DNA Project: Straight Outta OC
Click. Click. Click.
But for that sharp rasp, it's completely silent in the inner sanctum of Serious Pimp Studios in Lake Forest. The teal couches are sprinkled with entourage and hip-hop types, mouths hemmed from the tension and tedium of recording except to expel the occasional sigh or pungent gust of chalk-white blunt smoke that waltzes up to the all-black ceiling. At the center recording console, producer/Serious Pimp co-head Bigg A—a 6-foot-4 Maytag of a man sporting a Compton hat, a gold chain and a Raiders jersey—guides a computer mouse with a right hand the size of a catcher's mitt. Looking at colored lines, wave forms and knobs on a glowing bay of twin flat-screens, he clicks, clacks and space bars his way to finessing a new track alongside a very important new signee to his label, which he runs with Damian Kutzner.
As he presses playback for the millionth time, Bigg A turns to the artist, Curtis Young—the son of legendary hip-hop producer Dr. Dre—gives a nod and takes a drag from a nearby joint, the striated fumes escaping through the ridges of his platinum-and-diamond-encrusted grill. "Ready to hear it again, my man?" he asks in a low, dry tone.
Young turns his head to nod back. The resemblance—from the ridge of his eyebrows to his nose and broad shoulders—is uncanny. Fidgeting with a giant gold wristwatch, he glances at the time and casually gives the go-ahead. "Drop it."
Bigg A releases a Krakatoa of woofer-rattling bass that struts over melting keyboard lines paved into an amped-up fusion of G-funk, serrated synth and dramatic strings. It's West Coast rap 101 with a defiantly modern twist. The beat echoes past the couches and the entourage to the back halls of the recording studio, built and owned by Snoop Dogg, who co-presides with Kutzner over the Serious Pimp clothing company.
As the beat knocks and heads bob, Young traces the air with his hand, visualizing the rhymes he's set to lay down with Eric Wright Jr., eldest son of late N.W.A co-founder/iconic gangsta rapper Eazy-E. With the little time he has in the studio, Young is trying to make every second count. This can't just be a respectable track among his respectable releases over the years; the compilation he's embarking on with Wright (a.k.a. Lil Eazy-E, a.k.a. Lil E), dubbed the DNA Project, has to be more than that. It's gotta be good enough to make his pops "raise his eyebrow," he says.
Of course, the project they're creating and where they're creating it is an eyebrow-raiser in itself. The sons of two gangsta-rap pioneers who formed N.W.A as friends only to be pulled apart by a feud that plagued them until Eazy-E's death in 1995 are coming together to work on an album that pays tribute to their roots. Along the way, they're getting help from some major players in the West Coast rap game, including Daz Dillinger, Kurupt and DJ Battlecat. Glancing at a soda machine emblazoned with a mural of Snoop's face, in a place whose walls are lined with platinum and gold records and a flotsam of shrines to the Doggfather, Young says both he and Wright know that having their "uncle" in their midst makes this the proper place to push the music cultivated by their fathers in a new generation.
"It feels like a big hug when I walk in here," says Young. "Like [Snoop's] always watching me."
There have been plenty of eyes and expectations (both positive and negative) on Young and Wright throughout their hip-hop careers. The DNA Project, inching toward completion this year, is catching most people by surprise. Probably because this studio flush with murderous beats and the blood of gangsta-rap royalty isn't predictably located in LA, but in the devastatingly quiet, boring OC suburbs of South County. Lake Forest, to be exact, is where the Doggfather decided to build his studio to get some peace and quiet, two of South County's most prized commodities.
But right now, it's time for these sons of N.W.A to step out of their fathers' respective shadows and cause a ruckus all their own, spitting rhymes that tell their story, while giving an inside look at the struggles they've faced while growing up in the same neighborhood in Compton. They had hardly spoken to each other as adolescents, remnants of their fathers' rivalry. This collaboration also aligns with Rock the Bells, at which Eazy-E and Wu Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard will be featured via virtual avatars, performing à la Tupac at Coachella 2012, during its stop at the San Manuel Amphitheatre on Sept. 7 and 8. Though Young and Wright said the DNA Project is not an effort to rehash their fathers' legacies, it certainly appears as if the next-generation N.W.A project is coming straight outta . . . well, OC.
Leaning forward in his chair, resting his forearms on his knees, Young, dressed in a thick peacoat, a crucifix dangling from a chain around his neck, explains why finding the success he's always wanted in music isn't just business—it's personal. "By it being in our blood and our birthright, we're able to continue what our fathers imprinted the game with, as far as gangster rap," he says.
But are people ready and willing to hear it—or will they dismiss it as two men trying to please their daddies?
* * *
The story of where Young and Wright lived is best told by Bigg A (born Arnold White), who grew up with Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella and Ice Cube before N.W.A took off. After Eazy-E died from complications associated with AIDS, Bigg A took Lil E and his brother, Derrick (a.k.a. rapper E3), under his wing in the music business.
"Let me break it down geographically," Bigg A says. Sitting in a back room of the recording studio, he leans down from his swivel chair to dig a square in the carpet with his beefy index finger, dissecting it with three lines. Dre's house was on Thorson Street and Eazy-E's on Muriel Avenue, with Bigg A's in the center on Caress Avenue. Growing up, they were close enough to hop backyard fences to get into one another's houses.
"When N.W.A blew up, [Eazy and Dre] were gone, but Lil E and E3 were still here in their grandma's house, and Curtis lived right here, but they never played with each other," he says.
As kids, Young—who is a few years older—attended public schools and was raised by his mother and a stepfather. Eazy's kids, meanwhile, attended private schools, lived with their grandparents and ran with a different circle of friends in their neighborhood. Neither Young nor Wright ever really spoke to the other. It was a silent code, some would say one written into their DNA—the long-lasting result of the fallout when Dre left Eazy's Ruthless Records and N.W.A, the World's Most Dangerous Group, which they'd started together, to assemble his own label, Death Row Records. Despite fashioning himself into the archetype of a larger-than-life gangsta-rap mogul even though he only reached 5-foot-4, Wright remembers Eazy-E as the funny, crazy parent who would make time for his family when he could. Often, he would do something infinitely harder than managing rappers or pissing off the Man: try to control nine kids on a trip to Disneyland.
"When we had an outing or a weekend together, we all went," Wright remembers. "To us, he was the biggest and baddest thing walking, I don't care how tall he was. And he was the biggest and baddest thing walking in our city, period."
These days, Wright's husky, broad-shouldered build stands a bit taller than his father had. But with a Compton hat and a fresh pair of locs, there's no denying his self-proclaimed role as the Prince of Compton actually sticks.
As far as the argument between Dre and Eazy rearing its head on record—particularly during the release of The Chronic and Eazy's retaliatory It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa in 1992 and 1993, respectively, Wright says it wasn't something he ever dealt with directly, even after his father's passing. And before Eazy passed, Dre had even attempted to reconcile with his longtime friend in the hospital. "It didn't hit me till I got older and [understood] what Suge [Knight, hip-hop mogul and Dre's former business partner] really fucked up, and what he and Dr. Dre really made, and I looked at what happened after. You realized that things really got fucked up between them," he says.
Young hopes to detail his experiences growing up in his solo rap recordings, specifically his impending full-length, Product of My DNA, on which he talks about how he wasn't actually told Dre was his father until he was 12 years old, something revealed to him by his stepfather—also named Andre—over the phone. That conversation was recorded and sampled years later for the intro to the song "Show You" on Product of My DNA; elements of that revelation will also be used for the DNA Project. After meeting Dre for the first time at Skybar in LA at age 21 and arranging a paternity test, the conclusive results revealed Dre to be Young's biological father.
"It was overwhelming. It still is," Young, 33, says. "It's something I had to just grow and live with. ['Show You'] will explain a lot of things—just emotions I had to go through as a kid. I didn't even know how to take that [news]. I walked away dumbfounded. Even as a grown man, it's all around me; there's not a day that goes by that I don't hear something about Dre."
Before learning his true lineage, Young says, he actually indirectly learned a great deal from his father, as far as entertaining dreams of being a rapper. This goal was something he'd kept a secret even after discovering the earth-shattering news and sharing it with people. "I did let a lot of friends know who my real father was; my real friends didn't judge me," the rapper says. "People whom I thought were my friends laughed at me, but my real friends just looked at me as Curtis."
As far as Wright and his brother were concerned, the death of their father was something that, while tragic, gave them perspective at a young age about the magnitude of what Eazy-E had meant to the rap world. His legacy as a Compton City G—the first rap artist to have his own label, have two major careers, and be (mistakenly) invited to the White House to dine with President Ronald Reagan at a charity dinner in Levis 501s and a white T-shirt—would never die.
"There wouldn't be a Tupac or the success that he had if it weren't for Ruthless Records, created by Eric Wright, Eazy-E," says the 29-year-old Wright with the same sly, smooth tone his dad might've used. "You can't take that page out of the history book."
* * *
It's just after 12:30 a.m. in downtown LA. The hip-hop crowd that's roaming and twerking on the dance floor at 333 Live, a large, multipurpose club that could pass for a school gymnasium with a bar, is suddenly interrupted by a blustering hype man in a black ballcap and T-shirt, calling Young to the stage. A thunderous growl reminiscent of Fatman Scoop erupts from the microphone as he rolls out the rapper's introduction; the crowd below is lit by a few laser lights and a disco ball. Opening for DJ Quik and his anticipated throwback set, Young hits the stage in a beige blazer, a gold chain bouncing on his paint-spattered graphic tee. Though it's obvious the crowd isn't that familiar with his party-anthem track "The Night Is Young," people are cheering by the time he drops the mic after two songs and walks offstage.
Aside from working on the DNA Project and joining Serious Pimp Records, seeing how much of an impact his songs have over his reputation as Dre's son is a valuable gauge to see how far he's come as an artist. "It's an ongoing challenge, but it's a good challenge," Young says. "But for the most part, people respect it. I want people to know Curtis Young for who Curtis Young is, not just as the son of Dr. Dre. I have my own story."
Since he started putting his rhymes out to the public, Young has founded his own label, So Hood Records. Adopting the moniker Hood Surgeon, he released a slew of mixtapes hinting at his ties to Dre, with titles such as The Autopsy Mixtape, Family Tree Vols. 1 and 2, Son of a Doctor and Billionaire Dreams. Outgrowing the Hood Surgeon schtick in recent years, he has opted to use his real name and switched the name of his label to Young Entertainment. Along the way, Young has stuck his hand in production and talent scouting for his label, even taking a stab at a clothing line, Signature Young. If nothing else, the mogul in him is working overtime.
Same goes for Wright. With the help of Bigg A, Wright's path to success, while not the smoothest, has its share of highlights. Around the age of 16, Bigg A piqued Wright's interest in starting a record label as a way to earn extra cash and gave him a crash course in how to be more than just a disposable piece of talent in the record industry.
"At the beginning, I never, ever perceived Lil E to be a rapper," says Bigg A. "I groomed him for the administration and business side as a producer, an executive producer of a label to take over where his dad left off." Having been friends before all the N.W.A glory, during his days as a drug dealer and gangbanger, Eazy-E felt it right to keep Bigg A in his inner circle. He schooled Bigg A in the music industry and advised him to open his own record shop—Underworld Records and Tapes—after Bigg A was discharged from the military in the late '80s. Eazy had even allowed him to videotape impromptu interviews and backstage happenings, which would become fodder for a documentary Bigg A would put together with Wright after he helped the then-teenager to start Lil E records and Lil E films.
"As a kid, you gotta be able to spread your own wings and learn to fly," says Wright. "So I allowed myself to do that. I wanted to take a step back to handle the family business. Now, I'm polished enough to where I'm ready to handle business and keep business, to have a handle on your own individual thing and have ownership of it."
But Wright's plans to play record exec took a backseat when he caught the rapping bug. Almost immediately, the industry's interest in his skills was getting him attention. A planned collaboration with Daz Dillinger, another West Coast rap producer and a member of Tha Dogg Pound, garnered a five-page spread in XXL Magazine before Wright ever signed a contract—which he later did with Virign Records. No record ever resulted, sparking a brief feud between the rappers before Wright left Virgin in 2006. Apparently, it's all water under the bridge now, considering Bigg A tapped Dillinger and his Dogg Pound Gangstaz mate Kurupt—two new signees to Serious Pimp, as well—to participate in the DNA Project.
"I support Bigg A—I'm going to contribute my beats and throw a verse or two on a track," Dillinger says. "I'm just waiting to hear more of the music, plus with DJ Battlecat producing, I'm all in wit' that."
After his Virgin deal ended, Wright took a step back from the microphone to work for Ruthless Records. He left his late father's company in 2011 to become CEO of his own production firm, NWA Entertainment; CEO of his own management agency, High Powered Productions; producer for various top artists; and involved in other media projects. At the same time, Bigg A had struck up a partnership with Kutzner and his brand Serious Pimp, which started as an OC-based clothing line designed for mixed-martial-arts fighters.
It was Kutzner's idea to bring the artists together to help kickstart their new record label. He garnered the blessing of Snoop Dogg—whom Kutzner had repped and with whom he co-presided over the clothing line for years—to use the Lake Forest studio for the collaboration. A meeting was set for this past February at Serious Pimp's 10th-floor offices in Irvine.
And the rest, as they rap, is history.
* * *
At the meeting, Kutzner sat between Young and Wright. The three talked about what a compilation album would look like, sound like and actually do for their careers. The conversation, while casual, had been a lifetime in the making. It even seemed that way for Kutzner. His first meeting with Young was in 2008, after Snoop became affiliated with Serious Pimp Clothing. Though it would be a couple of years before he and Bigg A would launch the record label and partner with Snoop to run it out of his personal studio, Kutzner was already dreaming about Young and Wright being his flagship artists. He reached out to Young and attempted to set up a meeting with him and Wright.
"They'd always seen each other in clubs, and they were at a business event together, so I sent a limo to pick up Curtis and Lil E to meet up at a hotel, but Lil E never showed," says Kutzner, a gruff, stocky, 5-foot-8 white guy with spiky brown hair, black-rimmed glasses and a gravelly voice.
At the Irvine meeting, Wright and Young shook hands, deciding to do something they both believed was finally ready to happen. They have already had their individual tracks slapped on a recent label compilation featuring an intro from Snoop himself. "I respect the fact that Damian respected the lineage of my father and Curtis' father when he came to us with this," Wright says. "It's about keeping people aware of where the legacy of this music started and, as his son, to keep his music going."
Since they've started the project, a batch of 12 new songs are on the table, a mix-and-match of solo tracks; collaborations with Young, Wright and Wright's brother Derrick; as well as group tracks awaiting verses from new label signees Dillinger and Kurupt. On the production side, legendary West Coast producer Battlecat is manning the boards on a majority of the beats, with Dillinger and capable local producers such as Steve Dang handling others. The goal: to incorporate the G-funk genetics into an updated formula that brings together slices of house music with a sound that surveys the current state of West Coast rap, as pushed by artists such as Kendrick Lamar and School Boy Q.
The label itself is also going through a reformulation, thanks to some key advice from former Ruthless Records president and longtime industry pro Ernie Singleton, who has managed the careers of artists such as Bone Thugs n Harmony and Mary J. Blige and briefly ran Eazy's label after he died. Hell, he even had Diddy as an intern back when he worked at Uptown Records. His résumé also includes a stint as president of urban music at MCA Records. Singleton has 139 platinum- and gold-selling albums to his credit.
"Eazy-E poured the concrete and paved the road for that new 405 [freeway] everybody's riding now in hip-hop. Eazy-E did that and Dr. Dre," he says. "So their sons are entitled, and I think that they're both committed. You can't ask for any more than that."
That commitment is showing itself outside the studio, as the two finally embarked on a recent tour together (in Idaho, of all places) and have plans to participate in a reality-show series titled Seeds of Hip-Hop, detailing the careers of famous rappers' offspring as they venture through the business without the direct help of their fathers. In addition to Young and Wright, the show is said to feature the sons of Jam Master Jay, MC Ren and E-40.
For Wright, the DNA Project and a separate project with his brother Derrick (the Compton Money Gang) are coming at a time when his DNA is also being woven into the fabric of West Coast rap in a virtual sense. About two months ago, after news that his father would be an avatar at Rock the Bells, Wright was asked for the use of his body to computer-generate his dad's likeness. The project got the blessing of Eazy's widow, Tomica Wright (the current owner of Ruthless Records). Chang Weisberg, founder of Rock the Bells and its presenter Guerilla Union, also brought in Derrick to help with the voice, as well as their sister Erin "E.B." Wright (also a rapper) as a model for crafting Eazy's face.
In his interactions with Wright, Weisberg was taken by his willingness to contribute in any way possible, from the physical modeling to pushing the project on radio stations and CNN without mentioning his own projects. While that drive didn't result in his participation onstage at Rock the Bells with the DNA Project or as a solo artist, Weisberg says he's willing to do whatever he can to see Wright succeed. And since RTB isn't the only concert Guerilla Union puts on, that's definitely a possibility.
"I would've listened to Lil E and his project even if his father weren't famous," Weisberg says. "He came here and rolled up his sleeves and went to work and didn't ask for anything. . . . And the fact he's got his own music project—I'm getting to realize some of my dreams this year, so I'd do anything to help him realize his."
Back at Serious Pimp Studios, Bigg A gets a call from Young, already plotting the next studio session to work on tracks for the DNA Project, including the aptly titled "Straight Outta Compton 4 Real." There's no question Wright and Young are willing to balance royalty and servitude in constructing the DNA Project.
"Hopefully, the end result is to see Eric Jr., his little brother and Curtis get what's really their just due," Bigg A says. "I wanna see the acceptance; I could see them catapulting to the level of Kendrick, of YG, of some of the artists that are in there right now. But it takes a good record. It doesn't take 'Oh, you look like your dad.' It's gonna take a real good record. And it's gonna take that thump."
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