N.W.A. was a More Influential Band than The Beatles. Fight Me.
Updated: Mar 18
Every person over sixty who’s clicked through to this story after sizing up its title probably checked with their doctor first to see if they’re healthy enough for a knock-down, drag-out fight. OK, boomer. Let’s have it out over history and culture the old-fashioned way.
Time for school. We’ll start with the Fab-Four from Liverpool.
Most of what I know about The Beatles didn’t come from Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary or Steve Job’s darling collection Anthology, or any romantic folklore from the modern Internet, for that matter.
The Beatles were passed down to me from my parents sometime in the late 1980s when I was about twelve years old and starting to discover music for myself.
For my parents–or any parents who, like mine, were born in post-war America of the 1940s, grew up in the ‘50s, and came of age in the mid-’60s–the Beatles were the soundtrack of their teenage years.
They were more than just the biggest band on the planet, my parents rightly stressed to twelve-year-old me. John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed music and the music industry forever.
More than thirty years later, the story my parents handed me when I was on the cusp of adolescence has held up and can be confirmed if we look at the data.
The Beatles are the best-selling music act of all time, with worldwide sales estimated to be 600 million units. Let’s put that number in context so we can acknowledge that it’s likely a record that will never be broken.
According to Audio Network, the biggest selling album in the world in 2021 was 30 by British super diva Adele. The London-born singer is currently thirty-three years old and has four studio albums to her credit with worldwide sales for her still-thriving career estimated at 120 million units. Quick math: that’s 480 million fewer units sold than the Beatles. And Adele, whose first album, 19, was released in 2006 has already enjoyed a career that has been nine years longer than the Beatles, whose 13 studio albums were recorded and released between 1963 and 1970.
Here’s why the Beatles' 600 million albums sold may be an untouchable mark.
If you were to combine the career sales totals of Adele (120 million albums) with those of Taylor Swift (200 million) and Kanye West (160 million) you’d have a body of work that has sold about 120 million fewer units than the Beatles. Adding Jay-Z’s career sales of 125 million units would just about cover the gap.
But the sales numbers don't tell the whole story of Beatlemania.
In a career that lasted just seven years from 1963 to 1970, the Beatles forever altered the music industry because they changed the way the music-buying public thought about what they were buying.
While they may not have invented the album as an art form, the Beatles unquestionably elevated it to the dominant unit of record consumption, unseating the single which had enjoyed a top-selling reign for essentially all of the record industry’s history to that point.
There will never be a more prolific band if we set the bar where the Beatles left it more than 50 years ago. In 1964, the band scored their first of what would be 20 number 1 songs on Billboard’s Top-100 chart with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Over the next six years, the Beatles averaged over three number one songs per year. By comparison, Michael Jackson had 13 number one hits (including 1983’s “Say Say Say” with the Fab Four’s Paul McCartney) in a solo career that spanned more than three decades. The King of Pop had just two years, 1983 and 1987, that saw him score three number one hits.
And by the way, MJ’s 400 million albums sold is still 200 million units shy of what the Beatles tallied in a career that was a fraction as long.
Here’s an immutable truth about the band’s lasting influence that can’t be confirmed with raw data but can’t be denied either because there’s simply too much folklore.
The Beatles inspired a generation of musicians whose influence is still very much alive today.
On February 9, 1964, the four lads from Liverpool took the stage on the Ed Sullivan show and won the hearts of 73 million American living rooms.
No single musical performance in human history has impacted the world or its musical future as much as that one–not Mozart at Schönbrunn Palace, not Beethoven at the Theater an der Wien. If Taylor Swift buries the hatchet with Kanye West and they were to play a live-stream show together in outer space, it won’t be as influential a moment as when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan.
It was that moment and those grainy, black and white images which inspired an entire future generation of rockers to learn to play the guitar, grow their hair long, and bleed the music that’s been the soundtrack of our rock ‘n roll lives ever since.
The Beatles, according to the argument bolstered by the above points and more, are the undisputed most influential band of all time.
The crux of my argument is built on a simple but crucial premise: for all of their success, innovation and influence, the Beatles largely failed to appeal across the color line.
This is a hard statement to prove because no data exists to prove it. We don’t know, for example, how many of the Beatles’ 600 million albums were sold to Black or Hispanic fans.
What we do know is that the Beatles invaded America at the height of Jim Crow. And while their music certainly reached Black teens–even in a then largely segregated public school system–the Beatles had far less of an impact among Black music fans during the 1960s as James Brown, who recorded 17 singles that reached number 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts.
Interestingly enough, scores of Beatles songs were recorded by legendary Black artists, such as "Eleanor Rigby" (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles), "We Can Work It Out" (Stevie Wonder), "Hey Jude" (Wilson Pickett), "Day Tripper" (Otis Redding), "Got To Get You Into My Life" (Earth, Wind & Fire), "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (Al Green), "Let It Be" (Aretha Franklin again), "Come Together" (The Meters), and plenty more.
I don’t think I’m out of line in suggesting that any of these Black artists were more popular among Black audiences in the 1960s and ‘70s than the Beatles. A record label called Motown had its say on that.
Founded in 1959 in Detroit by Berry Gordy, JR, Motown released seventy-nine records that would land in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 between 1960 and 1969. The Black-owned label’s signature blend of soul and pop has widely been credited with playing a key role in the racial integration of popular music.
Throughout the twentieth century, racial integration of popular music so often began when white audiences discovered and realized they liked music pioneered and performed by Black artists. It happened with the blues. It happened with rock and roll. It happened with rap.
The integrative appeal seldom, if ever, goes from white to black. The Beatles are a case in point.
Back to the quip that opened this article about geriatrics looking for a fight, enraged that I’d suggested any band, much less N.W.A., was more influential than the Fab-Four.
I’m betting that they and any staunch defender of Beatles reading this are white. All of them.
It’s a lonely middle in the Venn diagram that holds die-hard Beatles fans in one circle and people of color in the other.
That brings us to N.W.A.
I used to think of this luminary hip-hop group from Compton as the “Black Beatles,” a nod to both their lasting influence as well as an admittance that the actual Beatles’ superiority as a cultural keystone is not to be questioned. Ever.
It’s been more than fifty years since the Beatles last released a record and more than thirty since N.W.A. released their debut, Straight Outta Compton. It’s time to reevaluate cultural eminence and rewrite history if we have to.
N.W.A. has had a MUCH bigger impact on American culture than the Beatles.
While the Beatles owned the ‘60s to the point where their domination carried over into the ‘70s despite the band’s end, their influence has waned ever since--perhaps not with fans who grew up with them (or their kids), but with everyone else.
N.W.A. didn’t enter the scene until the late 1980s and released their last record in 1991. Unlike the Beatles, however, their impact on American culture has spread since their breakup.
Naysayers will point to the sales board, where the Beatles with their 600 million albums sold have an outsized advantage over N.W.A.’s 10 million.
It’s worth noting, however, that N.W.A. was banned from mainstream American radio for their explicit lyrics critics (rightly) called misogynistic and glorifying of drugs and crime. But being denied access by the powers that be was precisely what fueled the group’s popularity–especially among suburban white audiences–and helped it build to a critical mass.
The band was born in controversy and has since relished its place in history as a popularizer of the gangsta rap sub-genre and one of the most influential hip-hop groups of all time.
N.W.A.’s career as a group was even shorter than the Beatles’. In four years from 1987 to 1991, they produced just two studio albums, Straight Outta Compton in 1988 and Niggaz4Life in 1991.
If the examination ended with the effective end of each bands’ performing careers as a single unit, the Beatles are obviously the more influential group and I should be laughed out of the room for suggesting otherwise.
But unlike the Beatles, the members of N.W.A. went on to greater success as solo artists after the demise of their band. Much greater.
If we examine that individual success and its cumulative effect, we begin to see how it has underscored popular culture–not just music, but culture–for the last 30 years and continues to do so today. See the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl for proof.
Let’s start with the musical brains behind N.W.A. and the Chief of Staff who orchestrated the collection of talent for Super Bowl LVI, Dr. Dre.
Andre Romelle Young (aka Dr. Dre) is widely considered to be the richest man in hip hop. Album sales alone didn’t get him there. Business deals that only a cultural icon who’s evolved beyond being a mere superstar with mega-endorsements from the biggest corporate brands in the world did.
Dr. Dre is the brand, a titan who’s appeared in commercials for Coors Light, Chrysler, Hewlett Packard, Dr. Pepper, and others. In that respect, he’s like a star athlete who’s transcended his own sport to gain national recognition. It’s a lucrative ascension and also one that’s fairly common in America.
What made Dr. Dre the richest man in hip hop, however, wasn’t his celebrity. It was his entrepreneurship.
In 2008, he released Beats by Dre, a brand of headphones that would prove to be wildly popular, particularly among youth who enjoyed the colorful style and low-end fidelity the headphones produced. Six years later, Apple purchased the Beats brand for $3 billion (with a “b”) dollars and hip hop had a new king atop its cash mountain.
It’s not the money but the influence Dr. Dre’s brand of headphones wielded that’s worth examining in comparing N.W.A.’s cultural impact with the Beatles.
In 2011, New York-based market research company NPD Group reported that Beats' market share was 64% in the U.S. for headphones priced higher than $100. That means, just over a decade ago more than six out of ten people in the US listening to music through headphones was doing so through technology that can be traced back to N.W.A.
Had George Harrison in the late 1980s put his solo career on hold or held off joining the Traveling Wilburys to launch a company whose primary product made America forget all about the Walkman, the Beatles might have an argument about how it was their band that made not just the music the world listened to but the experience through which they listened to it.
But they didn’t.
The surviving Beatles didn’t set their sights on entrepreneurship in the twilight of their solo careers. They made and–in the case of Paul and Ringo–continue to make music and little else, save for money. And in that category, the Beatles–living and dead–are financially untouchable and likely will remain that way. But money doesn’t buy legacy, not after death, anyway.
As a solo artist and with N.W.A, Dr. Dre has produced five total studio albums that have sold about 25 million units worldwide. Not bad, but hardly numbers worthy of musical royalty. Earlier, we mentioned four artists (Adele, Taylor Swift, Kanye, and Jay-Z) who’ve each sold three to four times as many albums as Dr. Dre.
But consider the proteges Dr. Dre has produced over the last three decades. Four of them–Snoop Dog, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar–were on stage at Super Bowl LVI.
Now we have in N.W.A something the Beatles can’t claim: cultural impact through record producing whose ripple effect has been nothing short of exponential.
That Dr. Dre has been hip-hop’s kingmaker for three decades is an understatement. The four proteges that joined him on stage at the Super Bowl have dominated the genre since the early ‘90s, racking up an estimated 300 million record sales worldwide.
Had the late Tupac Shakur not met an untimely death at the hands of a drive-by shooting in 1996, he certainly would have joined the lineup of his fellow Dre-disciples at the halftime show.
Dr. Dre and his fab four patients at the Super Bowl are far behind the Fab Four when it comes to sales. But dollars and cents aren’t the primary metrics to consider through a lens trained on influence.
Whereas the Beatles failed to play across America’s color line, N.W.A. and its legacy of spawned superstars obliterated it.
Ice Cub, the lyrical heart of N.W.A., went on to a solo career during which he’s sold over 40 million records in the US alone. But it’s Ice Cube’s movie career that’s launched the South Central LA-born lyricist into superstardom worthy of t-shirts proudly sported by present-day youth standing on the corner, waiting for the school bus–an American icon beloved by Black, white, and corporate America.
Beginning in 1991 with his acclaimed performance in the John Singleton directed Boyz n the Hood (whose title comes from a song Ice Cube wrote), Ice Cube has appeared in over 50 films. His body of work on-screen includes movies ranging from critically acclaimed dramas (Higher Learning, Three Kings), big-budgeted action (Anaconda, Ghosts of Mars), and blockbuster comedies (the Barbershop, 21 Jump Street, Are We There Yet?, and Ride Along franchises).
But the jewel in Ice Cube’s movie resume is Friday.
He co-wrote and starred alongside Chris Tucker in the 1995 comedy that was a solid hit in its first run and has since earned its place as a cultural tour-de-force of American cinema.
What’s germane to this argument is that Friday resonated and continues to tickle audiences of ALL colors and all ages. Is there another movie in the history of the art form that is as 21st-century meme-ready as Friday?
Doubtful. That’s because the movie–like great hip hop–is both accessible and poetic at the street level.
Friday won’t make hardcore cinephiles forget Citizen Kane or Laurence of Arabia. But neither will Ringo Starr’s comedic farce about prehistoric life on Earth, Caveman.
That’s not to say the Beatles didn’t make their mark and leave a lasting legacy on the silver screen.
A Hard Day’s Night, directed by Richard Lester and released just as the Beatles were beginning the American leg of their world domination campaign in 1964, serves as a time-capsule that immortalizes how the mop-top lads from Liverpool captured the imagination of their generation.
Like the Beatles’ music, this and the other films from the band’s body of movie work are staunchly defended by die-hard aficionados as tangible proof that this is the greatest group of all time.
Just like the Beatles’ music, however, you won’t find enough Black people of any age who’ve heard of these movies much less seen them to fill a phone booth. Yet Friday remains a modern classic whose lines are still quoted, even if the kids doing the quoting have never seen the original movie.
My twelve-year-old (white) daughter recently went through a bye, Felicia phase spawned by a Tik Tok trend. Google the phrase “Bye, Felicia” and it’ll spare me the words here to show just how this nearly thirty-year-old line of dialogue penned by Ice Cube sometime in the early ‘90s has become part of the modern internet’s lexicon.
Is anyone, other than big-brand advertising, quoting the Beatles back to us today?
The N.F.L . took a bit of heat from social media critics who thought the league was pandering to Black audiences when 2022's Super Bowl halftime talent lineup of Dr. Dre, Snoop, 50 Cent, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Mary J. Blige was announced.
Maybe the league was.
The N.F.L. is still reeling from those who see still see it as being on the wrong side of the Colin Kaepernick saga, and the league is currently being sued by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores who claims race played a role in his not being hired as a head coach by several teams who instead opted for white candidates.
League intentions aside, few could argue the 2022 halftime show was a hit with audiences of all colors, even if the most vocally supportive fans fell into the demographic who came of age in the 1990s.
Pop historians might recall that Paul McCartney performed at the 2005 Super Bowl. But does anyone else remember that show?
How about the one that came before it in 2004? I’ll give you a hint. It had to do with a little wardrobe malfunction involving Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson.
After McCartney, fellow ‘60s Brit invaders The Rolling Stones performed in 2006, another forgettable halftime show that left anyone under the age of sixty flipping over to the Puppy Bowl.
But I’ll bet you remember the 2007 show. It rained, which didn’t daunt Prince from taking the stage. It’s safe to say that on that Sunday, the Purple One raised the Super Bowl halftime show’s bar to heights that may never again be cleared.
Not that Super Bowls are a be-all barometer for pop-culture taste, but if the last fifteen to eighteen years offer any indication, expect future halftime show lineups to be more colorful than ‘60s rock tends to offer.
In fifty years, I’ll be ninety-five years old if I’m still here at all. The Beatles will be long dead. The members of N.W.A likely won’t be with us, either. The Stones may still be here, but their best work will be behind them. It’s then not now when whatever lines I’ve drawn in the words above will be settled.
N.W.A.–or at least its legacy and impact on the culture–will have been elevated to immortal status while the Beatles will have gone the route of Woody Guthrie.
I’ll be too old and feeble to fight anyone then, so take your shots now if the ire so moves you.
And if you’re reading this and suddenly feel compelled to Google Woody Guthrie, you just proved my point…no matter how old you are or what color your skin is.
Fred Smith is an author and screenwriter who came of age in the 1990s. His lone regret in life is that he missed the '92 Lollapalooza concert in Miami due to his family evacuating the city on the eve of Hurricane Andrew's arrival. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is available on Amazon.com and other book retailers.