When author Gerrick Kennedy set out to chronicle the remarkable N.W.A. timeline in his new book Parental Discretion is Advised, he had a mission — a mission that only intensified after seeing their story told in the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton.
“If you really watch that film, it’s based off three songs, which are their most famous songs,” Kennedy said. “It’s something I definitely understand, but you don’t really get an understanding of what they were about, unless you’re exploring all of the music.”
After over a decade of experience covering the world of music, telling stories that are often overlooked is nothing new to Kennedy. When he first arrived at the Los Angeles Times in 2009, coverage of hip-hop and R&B was limited to artists with mainstream notoriety, allowing him to put his natural interest in the genre to good use.
“I was able to use the fact that I knew these genres really well,” Kennedy said. “I could see what could be next, or what I was enjoying.”
So while penning Parental Discretion is Advised, Kennedy made sure to focus on the social implications of N.W.A.’s music and what they stood for, seeing it as the relatively ignored part of how their story was told. Unlike the process of writing articles to be published in media outlets, the standalone nature of the book allowed for increased room for commentary, something his book editor initially had to remind him of as a first-time author.
“[There are] certain things that I stand for, where I can’t allow my name to be attached to this book, and not do a retrospective look at certain things,” Kennedy said. “First and foremost I wanted to honor the legacy, but there are things about them that are hard to overlook, like ‘here’s the story,’ and then you breeze by it. As someone who sometimes criticizes, that’s just impossible for me to do.”
Along with that, giving a voice to those often left out of the N.W.A. narrative was a priority for Kennedy, influencing the list of people he chose to interview. By striving to discover how member Eazy-E was as a parent through interviews with his children, he was able to obtain a more complete picture of the rapper, consequently changing how he viewed him and his career.
“I realized that Eazy was smarter than we’ve always given him credit for. I didn’t understand how hurt he was by Dre and Cube leaving,” Kennedy said. “You always saw the negative comments and little jabs, but it was still a brotherhood. Once you got into the heart of that, some opinions I had softened up a bit.”
As a journalist himself, Kennedy was especially familiar with how the media portrayed N.W.A. while the group was recording music. In hindsight, it’s easier to see the subtle racism that lay hidden in many of the questions N.W.A. received, but Kennedy believes that at the time, many writers and reporters were unaware of the damage they were doing in the way they spoke about the rappers and their hometown.
“You can see the attitude, you can see some writers chomping at the bit to write really harsh things about who they were and where they came from,” Kennedy said. “You would see these stories like, ‘Oh, what’s Compton?’ like it’s this ghetto spot in L.A., and treating it like it’s this fantasy place with nothing but just violence. There was this tone with a lot of major publications, it’s crazy.”
Rapper Ice Cube terms rock and roll as “a spirit” rather than a genre at one point in Parental Discretion is Advised, arguing that N.W.A.’s rebellious spirit aligned them more with famous rockstars of previous generations than many would have liked to admit. Kennedy noted how apparent this was in the coverage of the group, although journalists still couldn’t realize how their depictions and angles were pushing history to repeat itself.
“There was one story where they sent the writer to an N.W.A. show to talk to as many non-black people as they can, about why they like the music,” Kennedy said. “And then you’ll get these quotes from like, Becky Sue, that’s saying, ‘I like it because my dad hates that I like it.’ She doesn’t even like the music at all, but she likes the fact that she’s pissing off her dad. So it was interesting that the writers couldn’t even see that it was the same stuff that had happened with rock, with the Sex Pistols and these other groups, but they still weren’t having it.”
Now less than two months removed from the book’s release date, Kennedy is thrilled to be finished with the exhausting undertaking. From idea to the bookshelves, the entire process took over 30 months, and Kennedy still remembers how drained he was upon completing the first draft.
“It was New Year’s Eve, and I was done two days before the deadline,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “I hadn’t slept in three days, so I took a nap, and when I woke up it was 11:45. I realized I was washed, so I went to the store and bought a six-pack of beer, came home, drank it all by myself and went back to sleep until like 2 the next day.”
Still, the book writing process is something he hopes to do again, ideally with more uninterrupted access to his subjects.
“Knowing how this process works, those things would be really cool,” Kennedy said. “To have the person that you’re writing about be disposable whenever you want, I feel like that could be really nice.”