In January of 1991, producer/rapper and then-N.W.A. member Andre “Dr. Dre” Young attacked hip-hop journalist Denise “Dee” Barnes in a nightclub. If you hadn’t heard about the incident going into F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, which hits theaters in two weeks, you’d leave the theater none the wiser. It’s never mentioned.
The movie is a well-acted, energetic neo-blaxploitation throwback that I suspect will be a hit. It’s also a refreshing counter narrative for a group of guys who were mostly vilified by the mainstream media during their short stint as the most notorious rap act in the country. In Compton, you’re given a sense of how creative energy and oppressive persecution by authorities helped foster a brotherhood in this group of young, black men. The movie, which surviving group members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre had a hand in producing, exists partly to humanize. It depicts an N.W.A. that is kinder and gentler than any previous existing conception of the group.
But in order to do that, Andrea Berloff and John Herman’s script omits any explicit discussion of N.W.A.’s open misogyny in their music and lives, while implicitly condoning it by keeping female characters on the outskirts of the story in small roles that service the film’s central men. They are mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sex objects at parties (the colorism in last year’s casting call for female extras is palpable in the movie). Though they were relatively low in number, the group’s female collaborators are nowhere to be found in Compton; singer Michel’le is mentioned twice in passing and rapper Yo Yo isn’t acknowledged at all. While audiences are left with a clear understanding of the social conditions that would drive young black men in South Central Los Angeles to write and perform “Fuck tha Police,” we have no concept of what propelled Ice Cube to write “A Bitch Iz a Bitch,” or just how much of the pornographically demeaning second half of N.W.A.’s 1991 album, Niggaz4Life, fit the group’s “reality rap” ethos.
I suspect that much of N.W.A.’s anti-woman rhetoric, and the ensuing, widespread criticism of it, is suppressed in the film to keep its heroes looking like heroes. Tabling the misogyny makes liking the men behind the group much less complicated. It keeps the narrative clean and straightforward, and it keeps the indefensible unmentioned.
In doing this, Straight Outta Compton glosses over a defining moment in N.W.A.’s legacy that I think warrants reexamination. It may be too ugly for Hollywood, but it’s as real as any reality in N.W.A.’s rap music.
On January 27, 1991, during what many reports say was a record-release party for the feminist-bent rap duo Bytches With Problems (BWP) at Hollywood’s Po Na Na Souk club, Dr. Dre brutally beat up Dee Barnes, the host of a well-known Fox show about hip-hop called Pump It Up!
From what I can tell, the Los Angeles Times ran the first major-outlet story on the incident on June 28, 1991. The paper ran a follow-up a few weeks later, on July 23 that included Barnes’s description of the attack:
He picked me up by my hair and my ear and smashed my face and body into the wall...Next thing I know, I’m down on the ground and he’s kicking me in the ribs and stamping on my fingers. I ran into the women’s bathroom to hide, but he burst through the door and started bashing me in the back of the head.
In the interview, Barnes pointed out that she is 5’3” and that Dre is 6’2” (around the web, his height is printed as 6’1”).
Journalist Alan Light devoted many words to the incident in his profile, “N.W.A.: Beating Up the Charts,” which ran in the August 8, 1991, issue of Rolling Stone. To Barnes’s account, Light added that Dre attempted to throw her down stairs and failed. He also printed quotes from N.W.A.’s MC Ren and Eazy E regarding the incident:
Ren says, “she deserved it – bitch deserved it.” Eazy agrees: “Yeah, bitch had it coming.”
Dre also weighed in:
People talk all this shit, but you know, somebody fucks with me, I’m gonna fuck with them. I just did it, you know. Ain’t nothing you can do now by talking about it. Besides, it ain’t no big thing – I just threw her through a door.
As this story was circulating, MTV News ran footage reportedly filmed in March of 1991, in which Ren discussed the incident:
That’s what you get. I hope she get it again. She got beat down. The host of that show, there’s something that she know that she did, and got beat down, and I hope it happen again. See you ‘round, buddy boy...What did she do? Try to make us look stupid. Tried to play us...Tried to play us in front of millions of people. It’s not over yet.
And what did Barnes do to have it coming? She interviewed Ice Cube, who had left the group in December 1989 because of a dispute over royalties. The bad blood between Cube and his former group members grew over the next year, as they traded insults on tracks—first, Cube was referred to as “Benedict Arnold” on N.W.A.’s first Cube-less release, the 100 Miles and Runnin’ EP. Ice Cube struck back on his Kill at Will EP, and then more thoroughly on “No Vaseline,” from his 1991 album, Death Certificate.
The interview in question was reportedly aired during a Pump It Up! package that focused on N.W.A., and aired in December 1990. The Los Angeles Times summarized Dre’s beef in this way:
Young—who faces one misdemeanor battery count related to the Barnes incident—allegedly attacked her in late January because he was upset that a television spot featuring former N.W.A member Ice Cube had unexpectedly been inserted into a segment on her Pump It Up! show last December spotlighting N.W.A.
In the December 1992 issue of The Source, Barnes described the package:
A year or two into the show, as things are going well, I tried to get N.W.A. on ‘cause they don’t really talk that much. I got ‘em on and we do a nice little interview. This goes on October ‘90. About a week later, I do an interview with Yo Yo on the set of Boyz N the Hood and Cube was there. And Cube came in the middle of the interview and said some things about N.W.A.—‘cause at the time they were having a riff out here.
The producer at the time, Jeff Shore, he was the one that put [the segment] in. Cube just said it joking and I was left standing there. The cameras were still rolling so I said, ‘Sister Dee, always in the middle of controversy right here on Pump It Up!’ You know? What am I gonna do? Then [Jeff Shore] said, ‘Cut! That’s great! I’m gonna put it on the N.W.A. show’...He said it right there and I said, ‘Naw, you crazy?’ I didn’t want those two groups fighting anymore. I didn’t want it to be because of Pump It Up!, like we instigated something.
Barnes also shared even more details of the beating in this interview:
Dre picks me up by my shirt in the front and I can’t even say, ‘Help,’ ‘cause I’m choking. The next thing I know, the guy on my right tries to help me and gets knocked out by Dre’s bodyguard. Then Dre picks me up by my hair and ear and starts slamming my face up against a wall. It was a brick wall.
Exactly what Cube said is somewhat hard to discern. Though many of Barnes’s interviews with N.W.A. and Ice Cube are available on YouTube (including this one, in which Cube obliquely refers to his former group before proclaiming, “No more N.W.A.! No more N.W.A. questions!”), the offending clip is nowhere to be found.
N.W.A.’s former promoter Doug Young, perhaps the “guy on my right” that Barnes referred to in her Source interview, described the Pump It Up! segment in an interview that’s available on YouTube:
I used to watch Pump It Up! religiously, ‘cause that was the 100 Miles and Running EP that they was doing for the whole show, talking about that. And then, you know, I thought the show was off, over with, right? And I was just about to get up to get another brew or something out the kitchen, and I look, and she was interviewing Cube and that’s when he said that verse...“If I have you...something something marked something something, I’ll have you 100 miles and running.” And I was like, “Oh shit, no she didn’t! No she didn’t do that!”
Young added that at the January 27 party, he was inebriated and trying to “mack on” Barnes when Dre walked up and said, “That’s some fucked up shit you done, bitch,” before laying into her. “So I jumped in the fight to help Dee, and his bodyguard hits me in the side of my mouth here with his gun...It wasn’t no Suge [Knight] that did that, Suge wasn’t even at the fuckin’ party. It was Dre’s bodyguard that did the shit.” Young says two of his teeth were knocked out, and that no one who could see the fight, including DJ Ed Lover of Yo! MTV Raps, made no attempt to intervene. “They just sat up there and watched and shit,” said Young.
Young said that he confronted Dre about the incident the next morning in the office of N.W.A.’s record company, Priority, asking if Dre remembered what he did the night before. “Not really,” was Dre’s reported initial answer, before copping to beating Barnes.
In an interview that ran in the June 1991 issue of The Source, Eazy E provided the clearest explanation for Barnes’s perceived infraction against the group:
The Source: Now in all fairness, Dre isn’t here. I wanted to talk about the incident with Dre and Dee. Do you care to comment?
Eazy E: Oh yeah, we will. It’s like this: We did Pump It Up!, we did a little something on him [Ice Cube]. She [Dee] set it up. Then she had him come back and do his little clip on us. So we figured everybody that’s gonna be settin’ us up to do these TV shows and interviews—that all of a sudden slide him in after they hear our side of the shit—that make us look like clowns. We’re fuckin’ up everybody! Everybody. I don’t give a fuck who it is.
MC Ren: That was an example.
The Source: Don’t you think that was ill—beating up a girl?
Eazy E: Nah, it’s not ill. The bitch deserved it. She knew that. We were closer than that, we were like family, we’ve been knowin’ her a long time. And anyway, if my brother fucks up, we’re fuckin’ him up, too. It’s business.
The Source: Is there a lawsuit?
Eazy E: We hope not.
But there was. Barnes pressed charges and the Los Angeles Times reported that on August 27, 1991, Dre pled no contest to misdemeanor battery. (The Washington Post reported in June 1991 that, “A misdemeanor battery charge was filed by the Los Angeles city attorney in April and was upgraded to aggravated battery in May when Dr. Dre failed to show up in court.”) He was fined $2,513, sentenced to 240 hours of community service, and given 24 months of probation. He was also ordered to pay $1,000 to the California Victims Restitution Fund, and film an anti-violence PSA. Barnes also filed a civil suit against Dre for the assault, as well as against Eazy E, Ren, and Yella for libel, undoubtedly based on their very public comments on the incident. She sued for $22.7 million in damages.
In the aforementioned Barnes profile in the 1992 issue of The Source, Barnes discussed the state of her case:
Dee decided to take the group to court for their statements in the press, but Eazy and Ren got off by invoking their First Amendment right, freedom of speech. “Right now, we’re gonna appeal,” she explains. “I dropped Yella from the case. I held onto Eazy and Ren ‘cause they were talking the most shit. But I’m taking them back. Then, towards Dre, I took him to court and tried to get a restraining order. And I’m continuing with the civil suit against him. Dre’s just still in the denial stage, like he didn’t do it.”
Barnes also expressed a feeling of betrayal not unlike that expressed by Eazy E—the piece states that she once considered Dre her “homie”: “Never in a million years did I think he’d turn around to smack me...to punch me. And when you look at his size, you know, he could’ve knocked me out with one punch—BAM!—but he just had to keep beating me. It’s not like I was swinging at him.”
Dre publicly eased into denial over time after his initial “I just threw her through a door” statement to Rolling Stone. In July of 1991, he reportedly told Entertainment Weekly, “They blew it all out of proportion...It’s not like I broke her arm.” And then in November 1992, he reportedly said to The Source, “I didn’t do shit, I didn’t touch her ass.”
According to Yule Case, a Pump It Up! producer, Barnes hired Rook of the rap group the Boo-Yaa Tribe to be her bodyguard because “they were the only people that anyone was scared of.” Barnes settled out of court with Dre, reportedly in the fall of 1993, for an undisclosed amount.
In the initial interview Barnes gave the Los Angeles Times, she underlined the larger implications of her lawsuit:
My lawsuit is not just about one five-foot three-inch woman getting slapped around by a six-foot two-inch guy...It’s about how N.W.A rages violence against women in general. Millions of little boys listen to this crap—and they’re going to grow up thinking it’s all right to abuse women.
O.G. hip-hop journalist and total badass dream hampton wrote an op-ed in a 1991 issue of The Source, responding to Dre’s beating and the misogynistic air in hip-hop at that time. Part of her essay read:
It infuriates me that witnesses reported that Dr. Dre’s bodyguard held the crowd back as Dee received multiple blows to her womanhood. I find it intolerable when brothers ask, “So what did Dee do?” I will be outraged to learn that Dr. Dre is not underneath jail when this is published. Historically, Black women have been reluctant and intimidated to confront their abuse because of the “division” it would cause within the race and because of the racist, classist institutionalization of the judicial system and the white women’s liberation movement.
Violence against Black women by Black men did not begin with rap music. Sexism did not begin with the black community. These minor revelations are not enough. Sexism exists in the hip-hop generation. Manifestation of sexist behavior is first verbal and mental abuse (BBD, Big Daddy Kane, Too Short, HWA)—it evolves into its inevitable counterpart, physical violence (Dee Barnes, [the mother of three of Flavor Flav’s children] Karen Ross, one out of every four Black women between 18 and 25). Hip-hop music must take responsibility for eliminating the perpetuation of the destruction of the Black community, i.e. the abuse of the Black women. It has no place in revolutionary music.
Almost 25 years later, it seems like members of N.W.A. have finally gotten Barnes’s and hampton’s message. But the method being used in Straight Outta Compton to reconcile that message is erasure. Don’t forget about what happened to Dee.
I’ve reached out to Barnes to discuss this incident further. If she agrees to talk, I will run a separate interview with her.
[Top image by Sam Woolley]