Ben Westhoff is an award-winning journalist who has written pieces for some of the biggest media outlets in America. He was also the music editor at L.A. Weekly. In 2011, he published a book about the southern based hip hop scene called Dirty South. A scene which built and bred some of hip hop’s most revered acts, including Outkast and Lil’ Wayne.
His new book, Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and the Birth of West Coast Rap, is generating rave reviews and must-read status for any fan of the genre of hip hop, or music history in general.
We spoke to him about his new book and what went into writing one of the definitive accounts of west coast gangsta rap.
How long was this idea germinating in your head?
Ben: I was a big fan of this music in high school. The Chronic and Doggystyle were the biggest albums in my school when I was there, so I’ve always been a fan. And when I was at L.A. Weekly in 2a011, I got an opportunity to interview a lot of these big names, like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. And I had written a history of southern hip hop and initially thought about doing a complete history of the west coast, but decided that the era between the formation of N.W.A. and culminating with the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, highlighted a really exciting period for this music.
So did you start on this book immediately after finishing your previous book (Dirty South)?
Ben: No I didn’t have anything in the hopper, and it sort of came to me like a bolt of lightning, like, ‘this is what i’ve got to do’
How easy or hard was it to get cooperation from the subjects of this book?
Ben: With some exceptions, most people were happy to cooperate. Some people have mentioned the fact that it was such a volatile era, but I think that these things happened twenty, twenty-five years ago really loosened people’s tongues and they were able to talk about stuff that they wouldn’t have back when it was happening.
Were you ever able to connect with Suge Knight?
Ben: No, that would’ve been amazing, but he wasn’t interested in having company.
How did you prepare for this book?
Ben: I just tried to read everything I could. I read every book, every magazine article, every interview, and I just kept really extensive outlines. Once I combined all my interviews and court documents that I found as primary source stuff, it kind of wrote itself. The information itself is so compelling.
Your last book took place during a more recent time period, was it more difficult in this book to write about an era that happened over twenty years ago?
Ben: Yeah. I mean essentially this is like a history book. And I was fortunate that most of the people I wanted to talk to are alive. But it gets more difficult the further you go into the past. So sometimes what someone said might not add up to the historical record. And that’s understandable. I can’t remember what happened twenty-five years ago. But it’s not so far in the past that you can’t put all the documents together and get a good sense of what actually happened.
While you were writing this book, the movie Straight Outta Compton came out and was hugely successful. You mention the movie a number of times throughout the first half of the book. Did the movie influence your research at all?
Ben: Initially, we thought about rushing the book release so that it coincided with the release of the film, but I wanted to wait and report this out thoroughly, and I’m glad we did that. Most of the stuff in Straight Outta Compton was kind of the broad strokes of this story. But I’m glad the film came out. I thought it was good and it brought a renewed attention to this era, which I think is very worthy of attention. I think it was the success of the film that led N.W.A. to get inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Even though a couple of decades have passed, you touch on some pretty sensitive stuff in this book. Stuff including not only the musicians, but the L.A.P.D. and some gangs in the L.A. area. Did you encounter any threatening situations while researching this story?
Ben: Not really. There was some off-record stuff. I’ve definitely got a file of stuff that was too hot for the book. Stuff that’s so scandalous and out there that, either I couldn’t identify it, or someone’s security would be threatened if I published it.
One thing I like about the book is you don’t let your position as a fan let anyone off the hook. For example, you go into detail on the allegations against Dr. Dre regarding his abuse of women in his younger years. Was there ever any hesitancy in regard to including some of this stuff?
Ben: Well, my philosophy as a journalist has always been that your readers are who you’re responsible for and that you have a responsibility for the truth. But I always wanted to be fair. I never wanted to disparage someone, or talk trash about someone for no reason. It’s important to keep in mind that these guys were all in their early twenties or late teens. If someone was writing about all the crap I did when I was that age, I couldn’t even imagine it. But while violence against women is always wrong and violence, period, is always wrong, I just wanted to tell the whole story and not be judgmental. Just let people come to their own conclusions.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching this book that you hadn’t known before?
Ben: Definitely the stuff about Eazy-E on his death bed. He was diagnosed with HIV, and then was downgraded to full blown AIDS very, very quickly. Not long before that, he fired (his manager) Jerry Heller, and on his death bed he married his girlfriend. Then there were all these machinations to get control of Ruthless Records, which was valued at $30 million at the time. And the Nation of Islam came to guard him by his bedside and they were trying to cure him of AIDS with this experimental drug from Kenya that people legitimately thought could cure him. So these are all things I discovered while reporting my book. It was a crazy few weeks and people are still, to this day, unraveling it all. There are all sorts of conspiracy theories about how Eazy died. People have blamed everyone from Suge Knight, to Jerry Heller, to Eazy’s widow to the CIA and Jack Ruby, probably. So I untangled all these theories in my book and that was really fulfilling as a reporter and really surprising at the same time.
The book ends with the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. Those deaths killed that era of hip hop music, as far as I’m concerned. But the 90’s were a golden age for hip hop. From Ice Cube’s first record in 1990, right through to the release of Eminem’s Slim Shady LP in ’99. Do you feel like you’re done with this decade of rap history, or do you feel you might return to it sometime down the road?
Ben: Well I think this era, and these personalities and this music is endlessly compelling. But I don’t have any plans to do another project on this era. At least not right now.
Fair enough. Now, I have to ask this, so forgive the unoriginality here, but: best hip hop album of all time?
Ben: From this era, I would probably say (Snoop Dogg’s) Doggystyle. I think (Dr. Dre’s) The Chronic is amazing, but I think Doggystyle is just a little bit better. But personally, I think Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is my favorite album of any genre of all time.
Good picks. I would put both Doggystyle and MBDTF in my top five, for sure. Finally, this book might be the definitive account of the gangsta rap era thus far. Does gangsta rap still exist, or did it die in the mid-90’s?
Ben: Thank you for saying that. A lot of the ideas from gangsta rap, thematically, are still around and I would say dominate hip hop today, this sort of gangster mentality. But nobody calls it gangsta rap anymore, it has all sorts of different sub-genre titles, like drill, trap and ratchet.
All those genres owe a debt to gangsta rap though. Even if the sounds aren’t necessarily the same, I think it’s fair to say that gangsta rap is still alive.
“Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap” Ben Westhoff is out now and available at Amazon and other retailers in both hardcover and digital. Also be sure to check out many of Bens’ other great books such as “Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop”