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USA Today

10/17/96 - 05:36 PM ET


Street rapper still a riddle after his death
Eazy-E was never an easy study. Revered and reviled in and out of rap circles, the late rapper built an empire rife with controversy and contradictions that continue to reverberate 10 months after his death.

He was a humanitarian with an insatiable lust for money, a scrappy ghetto hustler who hobnobbed with Republicans, a cop-hater who supported a defendant in the Rodney King beating trial.

Rap entrepreneur Eric "Eazy-E" Wright was 31 when he died of AIDS March 26, 1995, 10 days after shocking the music world with news of his condition. As founder of the gangsta rap group N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude), he helped revolutionize rap with the violence-spattered 1989 album Straight Outta Compton.

His legend lives on, but it's unlikely Eazy is resting in peace, with legal challenges to his deathbed decision to marry pregnant lover Tomika Woods and make her co-executor of his estate. Two other women who claim to have borne him children (he had seven by six women) also sued.

Str8 Off the Streetz of Muthaph***in' Compton, a new album of songs recorded during the four years before his death, is on Ruthless Records, the profitable independent label he launched in 1987 with proceeds from theft and dope dealing.

Survivors of N.W.A, defunct since 1991, said this week that they are reuniting for an album. The group's bitter split spawned the solo careers of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and M.C. Ren. Yella's solo debut, One Mo' Nigga to Go, is due in March.

"It won't be the same without Eazy, but it's not like he's still alive and we're trying to do this without him," says M.C. Ren. "You got a million N.W.A clones. Only a few got their own flavor. We need a new N.W.A album to set everyone back on the right track of being creative."

Eazy's contributions - as a rap innovator or hero in the war on AIDS - are a matter of continuing debate. Commercially, he remains a heavyweight. His album is expected to measure up to its predecessor, 1993's It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, which sold 2 million copies. First single Just Tah Let U Know, is No. 4 and climbing on Billboard's rap singles chart. Str8 Off the Streetz explores gangsta rap's familiar terrain in tales of misogyny and mayhem liberally punctuated with the n-word and f-word.

"He didn't change his style," says Yella, the album's associate producer. "He stayed the same from beginning to end, with nothing watered down. Everyone will remember him as a pioneer, like a guy stepping on Plymouth Rock. He showed you could come from nothing, start a company and sell millions of records. He made history."

Credited for business savvy, Eazy is less acclaimed artistically, though his reputation is taking on a posthumous sheen. He was regarded as less gifted than Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. A sharp talent scout, Eazy signed Cleveland's Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, 1995's hottest-selling rap group.

"Eazy basically added to the marketability of rap music," says Allen S. Gordon, writer for rap magazine The Source. "He brought it to the mainstream without radio play or promotion, and he opened doors so a lot of brothers from Compton and South Central could vocalize their experiences on record."

Gordon first encountered the short, Jheri-curled Eazy in 1986, when the rapper was selling tapes out of his trunk in Oakland. Years later at a rap conference, he again approached Eazy, who gave Gordon $700 toward his college tuition.

Eazy's generosity, especially toward children, was legendary. A portion of proceeds from his recent retrospective, eternal-E, goes to a pediatric AIDS charity. His dying request was for a safe sex campaign targeting black youth, which prompted Motown chairman Andre Harrell to establish the fund-raising Urban Aid 4 LIFEbeat. In disclosing his illness, Eazy said, "I would like to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys and their kin."

"Eazy was more accessible to black kids than a Magic Johnson or Arthur Ashe," says Gordon, 25. "Ashe retired when I was in kindergarten. So Eazy hit home, though I'm not sure kids are being careful."

Eazy's wake-up call, which included a pointed reference to unprotected heterosexual sex as the origin of his HIV infection, "was less altruistic than it could have been," says Bill Adler, rap author and president of Mercury's new spoken word label, Mouth Almighty. "If you look at what he had to say, he was very careful to protect his macho image. He basically said, 'I'm dying of AIDS but don't think I'm a faggot.' It's a shame that he couldn't make a statement without worrying about the reputation of his sexuality. But I still think it was a brave thing for him to do."

Adler's praise for N.W.A is effusive. And selective.

"I give N.W.A all the props in the world, but the auteurs were Dre and Cube," he says. "N.W.A was unquestionably the first group to command respect for West Coast rap. It was urgent and artful and sent rap in new directions.

"Their records were like the great concept albums of the '60s, designed in absolute genius fashion. Cube and Dre created a cinematic texture to rap that had never been there before, like the most vivid blaxploitation films. Maybe it's no accident that it happened within shouting distance of Hollywood."

N.W.A's vengeful F*** tha Police inflamed parents, politicians and even the FBI, which claimed the song incited violence against police. Eazy drew heat from his peers when he attended a Republican inner-circle luncheon in 1991 and supported Theodore Briseno, charged in the Rodney King beating, in 1993. Eazy's response to charges of hypocrisy: Lavish donations to L.A. causes earned him an invite to the right-wing shindig, which he saw as a hoot. Briseno tried to stop the brutality.

His image wasn't helped by a feud with Dr. Dre, who dissed Eazy on The Chronic. Eazy retaliated on 187um Killa and again on a Str8 track, Wut Would You Do, recorded before last year's fence-mending.

"All the wounds are healed," says M.C. Ren, who appears on Eazy's tune The Muthaph***in' Real and will release his third solo effort, The Villain in Black, on Ruthless.

The rekindled ties led to the reunion talk. Eazy was the catalyst then and now.

"He was first, before all of us," says Ren, whom Eazy recruited from high school in 1987. "He had a record on the street and his own label. That changed everything. He hyped us up to want to make street records."

Ren's admiration extends beyond Eazy's entrepreneurial smarts.

"Back then, rap was only New York groups with big strong voices. Eazy wasn't like the typical B-boy. He had a distinct, little laidback voice and nobody could copy it."

Regardless of how his fans or detractors perceive him, Eazy's closest friends remember him fondly. Pal M.C. Hammer's current album includes the touching Nothing But Love (A Song for Eazy).

"Eazy was the most caring person in the world," says Yella. "That's why I never turned my back on him. I was always there, till the day I put dirt on him." Yella dedicated his upcoming album to Eazy.

"N.W.A was real," Yella says. "We weren't talking about fairy tales. We talked about life in Compton. That's all we knew. But there's a thousand Comptons all over the nation."

Eazy himself was satisfied to have aimed a spotlight on the mean streets of L.A.'s long-ignored ghetto. On The Muthaph***in' Real, he raps, "It's a fact, to be exact. My tombstone should read: He put Compton on the map."

By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY

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