It’s a trip when I think back and remember the first time I saw these guys. I was 5. It was a video, a party scene, when suddenly this guy wearing a hat with his hair curled underneath comes busting through the set. That was Eazy-E doing “Eazy-Duz-It.” At that very moment, I realized this music represented where I was from. I looked over to my left and saw that my cousin was wearing the same kind of outfit as Eazy. Eazy was a superhero, but a superhero on the ground, a superhero I could relate to. Suddenly my pops, my uncles, everyone around me is playing N.W.A records.
Seven or eight years later, when I come into my teens, I rediscover N.W.A because now I’m on the streets. I’m seeing how law enforcement is impacting my community, I’m seeing the influence of gang culture, and I’m realizing that N.W.A did a lot more than merely entertain. They told the truth. They tapped into kids in the streets who never had anything or anyone speak up for them. N.W.A gave voice to the voiceless. So now they become different kinds of heroes to me — heroes carrying messages breaking through to the wider world, heroes not only with big hearts, but probing, intelligent minds.
I studied them closely. I saw Dre as the mastermind behind the music; Cube the mastermind behind the pen; Yella on the boards beautifully complementing Dre’s vision; Ren also crazy with the pen; and Eazy the frontman, the cat with the most charisma, the gift of gab, the energy to draw people in. It was the perfect cast of characters.
I’d be lying if I said what I’m creating today is all me. It isn’t. It’s an act of God. I do believe that, for all its challenges, my upbringing in Compton was a sacred blessing. The streets we ran, the air we breathed — everything about Compton had been creatively conditioned by N.W.A I got to absorb it all. Recently someone told me about the Italian Renaissance in Florence where young artists were lucky enough to work in the studios of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Well, Compton was my Florence. That’s the kind of favor I had following in the shadow of creative giants like Dre, Cube, Ren and Yella.
To be real with you, I look at myself as someone who’s deeply conflicted. The way I was raised makes up half of who I am. The second half — the vulnerable artist curious about the world beyond Compton — is often at war with the first half. But because of N.W.A, who showed me that an artist can be whoever he wants to be, I don’t have to resolve the conflict. I can live with it. I can be honest about it. I can put that conflict in my songs. I can open up my heart and let the world look inside. And I can do all that because back when I was still an infant crawling around my mama’s house, five cats from Compton had the courage to stand tall and represent our community with courage, honesty and artistic brilliance.
As told to David Ritz
Listen to Kendrick Lamar, N.W.A, and more music from this issue in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.