Axl Rose briefly appeared in the 1991 music video for “Live and Let Die” wearing a hat with the N.W.A logo. That surprised many, including a rap legend.
“The biggest shock was when we saw Axl Rose in the video with the N.W.A hat,” Dr. Dre told Billboard in 2015. “We were like, ‘What the fuck?’ We were still selling records out of our car.”
Dr. Dre’s recollection may have been a little skewed. By that time, their 1989 debut album Straight Outta Compton had already sold well more than a million copies. Still, Rose’s outward show of support confirmed an unlikely mutual admiration between the rock and rap powerhouses.
Guns N’ Roses breakthrough debut Appetite For Destruction came out in 1988, roughly one year before N.W.A’s LP arrived. In many respects, the groups were worlds apart: rock vs. rap, white vs. Black, the glitz of the Sunset Strip vs. the gritty streets of Compton. But their subject matter – delivering raw, unfiltered commentary on topics like drugs and sex – was actually woven from the same cloth.
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“Like hard rockers Guns N’ Roses or such emerging standup comedians as Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay and Sam Kinison, N.W.A. make no attempt to blunt or transcend the savagery of their milieu or to change it,” Guardian critic Mark Cooper argued in his 1989 review of Straight Outta Compton. “In fact, they appear to revel in it.”
Jerry Heller, the manager who helped bring gangsta rap to the mainstream, saw a link between the two acts, as well. After hearing Straight Outta Compton for the first time, Heller went to Huntington Beach in Southern California to observe what young people were listening to.
“They were playing Metallica, Appetite for Destruction, Suicidal Tendencies,” Heller later recalled, noting that they had the same rebellious nature as N.W.A. “I said, ‘Wait a second now. Anybody who buys Appetite for Destruction is a customer for Straight Outta Compton.’”
As Guns N’ Roses and N.W.A became stars, they also became friends.
“It was an easy sort of friendship because we were the ‘them’ of north, white L.A., and they were the ‘us’ of south L.A and we recognized it as such,” bassist Duff McKagan told MTV in 2011. “I just remember having a party over at my house like, ‘Do you guys want to come to my party?’ And we had the best fucking barbecue with kegs of beer and a mixture of all kinds of people.”
McKagan expanded on Guns N’ Roses’ friendship and N.W.A in his autobiography, It’s So Easy: and Other Lies: “I had seen the sensationalized reaction Guns got by presenting an unedited look at our lives on Appetite. And white boys in Hollywood weren’t exactly a marginalized group,” McKagan wrote. “The glimpse of street life presented by N.W.A … was a true shock to the system. Those guys lived hard too, and we had some great parties up at my house.”
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Rose said Guns N’ Roses “thought we were so badass,” in a 2006 interview with New York Magazine. “Then N.W.A came out rapping about this world where you walk out of your house and you get shot. It was just so clear what stupid little white-boy poseurs we were. It was like, ‘All right, we can give up the act.’ If you’re talking about which lifestyle is more hardcore, the one where you get shot always wins.”
This mutual respect almost led to a tour together. “We were supposed to do a couple of shows with them, but our manager got too greedy,” N.W.A’s DJ Yella recalled in 2017. “They wanted to give us $25,000 for 10 minutes, but [Heller] wanted $50,000 so it didn’t work. We might have ended up doing a whole bunch of shows with them.”
They nevertheless maintained a shared admiration: N.W.A named a song “Appetite for Destruction” on their 1991 Efil4zaggin LP. There was also a demo collaboration featuring Eazy-E with Slash and McKagan that was reportedly called “Yellow Brick Road of Compton,” but it never saw the light of day.
Another thing they had in common was behind the scenes turmoil. Drug addiction and infighting led to a number of lineup changes for Guns N’ Roses. Slash and McKagan were absent for nearly two decades. Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989 due to a dispute over finances. Others departed for solo projects in the early ‘90s, while releasing some very public diss tracks along the way. Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995.
Guns N’ Roses and N.W.A would both be honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, earning induction in 2012 and 2016 respectively.
“The question is, ‘Are we rock ‘n’ roll?’” Ice Cube pondered during his enshrinement speech. “And I say — you goddamn right we rock ‘n’ roll. … Rock ‘n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and life. That is rock ‘n’ roll, and that is us.”
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