On Tuesday, September 13, a burger joint in Fresno, California, called Take 3 transformed itself into a pop-up restaurant called the Powamekka Cafe, named after a business Tupac Shakur once dreamed of opening. Tupac’s restaurant would’ve used other rappers’ recipes, but they weren’t on the menu at Take 3’s pop-up. According to Billboard, the options at Powamekka included “Tupac-inspired dishes such as ‘Thug Passion’ cake pops, ‘Mac-and-Cheeseburgers’ or even a ‘California Love’ chicken sandwich.” The whole thing was a tribute to Tupac’s legacy on the 20th anniversary of his death—he was shot in a drive-by in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996, and succumbed to his wounds six days later. In death he became a rap martyr. To the disenfranchised—people rarely if ever given a voice in the processes that shape their lives—he became an international symbol of speaking truth to power.
That same day, Hatchett Books made its own tribute to Tupac, publishing Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. The book is an incisive, rigorously reported history of gangsta rap’s left-coast beginnings, written by former LA Weekly editor and Reader contributor Ben Westhoff. (Full disclosure: In 2012 I wrote a freelance piece for LA Weekly‘s blog, assigned by Westhoff.)
Tupac is just one of dozens of characters in Original Gangstas (it’s nearly 400 pages long), and I doubt its release was deliberately timed to fall near the 20th anniversary of his murder. If Hatchett had wanted to capitalize on an event, they would’ve published the book more than a year ago, around the release of Straight Outta Compton. That chronicle of N.W.A’s rise and fall went on to become the highest-grossing music biopic of all time, reigniting interest in the iconic gangsta rap group.
Bloated, structurally imbalanced, and exhausting, Straight Outta Compton caught flak for buffing some of the ugliness out of N.W.A’s story. But by leaving out certain unflattering bits—most notably Dr. Dre‘s history of assaulting women—the film all but guaranteed that conversations about them would erupt elsewhere. Dee Barnes, who hosted a Fox hip-hop show called Pump It Up! in the late 80s and early 90s, wrote a piece for Gawker shortly after the film’s release that reminded the public of the night Dre attacked her. In November 1990 her show had aired an N.W.A interview that ended with a segment from the recently departed Ice Cube, and Dre was angry that he’d dissed the group; in January 1991 he assaulted Barnes at a record-release party in Hollywood. In her story, Barnes also drew on her years documenting (and participating in) the LA hip-hop scene to shed light on the people, particularly the women, who played crucial roles in N.W.A’s rise but who ended up left out of the movie.
Original Gangstas, by contrast, shines a light into every nook and cranny of the N.W.A story. Westhoff interviewed more than 100 people for this project, capturing the universe of LA’s nascent gangsta-rap scene, but N.W.A and their early associates dominate the book. That includes their infamous manager, the late Jerry Heller, whose alleged malfeasance helped break the group apart, and early member Arabian Prince, who as Westhoff notes is largely left out of the group’s story. Among the other characters are the D.O.C., a Texas rapper who moved to LA and became one of Dre’s greatest songwriting collaborators as well as the most promising solo act on Ruthless, but whose rap career was ended by a car accident that irreparably damaged his vocal cords; female rap group J.J. Fad, whose breakout success established Ruthless as a hot label before N.W.A got their legs; Don McMillan, the owner of Macola Records, a one-stop record manufacturer and label that served as a vital resource to LA’s 80s hip-hop scene; and Steve Yano, the swap-meet vendor who connected Eazy-E with Dr. Dre.
LA rap in the 80s was a relatively small community, but Westhoff makes it feel as big as any other scene out there. He does so not just by finding the characters who made it happen, but also by getting down to the raw details. Westhoff has a gumshoe’s eye, a deadline writer’s efficiency, and a novelist’s sense of place and time. Some of the thorniest parts of Westhoff’s narrative—the murders of beloved rappers, domestic abuse, allegations of extortion—aren’t pinned down or resolved, but it’s hard to blame Westhoff for not figuring out, say, who killed Tupac or Biggie. He’s done his due diligence and then some, pursuing tangents such as the FBI’s late-90s investigation of the Jewish Defense League, which provided security for Ruthless after tensions with Death Row Records boiled over. The bureau called the JDL a “right-wing extremist group” and suspected it was defrauding rappers by faking threats to scare them into hiring its members. (That takes up just a couple paragraphs, but I imagine took plenty of time to dig up.) When it comes to private family conversations or allegations of domestic violence, though, all Westhoff can do is pull whatever court documents are available and quote the people involved—even if all anyone says is “no comment.”
There’s a lot of “declined to comment” or “denied the claim” in Original Gangstas, but that’s a testimony to Westhoff’s doggedness. He prefers to raise the questions that other folks would rather leave unmentioned, so that he can better understand the world he’s writing about. The hard-to-swallow details about Dre’s infidelity and violence are as crucial to his life story as his social anxiety. And Westhoff knows how to weave these bits together—he moves mountains of facts, but Original Gangstas rarely feels like an information dump.
When Westhoff tackles the biggest mysteries in Original Gangstas—Eazy-E’s rapid decline in health after discovering he had AIDS, the murders of Tupac and his protege turned rival, the Notorious B.I.G.—the book suffers from a shift in tone. Westhoff interrogates many of the wild theories about Eazy’s death, including the claim that he was deliberately injected with the virus by Suge Knight. He also vainly attempts to determine how Eazy, who died in 1995, actually contracted HIV. Eazy feels more present and real than almost everyone else in Original Gangstas thanks to Westhoff’s loving portrait of his idiosyncracies, so this protracted parsing of clinical possibilities and unlikely conspiracies feels incongruously aimless.
Still, the curiosity that fueled this part of the book also helped Westhoff find all the intimate minutiae that root his story in a sense of place and time. And his curiosity has definitely worked to the advantage of everyone who wants to learn more about the west-coast rappers responsible for changing the course of hip-hop in the 90s.