“The last time I talked to him was on the phone,” recalled hip-hop pioneer DJ Yella of his unexpected farewell he had to make to friend and N.W.A co-founder Eazy-E, one heavy day back in 1995. “His last words to me were, ‘Watch yourself.’”
As re-created in Universal’s high-profile musical biopic Straight Outta Compton, Eazy-E was dying of AIDS. After almost a decade of meteoric success, turbulent friendships, reckless partying, and beefy melodrama, Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright), the drug dealer-turned-entrepreneur whose Ruthless Records became one of the most trailblazing labels in hip-hop history, couldn’t bring himself to admit his diagnosis even to his closest friends.
“He didn’t tell me what he had. He didn’t want me to know,” Yella, born Antoine Carraby, told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills. “We found out eventually when he was already in a coma. But by then it was too late, and we couldn’t say anything to him.”
Memories like that come flooding back to Yella as he talks up Straight Outta Compton, the sprawling saga of how N.W.A exploded from the streets of South Central Los Angeles with aggressive rap polemics like “Fuck Tha Police,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” and of course, “Straight Outta Compton.”
Making the movie alongside producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (Yella earned a consultant credit, as did Ren) brought the fivesome’s often tempestuous shared history back to life, including bitter rivalries and beefs that went unaddressed for years—as well as the tragedies that brought them together.
Two of those tragedies pack the hardest emotional punches in the film: When Dre, consumed by guilt over the death of his little brother, is consoled by his crew while on tour, and when Cube and Dre finally visit Eazy in the hospital—after he’s fallen unconscious.
“When we were on the bus [and heard about the death of] Dre’s brother—that happened on the first night on the tour, I remember,” Yella recalled. “I’d forgotten all about it. That was a hard scene, but the hospital scene definitely was. It was just so real looking. Wow.”
Yella, now 47, remembers being harassed with fellow N.W.A mates by police during the making of the album, “in front of the studio in Torrance. More than once. That’s how it was. I mean, we were five young black kids from Compton, in Torrance.”
Those run-ins with the cops prompted the group to record their most controversial track, “Fuck Tha Police,” the anti-authority anthem that got them arrested just for performing it in Detroit and earned national scorn from conservative groups. “After getting jacked and all that and being frustrated, we said, ‘We’re going to make a song about them,’” Yella said. “But we didn’t know it was going to cause controversy. We just made a song saying what everybody else wanted to say. We just had the balls to say it.”
Like every major sea change in his life, Yella’s passions have coincided with different chapters in the history of N.W.A since the group rose to fame decades ago straight outta the streets of South Central Los Angeles.
Back in 1986, it was following fellow World Class Wreckin’ Cru DJ Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre, from the electro-jam clubs to the recording studio to devise hard-hitting beats for a 22-year-old street entrepreneur named Eric Wright and his fledgling hip-hop label, Ruthless Records.
“When we were doing music, that’s how we did—we just did it for the music,” said Yella. “We weren’t thinking about money, we weren’t thinking about fame. Music was our passion.”
Fellow producer Arabian Prince came and went as the line-up of eventual rap icons N.W.A took shape. Ice Cube and MC Ren completed the quintet and over the course of six weeks in 1987, the group recorded their incendiary debut album, Straight Outta Compton, in a studio in Torrance.
But unlike MCs Ice Cube and Ren and label owner/reluctant MC Eazy-E, Yella never needed the spotlight, content instead to sit at the boards next to Dre, with whom he shared an uncanny understanding when it came to producing. “You know, I wasn’t a rapper, never wanted to be a rapper,” said Yella. “That wasn’t my style. I like being quiet and just having fun.”
As played by Neil Brown Jr. onscreen, the young Yella is N.W.A’s resident peacekeeper, the one who’s quick to defuse tension when it so often arises thanks to forces outside the group and within. In one scene, Yella, Dre, Ren, and manager Jerry Heller listen to “No Vaseline,” the blistering diss track Ice Cube spat at his former crew after leaving N.W.A. It’s Yella who cracks a joke, admitting that Cube nailed their asses to wax in brilliant, blazing fashion.
How does Yella remember his role in the group during their heated beef with Cube? “The Cube one—well, we really didn’t do a song, we just versed a couple of lines here and there,” he said, shrugging off the shots N.W.A fired first at their former bandmate.
When things turned hostile after Dre left Ruthless for Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, Eazy issued the homophobic diss track “Real Muthaphukkin’ G’s” squarely at Dre (“all of the sudden Dr. Dre is the G thang; but on his old album covers he was a she-thang”). Looking back, Yella remains neutral as always, he says.
“Eazy knew, Dre’s my buddy—I’m not going to be in your video, I’m not going to be a part of the track—he knew, because he just wouldn’t ask me,” said Yella. “He just knew. And that’s just me, I’m friends with everybody. I had no beef with anybody.”
“Even when Dre left [Ruthless], Dre asked me, did I want to go? I just never answered,” Yella said, a tinge of wistful resolution in his voice. “[I said,] ‘I’ll get back wit’ you.’ And I’ve never answered him to this day. No, ‘Yeah, I’m going to stay here and be dedicated.’ I just stayed. There wasn’t any real reason. I just stayed, that’s all it was.”
Straight Outta Compton also paints Yella as N.W.A’s fun-loving pussy hound, always chasing tail. One particularly R-rated scene in the film has him sexing a groupie in front of the rest of the group in a packed hotel room. “A ladies man,” Yella laughs, cracking a bashful smile. “Yeah, I know. I took one for the team. I mean, yes, there was music and women. That was my life! There wasn’t money. There was music and women, and that added a little extra flavor to the movie.”
Was the young Yella not that sex-crazed back then, I ask? A grin stretches across his face. “Might’ve been. I might’ve been. I think I was.”
As tensions rose within the fractured Ruthless family in the early ’90s and violence crept into the lucrative gangsta rap industry N.W.A had in part created, that “hobby” of Yella’s transformed into a second career when a new artistic endeavor was pitched his way: porn.
“I started doing adult movies about a year or two before Eazy died,” Yella recalled. “Actually, somebody brought Eazy the idea first, but he took too long to answer. They brought it to me and I said, ‘Okay! Where do I buy cameras?’”
Yella dove headfirst into the XXX game while still making music, buying cameras and editing equipment and eventually directing what he estimates to be over 300 adult films, including the hood-themed H.W.A.: Ho’s With Attitude, I Candy, West Side Stories, and, of course, Str8 Outta Compton 1 and 2.
“I didn’t write the stories,” he laughed, “but I filmed everything. My movies were different—they were more reality-based. They weren’t like, the lady next door drops something and bends over, or the man comes over to fix the pipes and he ain’t got no pants on. Mine were more like reality: driving down the street, just happen to meet somebody. It wasn’t that corny stuff.”
Eventually, even that world lost its luster. Yella’s now retired from directing and looking toward his next chapter. “I just stopped,” he said. “I got tired of it, and I got bored. The same way, when Eazy died, that I quit music. That was it. I just said, ‘I’m done with it.’”
With the release of Straight Outta Compton, Yella is launching a new website—DJYellasWebsite.com—and has come back full circle to the career that started it all. “Now I’m back to DJing,” he smiles. “That’s my passion. I’ve been to Paris, Australia, Canada. That’s my thing now. I still DJ the same way, but I’m not a scratch-scratch-scratch battle DJ. No, I’ll rock the house. I’m old school.”