The beginning of the end of life as we know it occurred here, on a beaten patch of asphalt out in the vast, flat no man's land of greater Los Angeles.
The beginning of the end came unannounced. There was no salute, no blast of trumpets or heavenly choir. It came in the sunken heat of summer at an abandoned drive-in movie theater called the Roadium.
The Roadium was graced by a grand arched gate that, in its day, promised entry to whatever secret kingdom Hollywood could conjure. By the summer of 1985, though, the drive-in, its dreams and innocent magic are relics of a long-gone past. The dull blur of south county towns the Roadium served–Torrance, Lawndale, Hawthorne, Gardena, Carson and Compton–are staging areas in a decade-long descent into what feels at times like a war zone; and at times is. Street corners are outposts in a new crack economy, boulevards battle lines dividing endless variations of Bloods and Crips, usually from one another, always from themselves. With the drive-in theater gone, the stuff of dreams has been traded for just plain stuff. The Roadium's arch now frames an open-air bazaar piled high with cheap Chinese toys, one-size-fits-all Sri Lankan socks, used car batteries, secondhand tool chests, last year's Barbie dolls and canned peas with last week's use-by date. The Roadium is a swap meet.
The first thing you notice are the people. The place is so jammed you wonder how they ever got along without it. At the moment, the biggest crowd surrounds a little stall just inside the old arch. Kids are lined up two, three deep along the perimeter of the stall, whooping and hollering. A lanky Japanese guy, whippet-thin and wired, presides behind a homemade plywood table in the middle of the noise. The table is stacked high with records, LPs and those 12-inch singles that disc jockeys spin. He's got more of the same displayed on a 20-foot-wide pegboard behind him.
He's got so much product that some days, days when the heat is so thick you could lean against it, the table legs sink an inch into the melting asphalt.
The whole place isn't much bigger than a walk-in closet, and it's hot in every way imaginable. The air's an oven, the kids fired by the desire for the new.
"Yo, Steve. Whatcha got?"
"Stevie, Stevie, whatcha got new, man?"
Steve Yano is the man of the moment, an East L.A. guy who has somehow swapped a career as a high school guidance counselor to become the uncrowned king of a swap meet music underground. He has turned his table into the hippest, hottest record store on the West Coast. He's got everything–all the new East Coast hip-hop, the best old-school R&B, all the L.A. dance jams, that locking-and-popping stuff you see on "Soul Train." He has stuff nobody else has, stuff nobody else has ever heard of. He has stuff so new it doesn't even exist yet (not officially), stuff with no labels, no packaging, just the stamp of the new.
It is the new that tugs at the ears of the man who will deliver the beginning of the end of life as we know it. He's a little guy, 5-5, 5-6, tops, with the slow swagger of a hustler fat on house money. Steve Yano remembers him showing up that first day at the Roadium, going through piles of 12-inch singles. Big piles.
"He looks 'em over, stacks 'em up. Then says, 'I'll take these."'
The guy has maybe 20 records in front of him. Yano is used to kids buying one, maybe two at a time. These are not rich kids. They wouldn't be at the swap meet if they were. Yano thinks this guy is scamming.
"All those?" he asks.
"Yeah," the kid says. He's got a high, squeaky voice that makes him sound even younger than he looks. And he looks about 13. He picks up one of the 12-inchers, a cut from some local DJs called the World Class Wreckin' Cru.
"Where you get that from?" he asks.
The question doesn't even register with Yano, who still can't believe the kid has money to buy all the records he has in front of him.
"All of them?" he asks.
"Sure," the kid says, and reaches down in his sock. He comes back up with a roll of cash. He peels the bills off. Bam. Just like that.
Then he says: "Tell Dre, Eric says, 'Whassup?' "
With that, Eric Wright turns and walks off with a stack of records half as big as he is. Yano, of course, tells Dre nothing. Dre, Andre Young, a member of the Wreckin' Cru, is one of the hottest young DJs in L.A. He doesn't need to be bothered, man. Not with this kid anyhow.
Wright comes back the next weekend, asks about Dre again, wants his numbers. He's polite but persistent and comes back every week. Yano finally asks Dre if he knows a homeboy named Eric Wright. And damned if Dre doesn't.
"Next thing I know," Yano says, "those guys are on a three-way call with me at 2 in the morning. Eric wants to open a record store. I tell him, 'Don't do it. It's a bad business. I can show you how, but don't do it.' "
Eric has money–street money, dope money–and wants to go straight. Dre, meanwhile, bugs Yano, who knows every low-level somebody in the record business in all of Los Angeles, to start a record label. Dre wants a place to put out his own music.
In time, these dreams merged and came true. Eric went into the record business, all right, not with a corner store but with his own label and Dre was on it. Soon that label, Ruthless Records, sent out into the world some of the weirdest, funniest, saddest, maddest music anybody ever heard. Out of that little swap meet stall came the partnership that rocked, then overran the record business.
The partnership took full form in the hip-hop group Niggaz With Attitude, which in 1988 released a record called "Straight Outta Compton." This was the group's first national release. N.W.A was largely unknown. The record contained no hit singles. In most of the country, nothing from the record was played even once on the radio. It was too crude, too misogynistic, too violent. MTV, which had by then established itself as the primary gatekeeper of popular culture, refused to play N.W.A videos.
No radio, no television and no publicity.
"Straight Outta Compton" sold 3 million records.
The music it contained was so perverse, so nihilistic, so forbidden, politicians–then and still–elbowed each other out of the way to condemn it. Highbrow critics couldn't find language strong enough to critique it; they went further, questioning whether it was even music at all. It's barbaric, they said. Hide the women and children; bar the doors. Too late.
Gangsta rap was in the house.