Eternal E: Remembering Eazy-E’s Massive Contributions 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
Eazy-E, who was only 31 when he died 20 years ago today (March 26, 1995), was considered one (if not the) progenitor of West Coast Gangsta Rap. As a record label executive, he established a blueprint for future young, Black entrepreneurs. As a member of N.W.A., he helped lend a voice to the disparagement felt by countless Black (and Brown) youths in Los Angeles, California (and across the country). And as a victim of H.I.V., he brought the reality of the disease and its disproportionate presence in communities of color to the forefront of Black American consciousness.
Born and raised in Compton, California, Eric Wright showed a predisposition towards self-reliance at an early age. Dropping out of high school his sophomore year, Eazy began pursuing the lucrative benefits of selling drugs, eventually parlaying his auspicious earnings into a Rap career. Ruthless Records was born in 1986, five years before Death Row appeared on the Los Angeles Rap scene. Eazy was only 22 years old when he added record label executive to his resume, a fact made even more astounding by his refusal to split half of the company with friend, business partner and music industry vet, Jerry Heller. When the ink dried, Eazy commanded an overwhelming 80% of profits, cementing forever his legacy as a savvy businessman who could hang with his white counterparts at other Rap labels.
1987 proved to be a landmark year for West Cost Rap, quite literally. The release of “Boyz-N-The-Hood” placed Compton on the proverbial map, quickly making it the headquarters for what was proving to be the next hotbed of popular Rap music. Written by Ice Cube, the song was originally intended for H.B.O., a local crew signed to Ruthless. However, in what is arguably one of the greatest blunders in Rap history, the group rejected it and the song became the vehicle not only for Eazy’s solo career, but also an informal introduction to N.W.A. The group would follow in the footsteps of acts like Uncle Jamm’s Army, Captain Rapp, and Mixmaster Spade who embraced the omnipresent funk influence in Los Angeles and reformatted it into something entirely different.
Entirely. By the end of 1988, N.W.A. was the most important Rap group in the world, creating the soundtrack for the disenfranchised through seminal tracks like “Fuck Tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton.” Never before had a Rap group made White America as uncomfortable, earning the conspicuous attention of senators and the near total blacklisting from radio stations. As the group’s curator, Eazy handpicked members Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and (later on) MC Ren and in so doing, orchestrated a confluence of raw social commentary on a level not heard since. While other members are rightfully given credit for the production and songwriting, Eazy-E’s contribution to the legacy of the West Coast sound cannot be denied.
In a remarkable one, two punch, Eazy’s solo debut was released less than a month after N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. A sign of his impressive business acumen, the decision to release Eazy-Duz-It so soon made it impossible to ignore his presence, both behind and on the mic. The album was, in essence, an N.W.A. project; Ice Cube, MC Ren, and The D.O.C. played huge roles in the production and writing of the album. Nevertheless, Eazy-Duz-It created a decidedly distinct persona. Eazy-E the rapper was more braggadocious, humorous, and misogynistic than his band mates and while many critics opined that the album was merely an example of a caricatured rapper playing a role constructed by others, it went double platinum. His decidedly anti-gangsta sounding voice coupled with his diminutive stature made him an anti-hero, but the lyrical content made it clear he didn’t give a fuck.
After the departure of Ice Cube in 1989, Eazy-E was now embroiled in a contentious atmosphere in Compton’s Rap scene. He navigated his group through its very public beef with Cube, which included “100 Miles And Runnin,’” a track lambasting Cube lyrically and visually, in its accompanying video. Shortly thereafter, he set the stage for Dr. Dre’s true arrival as the godfather of G-Funk. It was N.W.A.’s second full-length project, Niggaz4life, which Rap historians consider to be the earliest example of what would prove to be the future of L.A.’s aural contributions to the genre. The fruition of Dr. Dre as a producer while on the Ruthless Records roster was a fact not short on irony; by 1991 Dre and Eazy were bitter rivals, and the rise of Death Row was imminent.
Bad blood and mud-slinging continued throughout the early ’90s, effectively tarnishing Eazy’s image and diminishing his role in cultivation of Los Angeles as a bastion for progressive, authentic Rap music. Death Row’s rise to prominence, thanks to albums like The Chronic and artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg, seem to have had a direct effect on his legacy, and he is often left out of discussions about the most prominent play-makers in Rap.
His legacy was further harmed when it was announced he was suffering from AIDS, a disease which was most often associated with homosexuals and treated as a totally taboo topic in most communities of color. As evidenced in many of his lyrics, Eazy’s sexual promiscuity was not a secret, leading to his fathering seven children by six different women. Twenty years after his death, it is safe to say he is the most prominent African-American musician to have died of the disease, and his bravery in making the disease public should be celebrated more openly. The disease, which continues to disproportionately affect Black and Brown people, took the life of a man who, despite his faults, spoke on behalf of millions of Americans. It is heart-wrenching to imagine the power Eazy-E could have lent to the AIDS awareness and prevention movement had he been diagnosed earlier. Only one month after announcing his diagnosis, he passed away.
With the impending release of the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, there is no doubt Eazy-E’s presence will remain prevalent in American popular culture. And, as Eazy’s star post-N.W.A. protégés Bone Thugs-n-Harmony reminded us, he’s waiting at the crossroads, where he’s most likely crusin’ down the street in his ’64.
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt