Off The Books: Original Gangstas by Ben Westhoff

Alex Dwyer's "Off the Books" series returns with a look at Original Gangstas, the new book from Ben Westhoff.
By    September 13, 2016

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Dweez can’t find the kanji for fact.

 

We live in a post-factual world. It no longer matters if anyone—including candidates for president—tells the truth or not. The few fact-checkers left are meeting the same fate in our collective consciousness as they are in our newsrooms. Google is a finger-flip away but the problem with search is you can only find what’s searchable. Truth and facts feel like relics of the past.

I get it. Myth is easier, sexier, and more capable. It has legs. It’s clickbait. Mythology in the hip-hop universe is as commonplace as in Star Wars, Marvel, or the political party of your choice. And no era in rap lore receives more attention from myth makers major and minor than mid-1990s Los Angeles.

Murder, AIDS, resolve, realism, conspiracy, grit, graft. Government names Eric Wright, Andre Young, O’Shea Jackson, Lorenzo Patterson, Antoine Carraby, Tracy Curry, and Cordozar Broadus disappear behind aliases. Chucks laced and khakis creased, these heroes hurl themselves into studios and onto stages to re-script the narrative. Enemies abound, drama ensues, and not every hero survives.

A year ago, a film sought to corral that myth in under 150 minutes and made $150 million dollars. What would the truth be worth? One hypothesis: 377 pieces of dead tree and two years of Ben Westhoff’s life.


What Works


The book’s full name is Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. This title, at least the subheading, is unfair. In over a hundred original interviews and secondary source material probably ten times that, Westhoff provides the untold stories of dozens more artists and O.G.’s than a title can feature.

Former music editor at the L.A. Weekly with another regional rap history book to his name (2011’s Dirty South), the author caters mainly to people who come to the book as music fans first. Snoops’ murder trail, Eazy-E’s AIDS, Dr. Dre’s abuse accusations, and the 2Pac/Biggie assassinations are all given considerable attention. These threads are the ones that will bring people to the book, but these readers will stay for the context.

The rise of N.W.A. is a biblical story now. Everyone assumes they know the heroes and villains but the truth is messy. It’s not so easily found. Westhoff subverts the “ripped from the headlines” approach and, through painstaking research, builds the story one tiny detail at a time. From page 10: “For a short time in 1949 George and Barbara Bush lived in a Compton apartment complex while he sold oil-drilling equipment.” In isolation, this tidbit seems unrelated, but it contextualizes the part of the city most responsible for setting the events of the book in motion and demystifies the legend of the city as a wretched, fearsome place.

The real magic trick of in-depth reporting is hiding the strings of the struggle. The hours Westhoff spent interviewing 112 separate people is mentioned only in the acknowledgements. Readers trust Westhoff because he goes through the trouble of talking to everyone involved — “no comments” and all. He digs up old jewelry receipts. He maps out the myth vividly enough for a hypothetical Original Gangstas promo tour van to take out of towners on a ride through rap history:

Now, on our right, next to the Laugh Factory, we have Greenblatt’s Deli where Puffy offered Southside Crip Keffe D a million dollars to kill 2Pac and Suge,” the guide says, forgetting the word allegedly, again. Later on, the tour could cruise by the nondescript brown Tarzana business plaza where 2Pac hastily recoded All Eyez on Me. All the places, faces, and times are accounted for.

Westhoff’s precision is reminiscent of investigative journalist Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, her excellent account of a Mumbai shantytown. Policeman ride horses into a New Orleans hotel lobby, Death Row artists live in a single Hollywood apartment building like a big family, and an experimental AIDS drug makes an appearance. But for every wild moment (2Pac licking shots off during the riots) Westhoff offers contextualizing details (down to Reginald Denny, the white truck driver who was nearly beaten to death by a mob). In a way, Westhoff could have even trimmed his prose down to bullet points and the story still would have leapt off the page. The standard of the reporting is that high on its own.

The writing is straightforward but not plain. Westhoff layers the massive cast of this epic tale well. He writes like a good editor: efficiently. He nixes style for substance. What remains is only the facts, almost entirely devoid of himself as reporter. The only times he reminds us he’s there is when he feels it illuminates his subjects: “Hand on the Pump” scared the bejesus out of him in Minnesota during ninth grade, an interview with Dr. Dre decades later shows the legend’s timidity superseding his own.

By not making it about anything else, Westhoff makes this book one about finding the truth. When there is more than one version, he does about as even-handed a job as possible in weighing them. The myths get murky. The facts, like Dr. Dre and 2Pac not really even knowing each other (Dre says they were never even in the same car together), are messy but Westhoff arranges them with a humility and expertise uncommon in music writing.


What Doesn’t


For many bookshelves, Original Gangstas will be a fact-checked head start for the many future biopics Straight Outta Compton’s success will spawn. Westhoff, whether on his own accord or at the behest of his editors, is forced to parenthetically spar with the populist feature far too often in his own text. At best it’s neat for readers, at least those who can readily recall scenes, to have annotations about the film’s fictionalizations. At worst, these asides are disruptive and pit the book against a blockbuster in a way that’s only productive for obnoxious contrarians looking for ammo in the great war of pop cultural one-upmanship.

The internet is flush with articles (including one in the L.A. Weekly) that identify inaccuracies for those interested in keeping score. Most of them also came out a year ago. Books, by their very nature, are meant to last. Both Westhoff and Hachette could have better served readers now and later by either producing a cheat-sheet in the back of the book listing the inaccuracies of the film or, better still, avoiding it wholesale.

Page 167 provides a great example. Suge Knight is twtisting the screws to get Eazy to sign a contract releasing Dre. Tension is high. It’s exhilarating reading. Then we have, “And so Eazy signed the papers. (He was not beat up by Suge’s men, as depicted in Straight Outta Compton).” The asides break the spell—not for the only time—of the text. It either obstructs or insult readers. Write promo articles about it if need be, mention it in radio interviews, but don’t get in their way. They came for the facts. Let the internet be the venue for bickering.

Narrative feature films and narrative non-fiction share less in common than they let on. They’re inherently different forms. They’re bound by diametrically opposed rules. Resisting the urge to lure eyeballs (for Westhoff) and wallets (for Hatchette) by taking shots at the box office behemoth is probably bad business but it would have made for a better book.


But Should You Read It?


Whatever you think of the movie and whether or not you read often, if you are interested to know what actually happened during the rise of West Coast rap music, Original Gangstas is as close to the facts as you’re going to get. If, as Westhoff asserts in his epilogue, the legacy of gangsta rap is a culture with fewer restrictions, another question emerges: was truth itself a restriction gangsta rap helped remove?

For all the reality raps written by the OG pioneers in the book, so many stories were exaggerated or second hand or make believe. The lines between fact and fiction are even harder to distinguish now than they were then. They also matter less.

 

What we can be sure of is that Original Gangstas won’t be the final word. The history of West Coast rap will be told again: on big screens and small screens. Then. it will be rewritten on whatever format comes after them. What people believe happened will depend on what fits into their worldview—or their schedule.

Page numbers are taken from Original Gangstas, 2016, Hachette. That was the edition reviewed.