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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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