The former member of hip-hop aristocrats and era-defining pioneers NWA, DJ Yella opens up to Peter Feely before his stint spinning at The Music Room.
Involved in The World Class Wreckin Cru alongside Dr Dre, then a founding member of NWA, DJ Yella’s rap credentials are pure pedigree. Having worked alongside household names including Dre, Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E, Yella was a producer on the controversial hip-hop landmark album Straight Outta Compton.
Following Eazy-E’s premature death in 1995, Yella retreated from music and worked on other projects before he decided to return to the decks. With retrospect, he took things very much in his stride, and didn’t let the scrutiny and fame affect him too much. The group’s most infamous track – an insult to the US police – is something which Yella still feels strongly about: ‘We were like reporters – telling you what happened in the ghetto – or could happen. We weren’t fantasising – our stuff happened. I’m not saying it really happened to us – it just happened. [The police], they’d harass you just ‘cos we were black, young and stuff like that – it’s still going on today.’
Now older and wiser, he also appreciates that the scrutiny had a positive effect on the band’s career, including MTV’s initial refusal to air NWA’s videos. ‘MTV not playing our videos – that helped our career. It changed on Straight Outta Compton. We had no radio airplay back then – it was just word on the street – I don’t know how we did it?!’
He’s still in touch with Dr Dre, the band’s most famous member and the godfather of gangster rap: ‘I just talked to Dre about a week ago. He just sent me a new box of his headphones – I told him about coming to Dubai so he sent me some.’
On Dre’s follow-up album to his seminal 1999 album entitled 2001, Yella mentions that a ‘year or so ago I heard a lot of the tracks. What I heard was great – it’s just more up to date – still good stuff.’
In terms of the rap music genre, Yella remains open minded but acknowledges the explosion in the number of artists in comparison to NWA’s heyday: ‘There are more rappers – anyone can be a rapper now, so it makes it a bit different. Back then there wasn’t too much competition – now it’s a whole bunch of competition. Our main competitors back then were just us, to tell you the truth. Public Enemy were out – they were more political. We really didn’t have competition.’
Dr Dre and Eazy-E eventually fell out over a financial dispute, ending NWA acrimoniously. Yella, unusually for a hip-hop artist, remained an impartial friend to both stars. ‘They [Easy-E and Dre] both made a diss record each and that was it. That was all. Me, I was in the middle. Wasn’t with it, wasn’t against it, because me and Dre were buddies. There was no reason for me to be a part of that, so that’s why I wasn’t in the videos or on the records. I told them I wouldn’t do it and they knew it. They wouldn’t even ask.’
Nostalgic for his former success, Yella’s proud of the group’s legacy: ‘We started something that’s still going on today. People notice me everywhere I go.’ His fondness for the past is also reflected in his opinion on the current hip-hop scene: ‘Rap is going to go in a circle – it’s going to go back to the old style again. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad – that’s in any kinda music.’
When I ask him what to expect when he spins in Dubai, he clearly has an appreciation for rap classics – ‘I like the old school. I don’t know if I can go that far back, but as far as Public Enemy, Run DMC – that kind of era – ’90s – late ’80s. I don’t know if I’ll go back to the ’70s – to funk – to Parliament (things like that).’
The subject eventually returns to the police. NWA famously said only ten percent of cops are good guys. I ask Yella if he still believes that this is the case? He says: ‘It’s about two or three percent. That’s everywhere – I’m sure there are bad cops everywhere – not all of them, but...’
DJ Yella will headline Boom Box at The Music Room on August 23 (050 113 9873).