September 7, 2013 marks what would have been the 50th birthday of the rapper and first true hip hop mogul Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Of course, by the time Eazy-E found fame, hip hop was well established and well understood to be generally a New York City based art form. However there was a burgeoning hip hop scene in LA featuring the likes of dance-based acts like Egyptian Lover, Arabian Prince (who would have a short stint with N.W.A and even appeared on the cover of Straight Outta Compton), and the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, which featured future N.W.A. Members Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, albeit significantly less gangsta.
While Dr. Dre, who would become the poster child for ‘Gangsta Rap’ was wearing mascara, lip stick, and sequins dresses, Eazy-E was trying to figure out how to leave the crack game in favor of the rap game, and the rest is history.
Building Ruthless Records from the ground up with the fabled $250,000 saved from selling drugs, he released his first album Eazy Duz It in 1988, eight years to the day before the death of Tupac Shakur. It became notorious for its vulgarity, rampant profanity and colorful street tales detailing violence, drugs, and sex. This format continued with the game changing Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A., which featured the legendary hits “Fuck The Police”, “Express Yourself” and the title track whose video was banned from MTV at the time and not played on the channel until a hip hop retrospective program in 1999 some ten years later.
Straight Outta Compton scared the hell out of middle America, intrigued scores of white youths curious about black urban culture often withheld from their view for fear of corruption and caused the FBI to send them a letter denouncing the song “Fuck the Police” as responsible for the deaths of police officers across the nation.
Eazy-E was at the helm of a massively growing empire that completely changed the landscape of not only hip hop but the entirety of music leading to the more graphic lyrical and visual content of music in the early 90′s. Ruthless Records was beginning to release other acts like the rap group Above the Law, The D.O.C, and JJ Fad (known for their hit Supersonic – ironically produced by former N.W.A member Arabian Prince). R&B artists Michel’le and Po’ Broke & Lonely?
Ice Cube left N.W.A and the label almost immediately after Straight Outta Compton’s release and eventually released a scathing diss to the group called “No Vaseline” on his sophomore album Death Certificate. This greatly harmed their (and his) image and credibility. The D.O.C suffered irreparable damage to his vocal chords after a tragic car accident shortly after his debut No One Can Do It Better. Then Dr. Dre left to form Death Row Records with N.W.A admidst financial disputes, taking the label’s best selling acts Michel’le and The D.O.C. with him.
Dre released the massively success album The Chronic, which featured one of the most incendiary disses ever released in hip hop called “Fuck Wit’ Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)”, the video of which featured a demeaning caricature of Eazy (Sleazy-E), depicted him as a sell out whose career was waning.
It also had a caricature of Eazy’s long time manager Jerry Heller, whose presence was long the source of tension between the group and who was depicted as a puppeteer of Eazy-E while the rest of the group suffered. Mr. Heller continues to celebrate and promote Eazy’s memory despite continued opposition from rappers in the industry. Some conspiracy theories say he is responsible for Eazy’s illness and death as an act of retaliation for being fired from the label. Though I’m sure that was an uneasy situation, I don’t believe this conspiracy theory for one second but what do I know?
Eazy-E soldiered on but never fully recovered from the harm done to his image, though he did release the equally scathing “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’z”, portraying Dr. Dre as a “studio gangsta” whose true nature was the androgynous fashion of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. He released an EP aimed at Dre and Death Row called It On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, which had mild success but no where near that of the more radio friendly and musically savvy The Chronic.
During this time, Eazy-E experimented with a lot of different styles of hip hop, releasing acts like Blood of Abraham, which featured two white, Jewish MC’s (during a time when hip hop commonly included anti-Semitic sentiments), the white female MC Tairrie B who would later go on to front the band My Ruin and a conscious hip hop group called A.T.B.A.N. Klann, which featured the rappers Will 1x (aka Will.i.am) and apl.de.ap who would go on to form Black Eyed Peas after Eazy’s death.
His final major accomplishment as a label owner was the release of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who hold a very special place in my heart in that I found the motivation to start making my own music after first hearing them and being blown away back in 95. Eazy-E’s death would be the primary subject of their biggest hit, “Tha Crossroads”.
An inner city hustler who statistically should have been dead (before his success) or in jail, instead was the catalyst for a paradigm shift in freedom of expression in music. He is often described as a visionary who had a profound gift for spotting talent and helping them realize their potential. His charity work led him to being a guest at a $1500 a plate Republican Luncheon at the White House; a guest of then president George H.W. Bush, which caused much controversy among politicians and the hip hop community alike. Haters gonna hate.
His impact resonates throughout the industry to this day in ways that people don’t even realize because he never seems to get the credit he deserves for the way he changed the game. He was in the process of finishing what would have been the very first double LP in rap, his comeback album Straight Off the Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton (this accolade accomplished a year after his death by 2pac with All Eyez On Me in 96, followed by Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, Puff Daddy’s No Way Out, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s The Art of War - all in 97). His death remains shrouded In as much controversy as his career. He died of AIDS at the age of 31 on March 26, 1995.
Those who are close to him remain unsatisfied with this explanation due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his illness and death. That he simply died of AIDS from irresponsible sex practices is corroborated in part by his often sexually explicit lyrics, the fact that he had 7 children with more on the way at the time of his death – and an eerie excerpt from an interview on the Howard Stern Show in late 93 where he boasted of having unprotected sex and when asked about fearing contracting AIDS, responded that the women he “messed with were clean because if they would’ve had it, he would’ve had it” himself. There is a video on youtube of rival CEO Suge Knight from Death Row Records speaking of an execution style that involves injecting someone with the blood of an AIDS patient, adding “like an Eazy-E thang”. Sigh.
Along with Eazy-E died the experimental creativity in mainstream rap, constantly challenging the standard and adding new elements typically not seen before. These innovations were often immediately duplicated, usually without citing Eazy as an influence.
The imagery of Ruthless Records releases showed an interest in dark arts but with an urban edge, especially in that of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and some of his later material like “Sorry Louie” from the posthumous release of the incomplete Straight Off the Streetz of Muthaphukkin’ Compton. After his death, the hip hop industry immediately gave way to indiscriminate commercialism with emphasis on material gains, wealth and the gradual push towards more radio friendly sounds – even if the content was still explicit.
I write this with the hope of getting at least a few people to look deeper into this man and understand the full scope of his contributions to modern music and art. Without him there might not be the common standard of rappers who also own labels.
There might not be massively popular crossover dance hits by Fergie had Will.i.am and apl.de.ap never experienced early exposure to the industry as ATBAN Klann. There might have never the Friday movies had O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson chosen to stay at the Phoenix Institute of Technology instead of sticking with N.W.A. Hell, if it wasn’t for Eazy-E, there would definitely be no Beats headphones, none of the many massive hits Dre is responsible for or the artists that he groomed – including Snoop Dogg or the song “California Love” by 2pac.
The fact that Dre’s recent video from “I Need A Doctor” ends with Dre meditating upon E’s grave, shows that he knows to whom he owes much of his success. Without Eazy-E much of what shaped the hip hop industry into what it is today simply would have never seen the light of day.
While people tend to default to 2pac and Biggie as the major contributors and losses of the 90′s, in all honesty, they might not have had the chance to express themselves the way they did if not for the way that Eazy-E paved.
So Happy Birthday Eric Wright. This writer will always cherish your legacy and try his best to spread it and share it in anyway that he can. Rest in peace!
Eazy-E’s 50th birthday is also being commemorated with the release of the DVD of part 2 of the documentary Ruthless Memories: Preserving the Life and Legacy of Eric (Eazy-E) Wright. The documentary is over 3 hours long and part 1 is already available for purchase. It is produced by Ruthless Propaganda and features interviews with people who knew him personally and worked with him.
The director/producer is a long time fan of Eazy-E and went through much painstaking work and research to make this. Any fan of Eazy-E who find themselves dissatisfied with the lack of resources and detailed information about him online or elsewhere would do themselves a great service to purchase both parts. Cheers!