By the time the first lady of Ruthless Records was in second grade, she realized her family was poor. But as a woman she struggled for more than a decade to stop blaming herself for the physical abuse she said she experienced in her relationship with Dr. Dre.
Singer Michel’le Toussaint (her first name is pronounced MEESH-uh-lay) was instrumental in Dre’s early success as a producer. She’s also the mother of his son, Marcel Young, who was born in 1991. She is absolutely part of the story of Ruthless and N.W.A. But she wasn’t part of “Straight Outta Compton,” the biopic that purports to tell the group’s story.
When she spoke to The Post Wednesday morning, Toussaint said she still hadn’t seen the film but that she’d read the first-person piece journalist Dee Barnes wrote for Gawker, which enumerated all the ways the film and its director F. Gary Gray erased the women, including Toussaint, who laid the foundation for the success of Ruthless and N.W.A. Barnes wrote that she was a “casualty of ‘Straight Outta Compton’s’ revisionist history.” Barnes sued Dre, now 50, after he assaulted her in a Los Angeles nightclub in 1991. Barnes wrote that, at the time, she thought Dre was going to kill her. He pleaded no contest to the charge, and they settled a civil suit outside of court.
“I cried, and that’s all I want to say. That’s all. I’ll leave it like that,” Toussaint said of her reaction to the piece. “I have no comments because I haven’t collected my feelings on anything.”
In an interview with Vlad TV, Toussaint noted that she was glad she wasn’t in the movie. “Why would Dre put me in it?” she asked. “If they start from where they start from, I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat up and told to sit down and shut up.”
One of the points Barnes illustrates in her piece is how the violence that Dre allegedly committed against her, Toussaint and their Ruthless label mate Tairrie B. is an extension and a direct result of the state violence that was being visited upon black men. However, she took care to emphasize that a connection was not the same as an excuse. Wrote Barnes:
Accurately articulating the frustrations of young black men being constantly harassed by the cops is at “Straight Outta Compton’s” activistic core. There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy. If the breadth of N.W.A.’s lyrical subject matter was guided by a certain logic, though, it was clearly a caustic logic.
But Toussaint’s story isn’t just a rags-to-riches narrative that went awry romantically. It’s a glimpse into how the social forces of the 1970s and ’80s influenced her life, and how those influences were shaped not just by Toussaint’s race, but by her gender. It was so clear to Toussaint growing up in a household that lived paycheck to paycheck that she had to leave South Central. Being bused to a school 30 miles away in the comparatively well-to-do neighborhood of Woodland Hills played a pivotal role in that realization. The integration of the Los Angeles Unified School District had significant, lasting implications in Toussaint’s life, ones that would ultimately span across generations.
Dre, as we see in “Straight Outta Compton,” was also swept into L.A. Unified’s integration efforts. But all the desegregation and busing in the world wasn’t going to stop the police harassment that plagued places like Compton and South Central, that rendered black parents helpless as their children were routinely stopped and frisked in street, or worse, physically assaulted by officers. These things were happening concurrently.
“I was very grateful to get that education and go over there and be part of that world,” Toussaint said. “We didn’t have 7-Elevens in the hood at that time, okay? I would go to 7-Eleven just to be part of their hood [in Woodland Hills]. … It expanded my world and let me know there was something else across the mountain. It probably broadened my horizons and made me who I am today because I knew that there was a bigger world, which is why I take my children outside of where they are. I travel with them.”
As much as school integration helped Toussaint see that there was a world beyond South Central, it took far longer for her to realize that domestic violence wasn’t normal and that she’d done nothing to deserve it. She never called the police on Dre.
“I never went to the police because –” Toussaint paused to collect herself before continuing. “Because I didn’t know any different and I thought it was a form of love and I didn’t know any better. Can I just leave it right there?”
Toussaint, now 44, is perhaps best known for her 1989 self-titled double-platinum album. To her, becoming a professional singer like Anita Baker and appearing on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” seemed like the stuff of an alternate universe.
“I wore the same jeans three times a week,” Toussaint told The Post. “I knew my mother had too many kids. It was hard. We moved in with my grandma. She said we would be there for six months. We hadn’t left after a year. I knew. I just knew.”
When she was 16 in 1986, Toussaint recorded “Turn Off the Lights” for World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Dr. Dre’s R&B group with DJ Yella which preceded N.W.A. She knew club owner and DJ Alonzo Williams, and he called her on a whim to record the song because the group’s lead female vocalist, Mona Lisa, wasn’t available. Dre produced the record.
“They were a local group at that time and when I did ‘Turn Off the Lights,’ everybody knew who they were.” Toussaint said. It received extensive radio play but at the time, Toussaint was still riding three buses to get to work. She was smart, but she possessed no knowledge of the inner workings of the music industry and she never received a penny from the song’s royalties.
Months after “Turn Off the Lights,” Toussaint and Dre began dating, but she never saw herself as much of anything besides Dre’s girlfriend until Eazy-E approached her about signing with Ruthless Records, the label he started with Jerry Heller. Dre produced her debut album, which included the single “No More Lies,” which was ostensibly about him. Their relationship wasn’t just physically abusive; Dre was a habitual cheater.
In a March interview with New York radio station Power 105, Toussaint disclosed that Dre punched her with a closed fist repeatedly, and that he had given her black eyes on at least five occasions. She said he broke her nose and left her with a cracked rib.
“I do remember when he first hit me, when he gave me my very first black eye, we laid in the bed and he cried,” Toussaint said. “He was crying, I was crying ’cause I was in shock and hurt and in pain. I don’t know why he was crying. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry’ — I think that’s the only time he said he was sorry — and he said, ‘I’ll never hit you in that eye again, okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ and we fell asleep.
“So years later, I was talking to my friend and I joked and I said ‘yeah, he said he wasn’t going to hit me in this eye ever again.'” Toussaint pointed to her left eye.
“But he started hitting me in that one.” Toussaint pointed to her right eye.
The Washington Post e-mailed inquiries seeking comment to Dr. Dre’s representatives. They have not responded.
As the nascent success of Ruthless and N.W.A began to bloom into something much larger, Heller and Dre doted on Toussaint, celebrating their good fortune. Heller, who also managed Toussaint and the other Ruthless artists, would take her shopping. He even taught her how to eat a steak.
“He took a black girl out of the ghetto,” Toussaint said. “He taught me — just me, I’m not speaking for other people — he taught me what it was like to live in a world I had never seen, where a pool was in your backyard — oh my gosh!”
There were moments when her life was like something out of a dream: Dre surprised her with a house he’d bought for them both in Calabasas, Calif.
“He closed my eyes and brought me to the house,” Toussaint said. “It was really cute, the way he did it.”
The reality of their newfound success was still so foreign, even when they were driving around in sports cars that cost north of $70,000, that when Dre revealed their new home, Toussaint couldn’t stop herself from wondering who in the world was going to keep up the house? Who was going to clean all those toilets?
“When he closed my eyes and showed me this house, I just screamed,” Toussaint said. “It was beautiful. He picked it. The first thing that came on my mind was, I said, ‘Wow. A man didn’t even let the woman pick?’ Show me the house first, you know? Maybe I don’t like this house!” Toussaint started laughing. “Maybe I don’t like this troubadour house! We had a troubadour. We had a troubadour. And I was like, maybe I don’t like troubadours. But he did, and it was fine with me.”
In retrospect, it offered a small glimpse into the more controlling aspects of Dre’s personality that, along with jealousy, usually serve as warning signs of an abusive relationship. Toussaint revealed that Dre, like many other men who commit acts of intimate partner violence, isolated her from her friends, especially if they were men.
“I think the generosity and the protectiveness was always there, but then I’ve learned that that was controlling, but I didn’t see it that way,” Toussaint told Power 105.
For Toussaint, the production and release of “Straight Outta Compton” resulted in some of the most painful memories of her life resurfacing. She was cheerful while talking about the early days of Ruthless Records, but her voice became soft and she struggled to get words out as she spoke of the uglier aspects of her relationship with the superstar music mogul.
She told The Post she finally learned she wasn’t responsible for the abuse she suffered with the help of therapy and the feedback of viewers who saw her on “R&B Divas: Los Angeles.”
“I was talking about it, and people were responding, my Twitter fans,” Toussaint said, her voice breaking audibly. “My fans started responding, and I stopped blaming myself.”