efore Death Row, Bad Boy or even Roc-A-Fella there was Ruthless Records; the empire that Eazy-E built.
In a generation that at times seem to forget everyone not named Pac or Biggie, even 20 years after his death the legacy left by the N.W.A front man refuses to be ignored. Rising from the streets of Compton via a crew once named the “World’s Most Dangerous Group,” Eazy would transition from crack dealer to rap entrepreneur. Responsible for ushering in what would later be titled Gangster Rap, he stands apart for being one of the first to combine showmanship with a raw form of Hip Hop.
The California native dropped out of high school in the 10th grade in order to help support his family via the the drug game that first exploded along the West and East Coast. It was the 1980s, a period that New Jack City character Nino Brown famously described as the “You gotta rob to get rich in the Reagan era.” He would later use these funds to found the label, successfully transitioning from artist to music mogul. For him it was a business and he would lay down the early blueprint for those looking to do more than just rap.
He will never be heralded as a great lyricist, as it’s well known that fellow members Ice Cube, MC Ren and Dr. Dre all had a hand in crafting his rhymes, yet it was his sheer charisma and brutal honesty on the mic that made tracks like “Boyz N’ Tha Hood” classics in their own right. They were the West Coast answer to Public Enemy, as their unapologetic portrayal of police brutality, gang culture and more helped introduce mainstream America to regions of society often ignored.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1989 Eazy explained. “We’re telling the real story of what it’s like living in places like Compton.” He added, “We’re giving them reality. We’re like reporters. We give them the truth. People where we come from hear so many lies that the truth stands out like a sore thumb.”
Collectively they would release 1987’s N.W.A. and the Posse, the iconic Straight Outta Compton followed by 100 Miles and Runnin’ and Niggaz4Life before officially disbanding. Eventually the music would take a backseat as a rift with manager Jerry Heller, money mismanagement and contract disputes became a driving factor behind Cube and later Dr. Dre’s exit, causing a bitter feud to ensue. A walking contradiction, he would be criticized as he went from screaming “Fuck tha police” to later attending a fundraising event held for President George H.W. Bush.
But just four years after Lakers legend Magic Johnson revealed that he was HIV positive, Eazy would announce to the world that he too had contracted the deadly disease which by then had transitioned into full-blown AIDS. Like Johnson, he would assist in erasing the myth that HIV was a “gay disease.”The era of carefree sex and abandonment was officially over, as he became the first figure in Hip Hop to be diagnosed with the devastating virus. Well known for his love of women, he didn’t know who he had caught the disease from and by then it did not matter, as he lay dying inside of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after being admitted with what he thought was asthma.
At just 31-years-old the man born Eric Wright died on March 26, 1995, however his contributions to the industry cannot be erased. Having made peace before his death, members like Dre and Cube would go on to find global success that no one could have imagined possible for a group of kids from the hood. Today artists like The Game and Kendrick Lamar have continued this legacy, yet it remains clear that Eazy first led the way.
As Ice Cube prepares to deliver a biopic of the group their tale will soon be immortalized via film. For all of his flaws, there is still much to be learned from the man often cited as “The Grandfather of Gangster Rap.” He helped shift the focus from lighthearted party tracks to the ugly reality of life in Compton, something that resonated with fans all over. In time perhaps, his true legacy will step out of the shadow of the unforgiving disease that claimed his life.
Rare footage of Eazy-E:
Official Video: “Boyz N’ Tha Hood”