11 June, 1991
Van drivers and other workers at PolyGram’s Chadwell Heath distribution centre were astounded. In answer to a tip-off from unnamed informant, the Metropolitan police’s obscene publications squad had swooped on the plant, in search of copies of the new NWA album Efil4Zaggin. An Island Records release, it included song titles such as To Kill A Hooker, Findum, Fuckum And Flee and One Less Bitch, covering such shocking subjects as murder, gang rape and underage sex.
The album was manufactured by EMI, distributed by PolyGram and – crammed with samples from the likes of Barry White, The Last Poets and James Brown – was filled with material published by MCA Music and Song Music. It seemed that a large portion of the British music industry was set to become involved in a possible legal battle. In the interim, the police confiscated 5,750 vinyl albums, 5,191 CDs and 1,406 cassettes, though trade magazine Music Week reported that 16,000 copies of the album had already been shipped to retailers. The HMV chain had foreseen possible problems with Efil4Zaggin, one spokesman explaining: “We chose not to stock the item for the simple reason that we would have been liable to prosecution”.
Island Records MD Marc Marot, meanwhile, urged other retailers to pull the album from their racks. “We must advise retailers not to sell the album,“ he said, “The legal situation for them is still unclear.” Derek Birkett, MD at One Little Indian, proved more optimistic regarding the legal aspects of the situation. His company had previously faced an obscenity charge regarding the Flux Of Pink Indians release The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks, released in 1984 with eyebrow-raising artwork. He explained to Music Week: “We did it for the publicity but we got off. I am sure Island will too.”
A lot of people were afraid to put it on wax but we didn’t give a fuck.”
Originally issued in the States on the Ruthless label, the album came at a seemingly low point in the life of NWA. Ice Cube, one of the leading members of the group, had quit following a dispute with management, and there were doubts that the Los Angeles rap agitators would survive his loss. “At first they thought we couldn’t do without him,“ NWA leader Eazy-E explained. “We had to prove we could. We just did whatever we felt like doing. A lot of people were afraid to put it on wax but we didn’t give a fuck.” However, the group did change their mind about one element. The album was initially to be titled Niggaz4life. But this caused such a negative reaction even among various friends and believers that the name was reversed. “It seemed cool,” reckoned Eazy-E.
Eazy, known to his mum as Eric Wright, was aware that the group had many enemies waiting to pounce on their indiscretions. In the US, US Second Lady Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center had vented considerable rage on NWA’s previous album release, Straight Outta Compton, resulting in the album being slapped with a Parental Advisory sticker. Apt, as the release actually contained a song titled Parental Discretion Iz Advised.
Efil4Zaggin, despite the mild concession of the title change, immediately ran into problems upon release in the USA. Sales had no help from radio or video play. But Eazy-E’s contention that publicity, good or bad, was still vital publicity, won through. By June 22, Efil4Zaggin was the biggest selling album in America, and by August it had sold Platinum.
In Britain, though, it fared less well, peaking at 25. There was worse news later that year when Island Records were charged under section two of the UK’s obscene publications act. They engaged Geoffrey Robinson QC to present their case, and on November 7 emerged triumphant from Redbridge magistrate’s court, with costs awarded against the Crown prosecution service. The notion of obscenity in art – something the British legal system had wrestled with when the Crown tried to ban a reprint of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 and the ‘Schoolkids’ issue of OZ in 1970 - had had one of its last high-profile airings.
For Eazy-E, though, there was to be no happy ending. NWA finally split in 1992 in rancorous circumstances, and in March 1995 it was announced that Eazy-E was suffering from AIDS. After making amends with his old bandmates from NWA, he died on March 26. Over 3,000 people attended his funeral.