Here at Flavorwire, we love to engage in what Marcellus Wallace called “contemplating the ifs” — imagining a pop culture landscape filled with movies that never happened, adaptations that never came to pass, and performances that were not to be. In “Hypotheticals,” our new, semi-regular feature, we hone in on a single project that never was (a film, a television show, an album, a book, anything really) and explain why it went away, and what we might’ve missed. Today: a look at the long-promised, never-delivered N.W.A. reunion album.
To understand how N.W.A. almost got back together, it’s worth quickly summarizing how they ripped apart. When Ice Cube left the group in 1989 in a royalty dispute, he avoided mentioning the crew altogether on his solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. But the four remaining members — Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and Yella — dissed Cube on their first release after his departure, the 100 Miles and Runnin’ EP (with lyrics like “We started out with too much cargo / So I’m glad we got rid of Benedict Arnold”). Cube’s references to the group were minimal on his Kill at Will EP, but after the “Benedict Arnold” jab returned with the “Message to B.A.” interlude on the group’s second (and final) studio record Efil4Zaggin, Cube delivered a blistering — and, true to the period, homophobic and anti-Semitic — response on his Death Certificate LP, with the notorious closing track “No Vaseline” (“Lookin’ like straight bozos / I saw it comin’, that’s why I went solo / And kept on stompin’ / When y’all motherfuckers moved straight outta Compton”).
Things got more complicated when the remaining quartet broke up — again, reportedly over contractual and financial matters related to founding member Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller. Dr. Dre wasted no time blasting both men; “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’),” the second track on his solo debut, 1992’s The Chronic, was a full-on diss track, aimed at not only Eazy and Heller, but East Coast rivals Tim Dog and Luther Campbell. There was also a sly jab at Cube buried in the lyrics as well, but Dre and Cube seemed to come to terms on the old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” adage, and patched up. Cube made a cameo in Dre’s “Let Me Ride” video in 1993, and though Eazy attempted to keep the feud going on his It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa record later that year, his disses mostly sounded like sour grapes over The Chronic’s astonishing sales.
The first real “reunion project” was Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s single “Natural Born Killaz,” which the pair recorded for Murder Was the Case — ostensibly a soundtrack for Snoop Dogg’s straight-to-video short film, the album served mainly as a sampler compilation of acts recording for Death Row Records, Dre’s (and Suge Knight’s) label. In the liner notes, “Natural Born Killaz” was trumpeted as the first single from a Dre/Cube duo album, to be titled Heltah Skeltah. It was promised, but not delivered. “Eminem and 50 Cent,” Cube explained in 2010. “That’s what happened to Heltah Skeltah.” In other words, Dre — the most in-demand producer in hip-hop — was otherwise engaged.
Whatever bad blood remained between Eazy-E and the rest of the crew was put aside when Eazy was admitted to Cedars Sinai in February 1995, and died a month later from AIDS-related complications. Amends were made, and tributes were included in subsequent records and videos.
Talk of a full-on reunion between the group’s surviving members began to circulate in 1999, after Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg (filling in for Eazy) collaborated on “Chin Check,” a track for the soundtrack of Cube’s 2000 comedy Next Friday. “Me and Cube have been talking for the last two weeks about doing a N.W.A. album, and I’m really into it,” Dre told MTV News. “He seems motivated. We talked to Ren. Snoop would be the fourth member of the group. I think it would be a hot project.” Dre also revealed the title of the proposed album: Not These Niggaz Again. While schedules were juggled and legalities were contemplated (the members were signed to different labels), Dre and Ren joined Cube for “Hello,” the opening track for his album War & Peace Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc), and that summer, Cube, Dre, Ren, and Snoop (along with several related acts, including Eminem, Kurupt, Warren G, and Westside Connection) joined forces for the “Up in Smoke Tour.” While on the road, the core members started working on rhymes and beats in a mobile recording studio.
Fans, tantalized by these teases, waited with baited breath for the new album. And waited. And waited. In late 2000, Dre told MTV News that maybe they shouldn’t hold their breath. “We got a couple things down, nothing that I’m happy with, so they don’t mean anything,” he shrugged. “The status of N.W.A right now remains in limbo, because everybody that’s supposed to be a part of this record has their own careers, and they’re out doing their things.” Cube confirmed the hiatus to Rolling Stone a year later: “It’s easier said than done. We’re up against two things: We don’t have a lot of time, and we have to do a great record. That doesn’t compute. There are a lot of expectations with that record, and if we don’t have time to meet those expectations, it’s better not to do it than to go in and half-ass it.” In 2002, when MTV checked back in, the album was still a non-starter. “I would love to do it, but it’s just like, that seems like a project that is close to impossible to get done because all of us are doing so much other stuff,” Dre told the network. “You can’t make a record if you can only get together once a month. It would be really difficult… All of us would have to get together and go out of town for like a month. If we just stayed around each other for a month just to get it started and get it rollin’ and get everybody excited about it, then I think it could happen. All of us being here in L.A., [it will] never happen.”
And speaking of things never happening, there was one other important obstruction: Dre’s Detox album, the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop. He started working on it clear back in 2001, as the N.W.A. reunion faded away. A 2003 release date was announced, but that passed with no new album; release dates in late 2005, September 2007, May and December 2008, May and November 2009, and Christmas 2010 similarly yielded no results, though singles from the album were released in November 2010 and February 2011. “He’s such a perfectionist,” 50 Cent, who reportedly appears on the album, explained in 2007. “But sometimes that can be a bad thing. You create new pressure when you wait that long. When you put a new album against the last two classics, people will scrutinize it if they become impatient.”
The good news is that, as of February, Detox is supposedly, finally done. And who knows — with that long-delayed record put to bed, maybe the perfectionist producer will, at long last, turn his attention to an NWA reunion album. At the rate he’s working at these days, that would mean we could see it as soon as… 2023?