, 1991’s Efil4zaggin (Niggaz 4 Life spelled backward), the first gangsta rap album to hit No1. Efil4zaggin marks a great leap forward in Dr Dre’s production skills. Whereas their previous album Straight Outta Compton was all over the place sonically, Efil is mostly unified in its doomsday grooves. Always into Something is a slow-building sonic masterpiece, kicking off with a spoken word MC Ren introduction and a quick Dre verse before unveiling the alien-sounding, high-pitched synthesizer sound, similar to the “funky worm”. In the studio, Dre was hoping to capture the magic of Parliament-Funkadelic member Bernie Worrell’s eerie, melodic keyboard sounds, and so he had engineer Colin Wolfe go out and buy a Moog.

Following the album Dre left NWA and its label Ruthless Records, owing to a money dispute with Eazy-E, who owned the label, and NWA’s manager, Jerry Heller. Dre recorded the first half of his solo debut The Chronic (which came out near the end of 1992) at his Calabasas house, in a bedroom he’d converted into a studio. After a fire there, the rest was made at Solar’s Galaxy studios, where he made use of a state-of-the-art SSL console, a huge, futuristic mixing board with pre-programmable “flying faders” capable of automatically adjusting itself to your preferred settings. “It was like the Starship Enterprise,” producer Rhythm D, who worked with Death Row for a time, told me.

Yet it was still the pre-digital era, and so they edited on analog tapes, literally cutting them by hand. “You would mark the tape with a grease pencil and then use a razor blade,” remembered Chris “The Glove” Taylor, an engineer and musician on the album.

More than ever, Dre was finding inspiration in Parliament-Funkadelic. He again used the Moog to create both a chunky bass effect using different settings and the “funky worm” squeal. It’s that enchanting, high-pitched whine that is the signature sound of The Chronic. It’s melodic, it’s somewhat terrifying, it instantly makes your ears prick up.

George Clinton.
George Clinton. Photograph: Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy/Alamy

It was also the perfect, terrifying sound for Chronic diss track Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’). The song’s venom was directed at Eazy‑E, starting with a skit preceding the video, in which Eazy is portrayed by comedian AJ Johnson as a locs-clad, Jheri-curled Uncle Tom being sold a load of BS from Heller, played by portly Interscope executive Steve Berman. Over the bass-rattling, slow funk track, Dre took direct aim at Eazy: “Used to be my homie, used to be my ace / Now I want to slap the taste out your mouth / Make you bow down to the Row / Fuckin’ me, now I’m fuckin’ you, little ho. Eazy was no longer respected by his own people, he went on, and should watch his back because he might get smoked.”

Backed by emerging rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, the album featured Dre sampling or interpolating a half dozen songs from either Parliament or Funkadelic, sister groups that were both led by George Clinton. Dre’s genius was realizing how well they’d combine with rap lyrics. Part of the connection was emotional. P-Funk’s psychedelic rock was cutting edge, but to those who grew up in the 70s it was also warm and nostalgic, the soundtrack to back-yard parties and civil rights rallies. Combining it with the rough-and-tumble lyrics of gangsta rap merged the hard and the soft, the light and the dark. The sound was called G-funk – gangsta funk – and it would come to dominate hip-hop for years.

What made G-funk so effective? An LA musician named Dâm-Funk – a keytar-toting funk revivalist who collaborated with Snoop on the 2013 album 7 Days of Funk – put it well. He told me that, for many who grew up on Parliament-Funkadelic, the sound came to symbolize a halcyon time before crack cocaine came along in the early 80s and decimated the inner city. Dâm-Funk cites Funkadelic’s 1979 song Not Just (Knee Deep), which Dre would later sample for a Tupac track, as “almost like the end credits rolling on a certain era.

“Because, before that, there wasn’t crack,” he went on. “And then that era came, and a lot of people got lost after that. You can almost feel it in the music that something was on the horizon ... It symbolizes happiness and sadness. That’s what the funk is.”

Who invented G-funk?

Who invented G-funk? Though Dr Dre is its most famous purveyor, the question is controversial.

DJ Quik, who emerged in the early 90s, has long been injecting serious funk into his hip-hop, and was undoubtedly influential on Dre’s sound. But it was the Ruthless gangsta rap group Above the Law that would directly claim credit for the G-funk sound, offering as evidence their early 1993 sophomore album Black Mafia Life.

Dâm-Funk. Photograph: Matthew Scott

That work wasn’t a massive hit like The Chronic, but the albums bear some clear similarities: Nuthin’ But a G Thang echoes Above the Law’s Never Missin’ a Beat, for example, while their Pimp Clinic and Dre’s Let Me Ride both borrow from Parliament-Funkadelic’s take on the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Swing down, sweet chariot, stop, and, let me ride.

Black Mafia Life was released in early 1993, about two months after The Chronic, but, according to many accounts, was finished beforehand. “G-funk was our style of music,” said Above the Law collaborator Kokane, adding that group producers Cold 187um and KMG the Illustrator forged the sound.

During Dre’s final months at Ruthless, he worked on NWA’s Efil4zaggin while Cold 187um was simultaneously working on Black Mafia Life, and the pair often sounded each other out. It was during this period that he fashioned the G-funk sound, said Cold 187um. “The only thing I can say is that G-funk was my theory,” he said. Dre “utilized it and made lots of money and commercialized it, and I never got credit for it. All I wanted was my credit. I don’t think he was being malicious. I think he heard a hot sound and then he used it.”

Many agree with this version of events, including Eazy-E. “Dre stole that style,” he told writer Phyllis Pollack. “Dre stole stuff from Above the Law, Black Mafia Life’s Never Missing a Beat.” NWA promoter Doug Young agreed that Above the Law had the sound first. But Dre, he added, deserves credit for turning G-funk into the powerhouse it became. “When you listen to that stuff to this day, it still holds up because of the sonics of the production,” he said.

The dispute caused tension between Ruthless and Death Row to nearly boil over. In February 1993, at an industry event called the Urban Network Power Jam held at the Marriott Hotel near LAX, Cold 187um angrily approached Warren G, Dr Dre’s stepbrother. Warren G would later become famous for his song with Nate Dogg, Regulate, and had worked closely on The Chronic. Warren had also previously stayed, for a time, at Cold 187um’s crash pad in Colton, California, along with members of Above the Law. Warren and Cold187um had previously been friendly, but now there was tension in the air. According to Cold187um, a dispute erupted:

“That’s fucked up how motherfuckers just integrated our style into they shit and created The Chronic,” Cold 187um said. “I ain’t got nothing to do with that, that’s between you and Dre,” Warren responded.

“Wait a minute man, I let you stay at my house, I let you be a part of my family, and you treat me like this?” said Cold 187um. “If you ain’t got nothing to do with that, you ain’t got nothing to do with me no more.”

Warren was accompanied by fellow Death Row affiliates Snoop Dogg, Lil’ ½ Dead, and others. Cold 187um was backed by artists including Eazy-E and an artist Eazy was recruiting at the time – Tupac Shakur, about two years before he signed with Death Row.

The camps got to barking at each other, and before long everyone reached for their guns. “There were 15 of them, and about 25 to 30 of us,” remembered Charis Henry, Eazy-E’s assistant. “It was a standoff. It was the most nerve-racking thing imaginable.” No one pulled the trigger. A bodyguard named Hollywood – who had worked with both camps – interceded. “I need you, Death Row, to turn around, drop your guns, and walk out the door,” he said, in Henry’s recollection. “[Eazy], I need you to wait for 15 minutes, and then take yourself home.” Both sides complied, and the situation resolved peacefully.

The G-funk drama was far from over, however.

‘You rollin’ with Ruthless’

Producer Rhythm D smelled the stench of defeat when he walked into Eazy‑E’s Norwalk home around this time. Morale was low. Bodyguards were lying around on couches, while Ruthless affiliates watched LaserDiscs from Eazy’s library or were out driving his luxury cars. The house boasted a top-of-the-line studio, armed with equipment like a brand new E-mu SP-1200 drum machine and sampler. But nobody was using it.

Rhythm D had come over to play Eazy his beats. It was something of an audition for the tall, light-skinned South Central producer, whose career was on the rise thanks to his hit track for Los Angeles rapper Paperboy, Ditty. During his brief dalliance with Death Row, Rhythm D also made a song for the Deep Cover soundtrack called Down with My Nigga, featuring rapper Paradise. But he was broke and anxious for his next payday. To Eazy’s house he brought with him a green tackle box. Rather than fishing lures, it held a floppy disk of his beats.

While Rhythm cued up his songs, Eazy ducked into the shower. He seemed to have only half his mind on the proceedings. Undaunted, Rhythm plugged in his speakers and played a beat. It featured him and producer Battlecat going back and forth, trying to outdo each other with samples. The track had a wild energy about it, which Eazy felt immediately. He jumped out of the shower, hair all crazy, throwing on a towel and running into the room.

Jerry Heller with Eazy-E of NWA.
Jerry Heller with Eazy-E of NWA. Photograph: Ruthless Record

“You rollin’ with Ruthless,” he exclaimed, signing Rhythm to a deal on the spot. Rhythm immediately moved into the house and got to work. Now that Dre was gone, his job description was Ruthless’s newest in-house producer.

Rhythm quickly realized he would have to do more than just make songs – he was going to have to shake Eazy out of his creative coma. He wasn’t himself lately. The conflicts with Dre and Death Row leader Suge Knight had taken a toll.

Eazy’s first instinct was to craft a diss record scathing enough to send Dre scurrying under a rock. But his timing was bad. In this pre-YouTube era, rap beef moved at the speed of molasses. Eazy’s last EP, 5150: Home 4 tha Sick, came out just a few days before The Chronic dropped, and didn’t address Dre by name. It sold only a bit more than 500,000 copies, a flop considering Eazy’s previous platinum sales history.

Rhythm D had sat in on The Chronic recording sessions and had a strong feeling that G-funk was about to take over. After much arguing, he convinced Eazy that their Fuck wit Dre Day response should include the haunting new gangsta sound. But what about the song’s message? How could they hit Dre back where it hurt?

Rhythm lit up a fat one and got to thinking. Sure, Dre was practically untouchable right now, from a musical perspective. But there was a big difference between sounding like a gangsta and being a gangsta. To the guys in the streets, this was not incidental.

They needed to convince these guys that Dre was phony, an opportunist. After all, not long ago, while Eazy was out selling crack and getting into trouble, Dre was dancing on stage and wearing makeup and fitted suits in his first group, called World Class Wreckin’ Cru. Eazy was authentic. He was real. It was time to drive that point home.

World Class Wreckin’ Cru.
World Class Wreckin’ Cru. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

Rhythm stayed up all night one night in 1993, fashioning the template for the song that would become Real Muthaphuckkin G’s, or, on the radio, Real Compton City G’s.

Mirroring the tempo of Dre Day, the track also features a high-pitched Moog squeal. But it sounds even more intimidating, owing largely to Eazy’s performance. The pace of Real Muthaphuckkin G’s suited him, and his own eerie instrument-a “demonic, gnome type of voice”, Rhythm D called it – fit the track’s tone. And so, in the studio, Eazy launched into a series of disses and rebuttals. (“All of the sudden Dr Dre is the G thang / But on his old album covers he was a she-thang”).

The song also took aim at Snoop Dogg (Tell me where the fuck you found an anorexic rapper) and featured Eazy-E’s newest, toughest recruits: Dresta, who had recently emerged from prison for assault, and who wrote the hook and Eazy’s verses, and Dresta’s younger brother BG Knocc Out. Both of them were Nutty Blocc Crips whom Eazy met through a connection from Watts’s Jordan Downs projects.

The song’s accompanying EP It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa contained a photo of Dre in his snug‑fitting doctor’s outfit from his World Class Wreckin’ Cru photo shoot, with arrows pointing out his eye shadow”, “eyeliner”, “lipstick”, and “sequins”. In an era before Google, the mere existence of this photo probably came as a surprise to many Dre fans.

The disses were disingenuous at times. The stuff about Dre’s glam days overstated, and besides Eazy knew about all of that when he signed on with Dre for NWA, and it didn’t bother him back then.

The particulars aside, one thing was clear: Eazy was back on message, and had his swagger back. It’s On reinvigorated Eazy, selling more than 2m copies.

So, who won this G-funk showdown, Eazy or Dre? You could say they both did, as it reignited both of their careers. But one could argue that hip-hop ultimately lost, as their dispute had far-reaching consequences, foreshadowing the murders of Tupac and Biggie.

Previously, rap confrontations had been about who was superior on the microphone. The Eazy v Dre battle, however, was about who was the toughest in real life. As journalist Kevin Powell said in the 2003 documentary Beef: “That was the first time I began to think, man, this is going in a different direction now.”


Ben Westhoff

The GuardianTramp

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