Before they were Niggaz With Attitude, N.W.A were negroes with activator. That’s the case made by Arabian Prince’s Innovative Life: The Anthology, 1984-1989, which compiles the Jheri-curled West Coast hip-hop pioneer’s work before and during his stint as N.W.A’s electro lothario, reminding us that before homies were wearing Raiders hats and cheering, “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money,” they were dressing like Prince and dancing to Kraftwerk. As Stones Throw Records’ Peanut Butter Wolf, who executive-produced Anthology, puts it, “Run-DMC, Schooly D, the Beastie Boys, and later N.W.A killed electro, even though they all made electro records early in their careers. I could show you some electro songs by Ice-T and Kid Frost, and you’d swear it was someone else.”
Swearing it was someone else is probably why you don’t remember Arabian Prince. AP (born Kim Nazel, but now preferring the anagram Mik Lezan) produced seminal, sometimes-uncredited electro classics, from J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” (sample for Fergie’s “Fergalicious”) to “Panic Zone” and “Something 2 Dance 2,” the lone club jams on N.W.A’s albums, as well as his own tracks. Solo, he didn’t have the hits of Egyptian Lover (who gave him his name), or the star power of the Dreem Teem or Uncle Jamm’s Army (whom he produced and deejayed for), or the flamboyance of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, which included his future N.W.A cohorts Dr. Dre and DJ Yella.
But Innovative Life is pretty damn innovative, from the moody, minor-key robo-funk of “Strange Life” (“It doesn’t even have a high hat,” Peanut Butter Wolf says of his favorite AP cut) to the title track’s sexed-up take on Kraftwerk’s panting “Tour De France.” If Prince had a Berlin period with Brian Eno, it might have sounded like this.
Hard to believe the hood preferred the Euro-tinged new wave and synth-pop, only to then flip the script when gangsta rap came out. Music history is full of such evolution/revolution: cardigan-wearing ?’60s pop yielding to Dylan’s protest folk; grinning porkpie ska slowing down to screwfaced, dreadlocked reggae; hair metal skin-popping its way into grunge. But if gangsta rap was inevitable, so was electro before it.
“It was a club thing,” AP explains. “You had uptempo stuff like Prince, just this loud bass music and this guy talking about sex. Then Kraftwerk came out with ‘Numbers,’ and we were like, ‘There it is!’ We’d play that, put the 808 behind it and start doing these chants: ‘freaky baby, freaky bay-bay,’” AP says. “Plus, those Nissan trucks came out with all the speakers in the back, so [electro] sounded really good.”
The son of a prolific author who ghostwrote many of Iceberg Slim’s books and a music-teacher mother, AP never claimed to be a gangster, but he does put his tenure in N.W.A in perspective. “We were all living in Compton, driving to DJ gigs like we always did, but [because police were cracking down on gangs and drugs] now we’re getting pulled over. We were just like, ‘Let’s just tell the story; let’s just talk about the hood,’” he explains. “If you listen to [N.W.A and the Posse], it’s all electro sounds and the DMX drum machine,” he says. Songs such as “Panic Zone” “were for the DJs. We knew we weren’t gonna get radio play, so we always made sure there was a club song.”
Now, as rap audiences tire of the saggy shuffle of crunk, electro is back. A-Trak (Kanye West’s DJ) has bumped up the BPMs and dusted off the vintage synths as indie-rock kids who never liked hip-hop much anyway warm up to its honky-friendly funk, while T-Pain and Akon and even Will.I.Am (“His ‘Florida’ is straight-up electro,” AP beams) are re-discovering the timeless appeal of electro.
As much as Innovative Life points to the future, Peanut Butter Wolf hopes it cements AP’s place in music history. “Arabian Prince and Egyptian Lover are the early years of West Coast hip-hop, period. Arabian Prince never got his due respect because he’s a down-to-earth nice guy,” he says. “He’s been successful without being famous.”
And how. AP now helms a flourishing special-effects company. “On N.W.A tours, I had one of the first laptops—it only had, like, 45 minutes of battery life,” he says. “But I taught myself 3-D animation. I never read the manuals, so I figured out how to do things faster.” When N.W.A’s gangsta lean left no place for a thin-mustached electro Prince, he worked on The Addams Family and has amassed a small fortune producing video games (The Simpsons, etc.). Even his old N.W.A pals want in. “[MC] Ren’s callin’ me up, wanting me to get him into video games—I’m trying to get him to do music!”
From gangsta to Gorillaz? “My friends are always telling me Walt Disney threw up in my brain,” he says, “because I have all these ideas.”