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N.W.A: American Gangstas

Inside the messy, prophetic rise of the most dangerous hip-hop group in the world.

Dr. Dre rubs his mountainous right deltoid through a snug black T-shirt, not quite allowing himself to wince. His shoulder hurts. He has an online radio show to record, a sort-of-secret album to mix, a call from Jimmy Iovine coming any minute. But in the middle of an overscheduled July afternoon, Dre — genre-shaping beatmaker; oft-reluctant MC; mentor to Snoop, Eminem and Kendrick; walking, bass-heavy headphone brand — exudes a leonine air of serenity and control, as if he’s executive-producing his own behaviour, moment by moment. A diamond-speckled watch is on his wrist (“I think it’s a Rolex — it was a gift”), and crispy white Air Force Ones are on his feet (legend has it he wears a different brand-new pair each day). He’s perched on the edge of an oversize brown leather ottoman in the dim lounge of the sleek, gated Sherman Oaks recording-studio complex he just bought and remodeled, after years of renting it out.

It was, under his current circumstances, a trivial purchase. “Right now, financially, I’m so fucking good,” says Dre, with some understatement. In the mid-Eighties, a couple of years before the formation of N.W.A, Andre Young was crashing on his cousin’s couch; he was so broke he couldn’t afford to bail himself out of jail as he collected piles of speeding tickets. Last year, when he and Iovine sold Beats to Apple Inc., Dre took home roughly $500 million. Witness the strength of street knowledge.

“I’m not a billionaire yet, man,” Dre says. “I will be, hopefully. One day. But let me tell you something: I never have to make another dollar in this lifetime. For the rest of my life, it’s just about having fun, being creative.”

Dre turned 50 in February, and has had a lot of chances lately to ponder the full breadth of his life’s journey. A big-studio but credibly gritty movie version of N.W.A’s story, Straight Outta Compton, is out on August 14th — Dre and his former bandmate Ice Cube were deeply involved as producers, with an eye toward preserving both verisimilitude and their legacy. The film was directed by F. Gary Gray, who spent some of his childhood in South Central Los Angeles and made Cube’s 1995 hood-comedy classic Friday. It lifts itself beyond the standard stuff of music biopics with its attention to the realities of life in Compton and South Central in the Eighties, where it was easier to find an AK-47 than a job, where the crack trade, gangbangers and cops — under the militaristic command of LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates — were all out of control. “You had to see why we did the music,” says Ice Cube. “You know, not just ‘we were young, angry niggas out of South Central,’ but why did we make those kind of records? We were living in the middle of dope dealing, gangbanging, police brutality, fucking Reaganomics, and there was nowhere to escape.”

The film’s most affecting scenes are unnervingly topical in post-Ferguson 2015, dramatising the routine, dehumanising LAPD harassment that inspired Cube to rap about cops who “think they have the authority to kill a minority” on “Fuck Tha Police,” the protest song that riled the FBI and served as a harbinger of the L.A. riots three years later. “What’s sad is that the ‘Fuck Tha Police’ record was actually 400 years late,” says Cube, with a small laugh. “There’s been a thousand Rodney Kings every year that we don’t hear about — and just now with technology, we’re able to really see these pockets of bullshit that poor people have been dealing with forever. But that shit is still usually done in the dark — and that’s what makes our movie relevant today, and makes N.W.A relevant today.”

Related: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Movie Review

A lot of musical groups tear themselves apart quickly, especially ones overstuffed with talent and ego, but N.W.A may have set a land-speed record. The definitive lineup — Dre, Cube, the late Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella — made just one epochal album, 1989’s Straight Outta Compton, recorded in a mere six weeks, with production that Dre now finds primitive. “Back then, I thought the choruses were supposed to just be me scratching,” he says. “We had no fucking idea how big it was gonna become. We were just trying to be stars in the neighbourhood.”

Eric “Eazy-E” Wright’s triple role as group member, solo star and president of N.W.A’s record label, Ruthless, combined with his close partnership with their manager, Jerry Heller, was a destabilising force: As N.W.A finished their first tour, Ice Cube was on his way out, feeling underpaid. Two years later, just as N.W.A completed their second LP, Niggaz4life (which was musically more sophisticated but far cruder lyrically), Dre left, also grumbling about finances. “Dre was just gone,” says Yella. “He said, ‘I’m leaving. You wanna come?’ I was like, ‘Um, I’ll let you know.’ Until this day, I never let him know.” By the time the album hit Number One, N.W.A were dead.

The aftermath was ugly, especially when Dre and his friend the D.O.C. started Death Row Records with Suge Knight. Dre devoted chunks of his 1992 solo debut, The Chronic — and the entire, vicious “Dre Day” video — to mocking Eazy (“Eric hated it,” says Ren). But the surviving members insist that N.W.A were on the verge of a reunion shortly before Eazy’s 1995 death from AIDS complications. “I really thought we was mending what was broke,” says Cube. “It’s sad, man, because I had so much hope.”

“If Eric hadn’t passed away,” says Dre, “we’d have definitely been working on another N.W.A record, and it would’ve been amazing. Eric and I talked about how stupid we were with dissing each other.”

After N.W.A, Ren began a modest solo career that continues to this day. “But, you know, it wasn’t the same,” says the MC, who lives quietly in Palm Springs, California. Yella, like Ice Cube, went into the movie business, albeit a slightly different segment: He produced and directed some 300 porn films before returning to DJ’ing a few years back.

With its thrilling, troubling, often hilarious mix of nihilistic gunplay, casual misogyny, ghetto reportage and furious protest, Straight Outta Compton was both a great album in its own right and a cultural pivot point. It augured the coming dominance of gangsta rap and all its permutations; created, in Eazy-E, the archetype of the drug-dealer-turned-rapper, a mantle taken up by acts from Jay Z to Migos; cemented the previously shaky status of West Coast hip-hop; paved the way for The Chronic, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur; inspired movies like Boyz n the Hood and reached white suburban kids by the millions without compromise. For once, it was the listeners, not the artists, who did the crossing over. “When you’re hitting on the truth and striking a chord, everybody wants to be down,” says Cube. “I used to bump Nirvana records, right? That dude grew up totally different from me, but he struck a chord.”

N.W.A’s rise also signaled that, from then on, rock bands were going to have a much harder time freaking out suburban parents. “We thought we were so badass,” Axl Rose later said. “Then N.W.A came out rapping about this world where you walk out of your house and you get shot. It was just so clear what stupid little white-boy poseurs we were.” 

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Yella and Ren in the late Eighties. Credit: Howard Rosenberg

For all its impact, N.W.A’s music was more evolutionary than revolutionary, arriving from a clear lineage. Their de facto first single, Eazy’s 1987 track “Boyz-N-the Hood” (written by Ice Cube, produced by Dre and Yella), drew its flow and subject matter straight from Ice T’s “6 ‘n the Mornin'” and Schoolly D’s “P.S.K.” In 1985, one of the group’s direct predecessors, Compton rapper Toddy Tee, condemned LAPD tactics in the underground hit “Batterram,” named after the tanklike vehicle cops used to smash down doors without warning. And Dre, meanwhile, would listen to Public Enemy on the way to the studio. “That was our go-to,” says Dre. “I was the biggest Public Enemy fan — I think it’s what inspired the aggression of N.W.A. We just took a different route lyrically.”

Like P.E., Dre and Yella strived for controlled chaos in their production, layering and weaponising soul samples. But Compton also showed the imprint of Rick Rubin’s work with the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC – the Compton track “8 Ball” samples “Fight for Your Right.” (The influence is even more blatant in one of Cube’s pre-N.W.A collaborations with Dre, where you can hear him shout-rapping like a cross between Run and Ad-Rock.)

As he would in his future work, Dre also brought in live instrumentation in the form of funk licks from session player Stan “The Guitar Man” Jones. And for a few thrilling bars on “Gangsta Gangsta,” Dre stumbles upon the sine-wave synth whine that would define his mature G-funk sound, and much of 1990s hip-hop. “I didn’t know!” says Dre. “We were green as shit, still learning.”

Everyone knew Eric Wright, at least on certain blocks of mid-Eighties Compton. You couldn’t miss him. He stood five feet five on a good day, with an intriguingly singular speaking voice, a high drawl buzzing through his sinuses. He kept a couple of thousand dollars in cash in his sock and usually wore sunglasses and a Raiders cap over a Jheri-curled mullet. “He was the neighbourhood hustler,” says MC Ren, who knew him years before N.W.A. “He had all the tight girls, money, jewelry. He was about that paper.”

But when Wright was in his early twenties, his cousin was shot dead, and he began to rethink his path. His first thought was to work in the post office like his dad, and Ren says he went so far as to take a civil-service test for the job. Then a more glamorous option presented itself.

Circa 1987, Dre and Yella were members of World Class Wreckin Cru, a DJ collective — complete with shiny, Morris Day and the Time-style suits and synchronised dance moves – that had evolved into a recording act. “When Run-DMC came to the club,” says Yella, “we saw how simple their show was — wasn’t even a 10-minute show — and we, like, looked at each other and said, ‘We can make records.'”

Dre would wear a stethoscope onstage and whisper-rap stuff like “I’m Dr. Dre/ Gorgeous hunk of a man.” He enjoyed the female attention that came his way. “Dre would have one woman in my studio,” recalls Cru leader Alonzo Williams, “and another one in the street spying on him at any given moment. He thought it was funny as hell.”

But Williams was nearly a decade older, with a taste for smooth R&B and old-school ideas about showbiz and respectability. Dre began looking for a way out. “We were kinda being controlled a little bit by Alonzo,” Dre says. “He had the money and he heard the music a certain way that was much different than the way I heard it.”

Dre had gotten to know 16-year-old O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson through his cousin, rapper Sir Jinx, and began calling on Ice Cube’s precocious writing talents. Cube ghostwrote the danceable, Run-DMC-ish track “Cabbage Patch” for the Cru, which became a local hit. After that, Cube and Dre began collaborating on 16-bar mini-songs that Dre would include on what Cube calls “neighbourhood mixtapes” — recorded versions of the scratch-heavy mixes Dre and Yella were doing for local hip-hop radio station KDAY. 

Left: Ice Cube in his senior year of high school, 1987 (Credit: Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library). Right: Eazy-E in the U.K. in 1991 (Credit: PYMCA/Getty)

The tapes sold mostly via a hip-hop entrepreneur named Steve Yano (who died in 2014) at his thriving outdoor record store at the Roadium swap meet, on the grounds of an abandoned drive-in. “It was like, ‘This shit gonna be hood shit,'” Cube recalls, “ ’so let’s talk about hood shit,’ and that became our signature style.” Wright, who had DJ’d parties with Dre before his drug-dealing career, heard the mixtapes and was intrigued.

At the time, Dre was driving Williams’ old Mazda RX-7, and had racked up enough tickets to earn multiple arrests. “Dre was a wild dude when he was with me,” says Williams. “That car was an attention-getter, and he kept getting speeding tickets — and Dre didn’t like going to court.” Dre also got in trouble trying to protect his little brother, Tyree. “Dre is one of those guys that doesn’t mind fighting at the drop of a hat,” says the D.O.C. “He lives to knock a motherfucker out.”

Eventually, Williams tired of bailing Dre out. Some versions of the story have Dre calling Wright for the money, then agreeing to repay him with production work. Dre says that never happened, but that he did approach Wright with the idea to use some of his drug money to fund recording sessions.

Dre next called upon Ice Cube to write “Boyz-N-the Hood.” Sitting in his high school classes, Cube scrawled in his notebook a vividly drawn tale of a young gangsta who “knows nothing in life but to be legit.” “It was neighbourhood shit,” says Cube, “that we all seen, heard or went through growing up.” They brought the track to an ill-starred New York group called H.B.O. (Home Boys Only), who instantly rejected it. In a moment of intuitive genius, Dre came up with the idea of having Eazy-E record it, though he’d never rapped in his life. Coaching Eazy through the song, line by line, over an excruciating all-night session, Dre created a hit record, a brand-new rapper and the seeds of a world-changing group.

Williams was soon out of the picture. He admits he didn’t see commercial potential in the “reality rap” these kids were recording in his studio. “The cats I worked with in the business were NAACP-award recipients,” he says. “I couldn’t bring them a group called Niggaz With Attitude. They’d have thrown me out the fucking window.” (He’s currently working on a memoir subtitled “NWA: Not Without Alonzo.”)

Eazy-E was a curious mix of puppet and puppet-master: He was owner and president of what would become N.W.A’s label, but as an artist, he was at the mercy of his ghostwriters and producers. The idea of forming a group came up while Cube, Dre, Eazy and Yella were hanging out in the studio, working on songs for Eazy; it seemed so natural that no one can quite recall who suggested it. (Yella thinks it was Dre, while in Jerry Heller’s version Eazy masterminded it all.) When Cube jetted out to Arizona for nearly a year to get a certificate in architectural drafting, they brought in another rapper, Wright’s friend Ren, to write rhymes for Eazy. “ ’Ruthless Villain’ was supposed to be E’s song,” recalls Ren. “But it was too fast for him, so when I rapped it, they was like, ‘Man, you might as well just get in the group.'”

The last piece of Eazy-E’s style came when Dre encouraged a nimble Texas rapper, who would eventually be known as the D.O.C., to move to California and start working with him. The D.O.C. wrote for Eazy’s solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It, and both of N.W.A’s albums (including Eazy’s famous verse on Compton‘s title track). “Between me, Cube and Ren,” says the D.O.C., “shit, we had all the pieces we needed to make Eazy. We made and designed that motherfucker into probably the greatest rapper ever. Because in 1988, 1989, he was rapping with my voice, Cube’s voice and even Ren’s voice, as if they were his own.”

Completing his raid on the Wreckin Cru stable, Eazy hired their manager, Jerry Heller, a hard-driving, hard-living music vet who had worked with Creedence, Elton John and Pink Floyd — and heard world-shaking potential in “Boyz-N-the Hood.” As Heller recalls in his memoir, Ruthless, Eazy told him he was the first white person he’d ever spoken to who “wasn’t trying to collect rent or arrest me.” Somehow, the two men became friends and partners — and to this day, the other members of N.W.A blame their business disputes on Heller, not Eazy. (Heller declined to comment for this story.)

After every major label turned them down, Heller got N.W.A a deal with Priority Records, an indie whose only other big act was the California Raisins. “I heard ‘Fuck Tha Police,'” says Priority Records founder Bryan Turner, “and I thought, ‘I’m going to scare the shit out of a lot of white people with this stuff.'”

At first, MTV and most radio shunned N.W.A, but the album sold anyway, going platinum that summer on little more than word of mouth. But the relatively innocuous “Express Yourself” finally got them airtime. They also got an unexpected boost from one Milt Ahlerich, assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs, who sent a threatening letter to Priority Records, chastising them for purportedly advocating “violence against and disrespect” of law enforcement. “It made them even more dangerous,” says Turner. “So then kids were like, ‘I gotta hear this record. The FBI doesn’t want me to hear it!’ We probably sold about a million records in conjunction with that letter.”

The song led to trouble on their first major tour, with cops refusing to provide security, a matter the group members took into their own hands, toting around a duffel bag full of guns. “Fuck Tha Police” wasn’t actually part of the group’s set — until N.W.A were pressured by local cops not to play it at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. “We was like, ‘Man, you know what?'” says Ren. “ ’We’re gonna do the song!'” Cops stopped the show, and the whole group was detained, though never actually charged with anything. Cube and Dre had cooked up the plan without telling Eazy, who was furious — but only because the show had ended before his segment. “He loved the attention,” says Ren. 

Ice Cube had one key piece of acting advice for his 24-year-old son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who makes an impressive movie debut playing his dad in Straight Outta Compton: “Don’t have me frown the whole damn time!” But Cube was the angriest rapper of his generation, so a certain amount of mean-mugging was mandatory. “I know all sides of my dad,” says Jackson Jr. “I had to humanise him a little bit.”

Ice Cube grew up in the South Central district of Crenshaw with both of his parents in his house, plus a watchful older brother. It wasn’t quite enough to keep him entirely out of trouble. “It’s hard to grow up in South Central and come out squeaky-clean,” says Cube, who has spoken of stealing car radios and other petty crime. “All that shit is coming right to your doorstep. You either embrace it or get run over by it. Fortunately, I started doing positive shit before I really got caught up. Playing sports, doing hip-hop.”

For a while, Cube was bused to a nearly all-white school in the San Fernando Valley, 25 miles from Crenshaw. “I realized, ‘Dang, we really are poor. Shit. I thought we was doing pretty good! We really don’t have shit in our neighborhood.’ It was like going to The Brady Bunch or to The Partridge Family every day. You just see everything’s better — from books to classrooms to facilities to teachers.”

The experience played into his near-instant suspicion of Heller, N.W.A’s manager. “He looked like one of my bullshit history teachers,” says Cube, adding that he was accustomed to dealing with white people, so “there was no intimidation factor at all.” (Cube does regret his use of anti-Jewish insults against Heller in his diss track “No Vaseline.” “I didn’t know what ‘anti-Semitic’ meant,” Cube says, “until motherfuckers explained why it was just not OK to lump Jerry with anybody cool. But I wasn’t like, ‘I wanna hurt the whole Jewish race’ — I just don’t like that motherfucker!”)

Like pretty much every young black man he knew, Cube was regularly accosted by the LAPD from a young age. “When you in the hood, they get you early,” he says. “They start fucking with you when you’re nine, 10, just to put that intimidation in you, you know? They’ll pull you off your bike, make you put your hands on the hood. You’ll be sitting on the grass, just played football, and these motherfuckers swoop up and fuck with you. It just happens all through fucking life. Fucking with you if you’re bad, fucking with you if you’re good – don’t matter.”

Cube, who was just 19 years old when N.W.A released Compton, got most of his anger out in his music, but not exclusively. In the movie, after a financial dispute, his character uses a baseball bat to smash up Turner’s office. “That did actually happen,” says Turner, who blames himself for not agreeing to renegotiate Cube’s contract. “But we had such a great relationship that I didn’t feel threatened for a second.” Cube was, as Turner tells it, strategic in his property damage, making a point of smashing an old TV he had been pushing Turner to replace, and leaving his glass desk alone. “I swear to God, man, I remember him looking around the room trying to look for something to break that wasn’t too expensive — so he broke the TV, which we laughed about after.”

These days, despite a 22-year marriage, four kids and a highly lucrative career in family-friendly comedies, Cube says he hasn’t changed much. Over the course of two interviews, he never takes off his oversize sunglasses, and is initially impassive, as if he saves his considerable charisma for movie cameras. But he laughs easily, and gets downright animated, despite himself, when he digs deep into the story of his youth. “I see myself as the same kid — just old,” he says. “My anger is still there. But when you’re young, sometimes you don’t understand shit and you just lash at it. It was easy for me to say, ‘Fuck the police, fuck everything, fuck the world,’ but that’s not going to help you. What’s going to help you is for me to say, ‘Fuck the police, and here’s how,’ or to be the example of how to get out of the hood.”

On the other hand, when he addresses N.W.A’s depiction of women, he seems to channel his younger self, with rhetoric straight out of 1993. “If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us,” he says. “If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn’t be jumping to the defense of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that’s men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.”

Dr. Dre has always been more distant, more mysterious than Ice Cube. We never forgot about Dre, not even close, but we’ve never really gotten to know him, either. He’s a fierce but stoic presence in music videos; he has never tried to hide the fact that all of his rap verses are ghostwritten (by the very best, from Cube to the D.O.C. to Eminem to Jay Z), and he has never been very talkative in interviews. So it’s nearly shocking to see the human foibles of the cinematic Dre in Straight Outta Compton, as played by relative newcomer Corey Hawkins: In his very first scene, we watch his eyes well with tears when his mom slaps him hard across the face. Later, he sobs after learning of the death of his younger brother, Tyree; the real Dre had to leave the set when they filmed that scene.

“I have social anxiety,” says Dre. “I don’t like being in the spotlight, so I made a fucking weird career choice.” He laughs. “That’s the reason for my mystique and why I’m so secluded and why everybody knows nothing about me. I think it added to the character in the movie because people get a chance to see behind the curtain.”

Large mixed-media portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis hang in the halls of Dre’s studio, and the lounge’s windows show off a live room and mixing board where, in recent months, actual new beats by Dre have been coming to life. Not long ago, he quietly abandoned his solo album Detox, which had been first scheduled for release in 2004, then more or less every year since. “I made a record that wasn’t good, and I refused to put it out,” Dre says. “I had between 20 and 40 songs for Detox, and I just couldn’t feel it. Usually I can hear the sequence of an album as I’m going, but I wasn’t able to do that. I wasn’t feeling it in my gut. So I really thought I was done being an artist.”

But the more time Dre spent on the set of Straight Outta Compton, immersed in the past, the more he wanted to get back to the studio. “It just turned something on,” he says. In under a year, he recorded Compton, a group of songs inspired by the movie that will serve as his final album as a rapper, with guest turns by Cube, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. “This is absolutely it for me on the microphone,” he says.

Dre subsists, at age 50, on a diet of “meat, vegetables and water.” He begins most of his days with two to three punishing hours of exercise: 90 minutes of cardio, 30 minutes of abdominal work, the rest of the time lifting weights. But today, he spent his morning getting an MRI of his shoulder. “I had a little hiking accident,” says Dre. “I have to get surgery. Just found that out a couple hours ago. So my day has sucked so far.” He laughs. “Fuck it, I just gotta deal with it — get it done and get back in here and do my thing.

“I have a high tolerance for pain,” he adds. “Both physical and mental.” When Dre was 11 years old, he broke his collarbone in a car accident, and didn’t mention the injury for six weeks. Out partying one night in 1992, he was shot in both legs (by “a random guy,” per the D.O.C.) and went from the hospital to the studio, where he finished mixing The Chronic on crutches.

It was the D.O.C. who first befriended Suge Knight and helped persuade Dre to leave N.W.A in ’91 to form Death Row Records. Dre was still contracted to Ruthless, so Knight allegedly attempted a Godfather-style solution: Wright claimed that lead-pipe-wielding henchmen loomed over him in a late-night meeting as Knight (falsely) informed him that his men had a gun to Heller’s head in a nearby van — and threatened Eazy’s mom while he was at it. (Knight has denied this account.) Wright signed Dre’s release. But he and Heller immediately filed a RICO lawsuit to invalidate the papers. As Jimmy Iovine sought to acquire Death Row for Interscope, he helped negotiate a settlement — and Eazy-E ended up getting royalties on The Chronic. (“ ’Dre Day’ only meant Eazy’s payday,” he rapped.) 

Dre parted ways with Knight in the mid-Nineties, but he never would quite go away. In what may be the final chapter of their conflict, Knight showed up on the set of a Straight Outta Compton commercial, apparently upset at his inclusion in the movie. Instead, he ended up killing a person with his car outside a nearby restaurant, and he is facing murder charges. “It’s like, ‘Why the fuck does this have to happen?'” says Dre. “ ’Why the fuck are you coming up here?’ Now somebody’s dead, and it’s just so fucked up.”

Despite it all, Dre considers his time with Knight as “a necessary evil. I don’t think I would go back and change anything that’s happened in my career, because maybe those things were steppingstones to where I am now. Maybe I needed that kind of element in my life. The music would’ve sounded a lot different if I had been around a different group of people. I mean, there were a lot of deaths; it was really fucking serious. But I think something about all of that tension, anger and stupidity helped to fuel the creativity that went into making The Chronic, Doggystyle, Tha Dogg Pound’s album Dogg Food, and All Eyez on Me for Tupac.”

The movie alludes, barely, to the infamous 1991 incident when Dre assaulted TV host Dee Barnes, and doesn’t delve into fresh allegations by his then-girlfriend, R&B singer Michel’le, that Dre was abusive — she’s accused him of breaking her nose and ribs and blackening her eyes. “I made some fucking horrible mistakes in my life,” says Dre. “I was young, fucking stupid. I would say all the allegations aren’t true — some of them are. Those are some of the things that I would like to take back. It was really fucked up. But I paid for those mistakes, and there’s no way in hell that I will ever make another mistake like that again.” 

Dr. Dre and wife Nicole Young at the premiere of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in L.A. on August 10th, 2015. Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty

Dre is often a heroic figure in the movie: At one point he bravely faces off with a crowd of thugged-out partyers in the halls of Death Row Records. (Asked if that incident actually happened, the D.O.C. laughs and says, “I’m-a let you figure that out.”) But Dre’s most cinematic moment, a drunken high-speed car chase in his Ferrari that ended with his arrest by what seemed like half of the Los Angeles Police Department, was all too real — and led to a five-month prison stint in 1995 that he calls “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“I came out literally a changed person,” he says. “After my brother passed away, I had started boozing. When I got out of jail, I backed off of all of it, left Death Row, got married, just re-evaluated my whole life. My whole plan that I decided on in jail, I put that shit in action.”

Dr. Dre puts on a black hooded jacket and walks down the hall to the complex’s other studio. It’s time to record the latest edition of his radio show, The Pharmacy, for Apple’s Beats 1, with Cube and Compton director Gray as guests, along with regulars including Cube and Dre’s old friend DJ Pooh, who co-wrote Friday. Cube is wearing a new-looking N.W.A T-shirt, sunglasses and a Dodgers cap.

Everyone is sitting around a circular table, wearing Beats by Dre headphones, surrounded by cameramen. “West Coast Mount Rushmore up in here,” says Pooh. The only awkward moment comes when one of the DJs mentions that Dre and Cube used their own money to supplement the budget for a couple of scenes. Dre shakes his head. “Yeah, but we’re not going to talk about that,” he says.

Eventually, Gray thanks them. “Seriously, you guys, I’m honored you let me tell the story,” he says. “It’s a snapshot of American history.”

They end the show by having Cube introduce the title track of Straight Outta Compton. “A-yo, wassup, it’s your boy Ice Cube,” he says, in full hype-man mode. “You know who I’m with? My homeboy Dr. Dre. We made history in 1989.” He pauses. “Dre, let them know what they about to witness.”

Dr. Dre smiles, and just as he did in a recording studio 30 miles, 26 years and many selves ago, he leans close to his microphone and intones 11 words — more reverently, this time, as if he’s casting a spell: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”

From issue #767 (October, 2015), available now.