David Ma‘s TV ain’t HD, that’s too real.
1993’s Menace II Society saw MC Eiht play the role of A-Wax, a stoic gangster exhilarated by the prospect of violent revenge. Eiht got the part because the film’s directors, the Hughes Brothers, wanted authentic street dudes. With the success of Boyz n the Hood (Ice Cube), Juice (Tupac), and others, rappers in ‘90s hood films had become almost customary, a cross-marketing bonanza that encompassed ill soundtracks. It just made so much sense.
Born Aaron Tyler, Eiht was a Compton lifer and a perfect fit. He was 21 and had just embarked into music when he got a call saying The Hughes Brothers wanted to chat. Says Eiht: “At the time they were apparently looking at me and looking at MC Ren from NWA. So I was on tour and I get the call and I flew back to California right away. I get there and read a couple lines from the movie script. I didn’t think much of it because even though being in the movies was always a big deal, music was the first thing I was focused on and things were getting started with Compton’s Most Wanted.”
Not only did the film explode but so did its soundtrack, notching #1 on the Billboard charts and blanketing radio. Other singles were also memorable (“Trigga Gots No Heart”) and popular (“Unconditional Love”) but Eiht’s “Streiht Up Menace” was the soundtrack’s flagship, the connective fabric between music and film, fictionally biographical, cold and punctuated with strings.
“I caught one in the shoulder, if I didn’t run I was dead,” goes the second verse. “But we’d see stuff like that growing up though,” says Eiht, now, assuredly. The slow delivery and matter-of-fact descriptions capture a numbing calm that develops once violence becomes commonplace. “I wanted to tell the tale of a life in Compton and being subjected to things I saw. Being poor and peer pressure, and having to make decisions of whether to be straight and narrow, or join a gang with the homies. All of that I poured into the song.”
Having a hit single and being in a hit movie at once is hard to repeat, but Eiht has stayed completely active through the last 30 years. He remains the face of Compton’s Most Wanted, the crew he founded in the late ‘80s and whose rise to prominence was in earshot of NWA’s. Through the years he released over a dozen solo albums, including two big collabs with Spice 1, and even a release with sinister horrorcore pioneer, Brotha Lynch Hung. Eiht’s an OG who’s never strayed from the formula that earned him fast fame early on. His worldview is an inescapable one that continually informs his Compton songbook. “Growing up here, you know, single mother, violence, joining gangs, all that shit. I feel it has always been so simple for me to make songs about life like that.”
Tell us how you got involved with the film to begin with.
MC Eiht: At the time I had just released two albums with Compton’s Most Wanted, so I was already into my hip-hop career. The Hughes Brothers were from California and went to film school and all that, and got their start directing a lot of Tupac’s early videos. So from there, I guess they got the script and got the Menace II Society deal and probably thought it was a good idea to maybe have real street dudes in the movie. So I got a call to come in and read for the script. And after I read, they had me come back to read two more times and after the third, they were convinced that they wanted me for the part and that’s how I got into the movie.
What was it like being a part of a big movie production? And at what point did the soundtrack enter the picture?
MC Eiht: Well, the film came first. I didn’t know anything about the soundtrack and it wasn’t even thought of yet as far as I know. But for the film, I was there at the beginning stages before they even started shooting. We had script reads every week so I would go to Hollywood and go to conference rooms and sit at a table and read my parts to get familiarized with the movie and our roles. So I didn’t even think about music until the movie was done.
Not only did you also get placement on the soundtrack, it became the lead song. Tell us how that came about.
MC Eiht: I remember being approached by Jive because they were handling the soundtrack. They had heard of me due to other soundtracks I did. “Growing Up in the Hood” for Boyz In The Hood, and I also did a track for the New Jersey Drive soundtrack. So I was pretty good at the soundtrack thing. Jive wanted me to do a song but I never thought it would be the title track.
Walk us through the actual making of the song.
MC Eiht: Me and DJ Slip came up with the beat and I just thought we should make it about growing up in the hood as the storyline. I felt that was just a scenario that a lot of young men were dealing with at the time, and dealing with this to this day, so to speak. I mean, peer pressure for young men at the ages of 14 or 15, trying to fit in and trying to belong. I have a son that’s 16 now and I see him go through the same thing. He’s in situations where he wants to be more like a homie than a leader and taking a responsible role. So I felt that song and what I experienced as a young kid, hanging around dudes that I grew up with, and combining the bits and pieces of the movie, is how I came up with everything.
The main melody in the song, is that a sample?
MC Eiht: It’s not a sample actually. I came up with that because around that time, I would take a tape recorder around with me all the time, and I would hum melodies into it. I forgot where I heard the melody but I hummed into the tape recorder and passed that to DJ Slip. Then he came up with the drums and all the extras. We would bring in musicians to replay everything so it wouldn’t be a sample. That’s how we created it. A lot of it was just played and replayed.
Speaking of Slip, he’s also had a long career with a long list of credits. Let folks know who DJ Slip is and tell us how you guys work together.
MC Eiht: We were basically a production team, Half Ounce Productions. I take ideas, because I wasn’t with the drum machines and knobs. I would bring ideas and Slip would be able to dig into the crates, because he was an old school type of producer, he’d go thru his crates and dig for sounds and melodies. Slip, he’s familiar with me and my sound, so I don’t have to sit there saying I don’t like this and that. We basically started our careers together and fed off of each other.
From start to finish, how long did it take to complete? What else do you recall about the studio process?
MC Eiht: It probably took us a couple hours to do the actual recording. When I get onto a subject and concept, it’s pretty easy to come up with three verses. So we go in the studio probably a couple hours, I come in and record and do doubles. Slip goes into engineer mode and makes everything qualify by pushing buttons that he pushes. For me, it takes me 30-45 minutes to write a song and record it. I like to work fast like that because back in our time, studio time was money, that shit was expensive.
I’d be a couple hundred bucks an hour back in my day. So you write your lyrics at home so you can be time and money efficient when you’re actually in the studio. You can’t be in there for 3 or 4 hours. So that’s what we’d do, I’d write the song at home and we’d book the studio a week later. He lays the beat, I do the vocals, then he engineers everything. The coming up with the song and recording part doesn’t take long, not to say writing is easy, but it’s the mixing and mastering that takes forever.
How does “Streiht Up Menace” resonate with you now?
MC Eiht: It still hits home because we was just doing what we loved. It’s great to see it’s still known with younger people, both the movie and the song. I get comments from younger people who heard the song for the first time and ask me about it because they’re so fascinated. It’s a descriptive tale you can really sink your teeth into. Growing up in Compton it wasn’t hard to write songs of realism. Just to be able to have one of those songs that goes down as a big classic and go down in history is huge.