POP MUSIC / West Side story: the final rap: Fawesome wasn't there: he got shot. But Gangsta R?dd was, and Cobra. Andy Gill ate out with the gangsta-rapping Boo-Yaas

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To lunch with the Boo- Yaa Tribe - well, two of them, anyway, which rather stymies my initial idea of taking the entire Tribe to one of those eateries which offer all you can eat for a fiver, just to see the manager's jaw drop. The gangsta-rapping Boo-Yaas, you see, are quite enormous, in the sumo-wrestler sense of enormous, and there are six of them, massive Samoan-American brothers who could easily be the end result of an attempt to breed an entire American football offensive line. The youngest of the Tribe, according to elder brother and lead rapper Gangsta R?dd (short for Riddler), is known as 'Fawesome', code for 400lbs (around 28 stone); even in high school, he was called 'Trey-Hun', being already up to 300lbs.

But the 6ft 4in Fawesome isn't here right now. For good reason: he got shot, an everyday hazard of the rap life in Los Angeles, where Samoans are simply too big to slip between the cracks of black and Mexican gang wars.

'He survived the shooting,' reports Gangsta R?dd. 'The doctors said his size saved his life, 'cos the bullet didn't reach into the main parts. This is a .45 at close range] That's the life we live, that's what we mean by survival.'

As his brother Cobra, who organises the Tribe's backing samples, tackles a burger, R?dd goes one-on-one with a steak. Up against a bona fide gangsta, the steak has no chance.

The gangsta life, for the Boo-Yaas, is a family thing, the result of sibling respect in the Devoux family - R?dd acknowledges that if his eldest brother had been into sports rather than gangs, the rest of the brothers would probably have followed suit. Their choice, however, rather contradicts the usual cosy sociological explanations of gang membership, which point to the absence of male parental role-models in the home: the Boo-Yaas' father was a church minister, though one whose lessons sometimes took strange forms. 'He just gave us instruments and told us to play for God, that's basically how we got our music,' relates R?dd. 'If we played a radio in the house, that was, like, a worldly thing, so he would break the radio. So we would get the instruments we had and try to duplicate it, just play in the garage.'

The attractions of gang life, however, proved stronger than their father's strictures, and soon the Devoux brothers were running with the Crips and the Bloods. 'We were in a gang called the West Side Piru,' explains R?dd. 'Piru's a Blood gang, with the red rags. The media, movies, blew the colours thing up, saying, 'Oh, they die for red or blue.' That ain't it. Gangs is your second friend - if you don't find love at home, you're going to find it in the streets from your homeboys. People ask, 'Why you want to be in a gang, Gangsta R?dd?' You know why? Because that's freedom to us, to do what we want to do. My gang makes me feel free.'

R?dd abhors what he sees as the misrepresentation of gang life according to movies like Colors and Boyz N the Hood. 'If we do a gang movie, we're going to show what's really going on,' he says. 'Starts at home, man - you go out the house and there's guys on the corner smoking weed, you just learn off that; but they don't show all that, they go straight to the 'Yeah, he's one of the red rags, bam-bam-bam]' '

'And another thing,' he continues, on a more personal level, 'they always show the blue guys killing all the red rags] Now you know who Ice Cube and all them used to hang out with - they used to be affiliated to the Crips, the blue rags, so in all their movies it's the guys with the red rags getting it] My homies be going, 'Fuck that movie, man, they showed us getting killed all the time]' '

As Bloods, R?dd and his brothers are very much in the minority in LA, where Crips outnumber them by an estimated 10 to one; this, he claims, is why Crip gangs are now shooting each other - there's simply too many of them, and too few Bloods. The sheer homicidal craziness of all this, however, is complicated in the Boo-Yaa Tribe, where filial loyalties once collided with gang loyalties.

'See, in Boo-Yaa, we got two guys, Roscoe and Compton Giz, they're from the Park Village Crips, a Samoan Crip gang in Compton - and all the rest of the Tribe, we all affiliated with the Bloods. But we all put our rags down when we wanted to make the Boo-Yaa Tribe.' If the Stop the Violence rap movement needed a slogan, this would be perfect: Put Down the Rag]

In the Boo-Yaas' case, of course, putting down the rag was made easier by the shooting of brother Fawesome, after which the whole crew upped and emigrated to Japan to make money rapping while the yen was bullish. On returning, they signed to Island, who put out the New Funky Nation album - a super-heavy slab of gangsta funk-metal-rap - in 1990, but rejected the follow-up, Good Times, Bad Times, despite an all-star guest-list that included Ice-T, Ice Cube, Living Colour and the funk pioneers George Clinton and Sly Stone. Island was at that point merging with Phonogram, and the Tribe was simply economised off the label. Then again, Island might have baulked at releasing a track called 'Millions of Dead Cops'. 'If Ice-T had never given up 'Cop Killer',' notes R?dd ruefully, 'a lot of rappers would still be going. But when he gave that up, that gave the labels the power to make everyone else take songs off their albums.'

As with most other hardcore rappers, R?dd views the censorious approach to rap as a race and class thing, rich people wanting to deny young blacks the opportunity for showbiz riches. He enjoyed the aftermath of the LA earthquake, because while the freeways were closed, the rich people had to drive through the black neighbourhoods to get to work and finally saw the conditions the underclass is forced to endure.

'They're making music a curtain to block out what they're doing,' he claims. 'First it was metal that was the curtain, then it was punk rock, now it's rap. But they don't look at the real problem, they'd rather arrest people who sell records. When you go purchase a gun, it don't have a warning sticker on the gun - but when you go buy a hardcore rap tape, it says 'Explicit Lyrics'. Come on, man]'

Now the Tribe are back again on a new label with their third album, Doomsday, which is twice as heavy as their debut, and looks set fair to hoist them belatedly up the gangsta-rap tree. 'We sat back for three years, getting tired of other people getting paid for things we did,' says R?dd, who's more than ready for his payback. 'It ain't gonna change me. I could have a million dollars in my pocket, but if I go in a store and see a candy bar, I'll still put it in my pocket and steal it, because that's how I am] It'll never leave me - you can leave the ghetto, but the ghetto never leaves you.'

(Photograph omitted)