I found this song about a year ago during book research, via a short mention in a 1988 Billboard article on rap’s growing importance to the record industry. Titled “Artists on Image: Pinpointing Resistance to Youth New Wave,” the piece asked Ice-T, J.J. Fadd, The Reality Crew and a few others a surprisingly cogent question: where is the backlash to rap coming from?
Predictably, Ice-T was the most outspoken respondent. In late 1988, he had already released two albums on Sire, and positioned himself as the spokesman for the fledgling L.A. rap scene. Though his music sounded little like Public Enemy’s, T shared Chuck D’s view of the political economy of backlash. “I don’t think the negative propaganda about rap comes from the true black community–it comes from the bourgeois black community, which I hate…The bourgeois blacks term Freddie Jackson ‘good R&B’ and rap as ‘n***er music, too black.'” It’s easy to see in T’s quote the emergent battle over “keeping it real” that would start roiling hip-hop over the next couple years.
As far as I can tell, a subsequent quote in the article amounts to the only public mention of The Reality Crew in existence. “Stoney” offers a very different rationale for rap’s backlash, and stresses the positive–if not educational–uses of the music and culture:
I immediately went to Discogs and bought a copy of the record from a San Diego-based dealer for $14.39 + shipping. (NB: when I found the song on YouTube a couple months ago, I saw that it had been uploaded for the first time, by a completely different person, a week after I bought the 12″, which weirded me out.) The album jacket provided scant information about the individual rappers on “Drive-By Shooting,” but my ear told me they were all teenagers. An organization called “Summit Youth Foundation” is mentioned, but there’s little information online, and to me it merely suggested that the record was likely not released for the typical music industry reasons–to make money and establish stars–but as the public-facing product of a social program.
I dug a bit deeper, which was challenging because only one person is credited on the sleeve by their full name. But a bit of searching revealed that “G. Efford,” the song’s producer and arranger, is more than likely Gary Efford, who had carved a small musical space for himself in the world’s most crowded entertainment market. He performed a set at the September 1984 Los Angeles Street Scene Festival, wedged between the Los Angeles City Youth Band and the L.A. Rams Cheerleaders. The event’s headliners were Etta James and the kids from “Fame,” but the most popular attraction appeared to have been the “Break-Dance Park,” where local crews popped and locked to electro-funk music provided by some of the city’s mobile DJ crews. Two years later, Efford released two singles in the new wave-infused R&B mode of Prince and Rick James on a label called California Visions Records. I’m partial to the song called “Sexy.”
The only person with a full credit on “Drive-By Shooting” is saxophonist Ken Warfield, whose work can be heard under the chorus, and who gets a short solo about three and-a-half minutes into the song. Warfield grew up in south Los Angeles and took up music at an early age. Though he scored some high-profile gigs, and even toured Europe at one point, Warfield–like the vast majority of musicians–found steady, paying work hard to come by, and started playing in public, for tips. He settled on a spot in the pedestrian tunnel that exits the Hollywood Bowl and dips underneath Highland Avenue, because of the acoustics. As explained in this 1991 Los Angeles Times article, Warfield earned the name “The Sax Man” for playing everything from jazz standards to “Happy Birthday,” “Für Elise,” and the “Flintstones” theme to passersby leaving concerts played by much more well-known and well-compensated musicians a few hundred yards away. Warfield was still playing there as of 2016.
“Drive-By Shooting” is one of hundreds, if not thousands of one-off recordings cut in a non-descript studio by non-famous musicians and released in a limited number, in 1988 alone. But even if the record was not historically significant enough to wind up in my book, the name “Reality Crew,” coupled with the single’s back-sleeve design, resonated with me. The sleeve artwork is a crude montage of L.A. Times clippings about several deadly drive-by shootings from summer 1988: June 21, June 22, July 14. The lyrics, which I’ve transcribed here, tell similar stories of suburban scenarios–a grandmother planting her garden, a kid shooting hoops, people sitting at a bus stop–interrupted by semi-automatic gunfire suddenly erupting out of a passing car. “Drive-By Shooting” is a simple song completely lost to history, but even as pop folklore, it’s a clear heir to hip-hop’s early-80s journalistic pivot on hits like “The Message” and “It’s Like That.” Its verses alternate between first-person testimonials and opinion, and the chorus is sung in the declarative present tense of breaking news (“There’s a drive-by shooting going down right now”), echoing the tabloid headline approach pioneered by Melle Mel’s “broken glass, everywhere!” and DMC with “unemployment’s at a record high!” (Weirdly, a conservative message pops up midway through the song that sounds like it was shoehorned in from a Reagan-voting adult supervisor: “If you want some advice / And a chilled solution / Just bring down the age of prosecution.” I’m not entirely sure what to do with that.) Between their name, their lyrics and the news clippings, it was clear that The Reality Crew wanted their music to be understood as a journalistic kind of truth.
On the cover of the 12″ single for N.W.A.’s 1988 single “Gangsta Gangsta,” Dr. Dre is reading the July 30, 1988 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Though the issue is just a couple weeks after the clippings from The Reality Crew’s montage, it was immediately clear that N.W.A. were approaching news culture and “reality” from a dramatically different perspective. The track opens with a dramatization of a drive-by shooting conducted with mischievous glee on an unsuspecting civilian by an Eazy-E-voiced character. Dre scratches KRS-One’s lyric “It’s not about a salary / It’s all about reality” into the “Gangsta” chorus, but though lyricist Ice Cube was a fan of Boogie Down Productions, the song doesn’t pit commercial interests against truth, but positions the former coming as a result of the latter, which to N.W.A. was a brutal, hyper-parodic reality of black lives in Compton and South Central–the exact scenario that “Drive-By Shooting” was created to decry.
The “reality” in The Reality Crew’s imagination was a straightforward indication of the music’s truth value–essentially commensurate with the field of journalism. The “reality” of N.W.A.’s music and identity, however, was cut from the postmodern, hyperreal mold of reality television, pioneered by a new crop of television producers and stars who were rapidly moving the goalposts for what counted as TV news and documentary programming. Kevin Glynn calls it “tabloid culture,” a space where journalism and entertainment intersected to create a new form of lurid, populist programming that bent the tropes of television news and documentary in shocking and entertaining ways. Glynn groups the genre into three types:the Reaganist law-and-order propaganda of Cops and America’s Most Wanted; boisterous daytime talk shows like Donahue, Oprah, and Geraldo; and prime-time lurid sensationalism in the form of A Current Affair, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition.
They’ve never been understood in the same context, but N.W.A., (and Ice-T and Chuck D, and later 2Pac) imagined their public roles in the same technologically sophisticated, genre-hybridizing, populist mold as their tabloid TV counterparts, and freely borrowed journalistic tropes to do so. Look at Ice-T at the start of the video for “High Rollers” or listen to Dre and Cube open “Express Yourself” by claiming that other rappers were “scared to kick reality,” in a song that advocates for the effective use of subjects and predicates. Even to the apolitical Eazy-E, N.W.A.’s music was “the real story of what it’s like living in places like Compton. We’re giving them reality. We’re like reporters.” Realism may have been a rhetorical feint to win an argument, but so are all claims to objectivity under capitalism. After all, journalism has always existed in an uneasy relationship to–and reliance upon–public relations, celebrity culture, and spectacle. The “high modernist” journalistic mainstream sought to keep these forces at arm’s length, but reality/tabloid culture welcomed it. Beyond his entrepreneurial innovations, perhaps Eazy-E’s most lasting contribution to hip-hop is his fixation on achieving what Leo Braudy dubbed “the frenzy of renown,” an urge to fame by any means necessary. More than any of his peers, Eazy obsessed over his own press: he’s often photographed reading his own coverage or holding up a magazine with an N.W.A. feature front-and-center.
By definition, drive-by shootings are impossible to predict, let alone defend. In military jargon, they’re not a staged battle, but closer to a foray, or raid. In a city or suburban environment, they’re a form of urban guerrilla warfare, creating a low-level fear that any slow-moving vehicle could be a deadly enemy. Because of the heightened possibility for innocent bystanders to catch stray fire, they’re closer to a terroristic tactic, designed to inspire fear in a population, than a guaranteed method to eliminate a specific rival. Drive-bys had been chronicled by gang researchers since the early 1960s, but they accelerated with the explosion of gang warfare in the crack-and-gun-glutted 1980s. Though they were commonly reported in the Times throughout the decade, the L.A.P.D. didn’t collect data on drive-bys until 1989. Over the next five years, 6,327 such incidents were reported to the authorities, and a 1994 New England Journal of Medicine study characterized them as “an important cause of early morbidity and mortality among children and adolescents” in Los Angeles. To journalists, all of this information added up to the most newsworthy outcome of L.A.’s gang problem. They quickly became national news along with the Bloods and Crips, and spread nationwide.
On April 8 and 9, 1988, Daryl Gates’ anti-gang C.R.A.S.H. unit conducted its biggest gang sweep yet. The L.A. Times headline covered the operation from the cops’ perspective: “Police Call Gang Sweep A Success; 1,453 Are Arrested.” The operation sweep was less driven by actual strategy–most of the arrestees were released without charges–than as a P.R. move in the wake of the January killing of a non-Black person (Karen Toshima) in a non-Black neighborhood (the entertainment and shopping district Westwood). One week after Gates’ sweeps, on April 15, Orion Pictures released Colors, directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn as L.A.P.D. officers assigned to the C.R.A.S.H. unit. The film opens with a gang sweep, but one that was triggered by a drive-by shooting, executed by a Crip known as “Rocket” (Don Cheadle) against some Blood rivals. Later in the film, two different Crips spray the Blood’s funeral with bullets, leading to a massive car-chase sequence that ends up with Duvall and Penn crashing into the Watts Towers.
Though Hopper shot Colors in a realist style with which he had some experience, a viewer of Colors does not leave the film with a richer understanding of the inner lives of gang members, or the wider socio-economic conditions that would lead a young Black or Latino person toward gang affiliation. Instead, Colors is a realist buddy-cop film, and the Bloods and Crips of the title are the voiceless enemies of the police. Though Colors did reasonably well at the box office, critics lambasted its sensationalism and misrepresentation of gang life. The Times review was the harshest: Hopper had made the gang members into “Rebels Without a Context by doing nothing to sketch in the social and economic pressures that lead kids to see gangs as the only brotherhood in a bleak and hopeless world.”
Locals who grew up in the areas where Hopper shot Colors hated it most of all. During N.W.A.’s appearance on Yo! MTV Raps in early 1989, Cube was asked by Fab 5 Freddy to introduce the “Self-Destruction” video, and took the opportunity to issue a brief rebuke to Hopper’s film: “After people saw Colors they thought L.A.’s just all violence. That’s not true.” A Crip interviewed for Léon Bing’s 1992 Bloods and Crips study Do Or Die went further: “That movie just made up a lotta bullshit. (…) Lotta people got killed behind that movie. ’Cause it tried to show drive-bys, but then it would show like ni**as killin’ eses and shit, and that ain’t like it is. And the Bloods, too—they felt like they got dissed ’cause all Bloods did was get killed in that movie.” When producer Robert Solo screened Colors at USC in 1988, a film student named John Singleton took him to task during the Q&A. The film was marketed as a realist portrayal of L.A. gangs, Singleton asserted, but its actual story revolved around the lives of two white cops. When Solo countered that Ice-T had written the film’s theme song, Singleton shouted, “Well, Ice-T didn’t write the fucking script!”
Colors took the Bloods and Crips mainstream, and numerous accounts from gang sociologists confirm that previously unseen reds and blues started popping up on streets around the country. Police and the press saw it as evidence that the gangs were deliberately franchising their operations nationally, and while there was some truth to that, Compton’s own DJ Quik had a more nuanced take on pop culture’s role in the spread: “I don’t think they know, they too crazy for their own good / They need to stop watchin’ that Colors and Boyz n the Hood / Too busy claimin’ 60s, tryna be raw / And never ever seen the ‘Shaw.” Drive-by shootings had gone national, too, popping up as sensationalistic headlines in car-dominated cities around the country, and then becoming a key ingredient in the rapidly maturing, tabloid culture-saturated reality rap that was taking over the record industry. Ice Cube dramatized one on his 1990 solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, that starts with the tongue-in-cheek use of Young MC’s “Bust A Move” and ends with the sampled voice of Tom Brokaw from an NBC News gang documentary, succinctly explaining the political economy of Black death: “outside the South Central area, few cared about the violence, because it didn’t affect them.”
The next year, Cube’s Boyz N the Hood brother Ricky (Morris Chesnut) would be murdered by a drive-by, ending his character’s promising football career, and quite nearly pulling the film’s star Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) into a revenge killing. A couple years later, the Hughes brothers ended Menace II Society with an incredibly graphic drive-by shooting designed as a direct response to Boyz’ comparatively happy ending, in which Tre and his girlfriend move to Atlanta to attend two HBCUs. In the concluding scene, Caine (Tyrin Turner) was literally packing up to move to Atlanta with his girlfriend (Jada Pinkett), when he’s gunned down from a moving car. While Boyz was a melodrama, Menace was a horror film, complete with tabloid TV roots: the Hughes brothers cast Turner as Caine after seeing him play a reluctant Blood in an America’s Most Wanted re-enactment.
The one thing Colors did well was launch Ice-T’s career. As Rocket is perp-walked into the lockup after the drive-by and gang sweep, the soundtrack is overtaken by his theme song. Though T had long affiliated with the Crips, his lyrics zoomed out to a neutral pose that floated above the color-coded rivalry. Because the music cue is non-diegetic (the characters can’t hear it), Colors, which to that point looked like an episode of Hill Street Blues, briefly morphs into an Ice-T music video. The actual music video for the single aired in high rotation on the brand-new Yo! MTV Raps, which ended with a surprising plea impossible to imagine coming from Cube or Eazy later that year: “Yo, please stop, ’cause I want y’all to live.” Ice-T was already a national name, but “Colors” made him something closer to a star, while temporarily establishing him as the default diplomat not just for the Bloods and Crips, but the entirety of L.A. hip-hop.
Producer Robert Solo originally imagined Colors as a film about responsible adults negotiating juvenile delinquency on par with 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. That film famously opened with its own non-diegetic music cue over the introductory credits: Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” which reportedly sparked minor riots in theaters populated with riled-up white hoodlums. An interesting footnote to Jungle‘s cultural legacy is that Haley’s song was added by director Richard Brooks at the last minute, to account for the rise of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll between the 1954 publication of Evan Hunter’s original novel and the March 1955 release of the film in the midst of a new transformed youth culture. Though historical accounts often situate “Rock Around the Clock” as a diegetic component of the film itself, triggering the Blackboard students’ illicit activities, the song wasn’t part of their narrative universe–final edits were done before rock had taken over. The rowdy students commit their delinquent acts to the strains of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
In 1987 and 1988, street rap was in the emergent position that rock ‘n’ roll was nearly 30 years before. It wouldn’t make a dent in the national consciousness for another year or so, thanks to N.W.A. When he was developing Colors, Dennis Hopper found himself in the same interstitial period for Black popular music. For the film’s theme song, he commissioned Rick James to record the song “Everywhere I Go (Colors).” James’ legacy was one thing–his sex-obsessed electro-funk was a key foundation for L.A.’s early 1980s’ hip-hop–but his street cred was non-existent. “Everywhere I Go” sounds much closer to The Reality Crew than reality rap. It’s impossible to imagine it soundtracking Rocket’s perp-walk scene, let alone the film’s climactic moment, when Rocket is holed up in a Crip compound while his gang enemies and the L.A.P.D. both move in. Coming out of the boombox next to him is “Squeeze the Trigger,” Ice-T’s first attempt to use the language of TV news in rap lyricism. The chorus is read in official anchor-ese while T reports from the streets, name-dropping specific L.A. gang territories and sets and wrapping up, not with a plea for peace, like “Colors,” but a mock news anchor’s voice declaring that “Los Angeles rapper Ice-T’s record’s banned because of its blatant use of reality.”