In a relatively short time, Eric Wright, known to fans and detractors alike as Eazy-E, established himself as an important figure on various fronts: the rise of “gangsta” rap, the debate over free speech, and the music business in general. He hadn’t been recording for very long and hadn’t released a great deal of music before media attention made him a name in American pop culture. As a rapper with the group N.W.A.—Niggaz with Attitude—Eazy-E was thrust to the forefront of an emerging hip-hop scene in the late 1980s. Melody Maker dubbed Eazy-E N.W.A.’s “most notorious hustler” in 1989, while Rolling Stone’s Alan Light identified the band as “the hardest of the hard core, the group that defined the brutal subgenre known as gangster rap.”
Writing for the Village Voice in 1989, Gregory Sandow reported on Eazy-E’s behind-the-scenes career as the group’s “bankroll” through his position as founder and sole owner of Ruthless Records, for which N.W.A recorded. That role and his assumption of the Comptown Records presidency in 1990 would eventually make Eazy-E, in the words of Vibe’s Kevin Powell, “one of the most successful black businesspeople of the hip hop era.”
Like his peers, Eazy-E had preceded his serious effort at a career in music with a “street” career, negotiating the gang scene in Compton, a tough neighborhood just south of Los Angeles, and selling drugs to make his living; “Eazy-E,” Sandow reported, “says that without rap he’d be in jail or dead.” That kind of background, as is the case for many rappers, gave him the material and credibility to rhyme about inner-city life in a way that won the interest and support of many rap music fans, even in the mid-1980s, before rap had gained a large mainstream following.
That “street” authenticity also characterized N.W.A., comprised of five young men—Eazy-E, Dr. Dre (Andre Young), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson), and Yella (Antoine Carraby)—who decided to perform as a group in 1986. They quickly became part of a burgeoning rap scene in Los Angeles, where a “hard core” or “gangsta” school of rap to rival that established in New York was gaining momentum.
As N.W.A.’s reputation grew, Eazy-E released a solo record, 1988’s Eazy-Duz-lt, on his Ruthless label, which he had established in 1986. Eazy-Duz-It arrived at record stores under the auspices of both Ruthless and Island Records, combining the freedom of an independent label with some major-label distribution security.
For the Record…
Born Eric Wright, September 7, in Compton, CA. With Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, M.C. Ren, and Yella, formed group N.W.A., 1986; established label Ruthless Records, 1986; produced solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It, 1988; with group, released album Straight Outta Compton, 1988, and single “F—tha Police,” 1989; pursued solo career, beginning in 1990; released EPs 5150 Home for tha Sick and It’s on (Dr. Dre) 187 um Killa, both 1993; host of Ruthless Radio show, Los Angeles, 1994.
Awards: Double-platinum album for Eazy-Duz-It.
Addresses: Record distributor —Relativity Records, 187-07 Henderson Ave., Hollis, NY 11423.
“Completely lacking in subtlety and sometimes stability,” reported Melody Maker in 1989, “‘Eazy-Duz-It’ is another highly colourful compendium of brutal stories from the war zone, from the darkened streets of Compton.” Laden with uncompromising lyrics about the brutality of gangsta life, the album quickly captured listeners’ attention and earned platinum status (one million copies sold); it would go on to double-platinum status with time.
N.W.A. made its recording debut with a single, “F—tha Police,” that garnered both the praise of an enthusiastic audience and the criticism of conservative politicians. Noting that the “one song N.W.A. seem to care most about is ‘F—tha Police,’” Sandow explained that the cut focused on “crime done against them, by police whom with bitter sarcasm the group puts on trial for the way they hassle black kinds on the street.” Political worry over the implications of the song culminated in a letter to the group from the F.B.I. in 1989.
“F— tha Police” was an accurate preview of the character of and public response to N.W.A.’s first album, Straight Outta Compton, also released in 1988 on Ruthless; it was distributed through an independent company, Priority Records, in order to ensure the quintet’s freedom of speech. The album would achieve double-platinum status and reach the Number 37 spot on the Billboard 200 chart, a remarkable feat for such a record.
Even before the release of “F—tha Police,” the band’s name had ensured a controversial entrance into the rap scene. “When we first started,” Eazy-E explained to Rolling Stone’s Light, “everybody was black this, black that, the whole positive black thing. We said f—that—we wanted to come out in everybody’s face. Something that would shock people.” Light reported that they “got the response they wanted. The group’s name set off controversy both inside and outside the rap community.”
It was violent imagery, however, that most persistently put the band in the center of ongoing debates about rap and violence. In general, N.W.A. refused to bow down to any demand that they moralize in their music; Light explained that although “N.W.A. have long been accused of glamorizing violence and hatred … they have always had a defense ready: They’re not advocating anything; they’re just reporting what they see on the streets around them.” Dee Barnes, host of Fox Television’s rap video show Pump It Up, voiced reservations about this explanation. “Their whole philosophy,” she told Light, “has been that they’re just telling stories, just reporting how it is on the streets. But they’ve started believing this whole fantasy, getting caught up in their press, and they think they’re invincible. They think they’re living their songs.”
When Florida-based right-wing anti-obscenity forces took a selection of musical works to court in 1990, Eazy-Duz-It was there, in the company of fellow rappers Ice-T and 2 Live Crew. The complainants intended to test the boundaries of anti-obscenity laws that have always been on the books in the United States, hoping that certain extremes would be deemed unacceptable. The defendants, for their part, argued that freedom of speech, or First Amendment rights, were at stake, insisting that they had the right to say—and record and sell—whatever images they liked, no matter how extreme. The Florida court, however, did not agree and on April 16 ruled Eazy-Duz-It obscene. Still, the ruling had no direct effect on the artists, since the statute extended only to what retailers sold.
Eazy-E’s status as a controversial figure took an unusual turn when he accepted an invitation to a lunch benefitting the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle hosted by President George Bush in March of 1991, a little less than a year after conservatives had deemed his music obscene in Florida. Since his presence among the right-wing politicians struck the media as somewhat absurd, the event was reported across the country over the next 24 hours.
Not surprisingly, Eazy-E found it necessary to explain in a brief television interview that his invitation was the result of a $2,500 campaign contribution, which he had made to a Republican politician who stood against censorship. Although this made the point that freedom of speech debates cut through party lines, the rapper’s appearance among the Republican powers still left many of his fans ill at ease, since Bush’s economic policies generally were not seen to be promoting the welfare of inner-city African-Americans. When Eazy-E spoke with Light about the incident that year, he denied any allegiance to the G.O.P. “How the f—can I be a Republican when I got a song called ‘F—tha Police’?” he asked. “I ain’t shit—ain’t a Republican or Democrat. I didn’t even vote. My vote ain’t going to help! I don’t give a f—who’s the president.”
When African-American motorist Rodney King was beaten by police in Los Angeles that April, the beating was caught on videotape and played on television around the country; many viewers came to the conclusion that the beating was not only unnecessary, but also prompted by racism. Eazy-E responded in the same vein, seeing the incident as another example of the police brutality that the N.W.A. single “F— tha Police” had protested in 1988. “We were criticized a lot when we first released that song,” he told Melody Maker in 1991. “But I guess now after what happened to Rodney King, people might look differently on the situation.”
Interest in the song was revitalized, especially when Eazy-E began talking about the possibility of not only rerecording and rereleasing the cut, but of doing so with Rodney King. The controversy also did nothing to harm the popularity and sales of the second full-length N.W.A. release, Efil4zaggin. Rolling Stone noted that by August of 1991, it had become the best-selling album in the country after claiming the Number One spot on the Bill board 200, making it a striking crossover success. Rolling Stone also pointed out that the album did so “without a single, a video or even a track suitable for radio play.” Within two weeks, a million copies had moved out of record stores.
In 1992 when a largely white jury in conservative Simi Valley, outside of Los Angeles, dismissed charges against the officers who had beaten Rodney King, black communities in the city responded with rage, leading to the largest riots to shake an American metropolis in decades. As had been the case with the beating itself, this marker of the conditions created by racism revived enthusiasm for N.W.A.’s music; Straight Outta Compton blasted over the airwaves once again, breaking into the Top 20 on the Billboard charts.
Not surprisingly, reporters sought Eazy-E’s response to the violence. “I’m not surprised this happened at all,” he told Melody Maker in 1992. “I knew it was coming. I really think this is just the start of things.… It was stupid to burn down our own neighborhoods though. They shoulda taken their asses to Simi Valley and destroyed stuff there.” His position as a representative voice of the black community in Los Angeles was shaken, however, in the spring of 1993, when he appeared to be acting in support of Theodore Briseno, one of the officers charged with beating King. David Thigpen, writing for Rolling Stone in 1993, reported that other high-profile rappers were “baffled” by this behavior and even perceived Eazy-E as a “sell-out.”
The impact of Ice Cube’s departure from N.W.A.—he left to pursue a solo career in 1990—caught up with the group in 1991, when the music press began to focus on increasingly entrenched bad feeling between N.W.A. and Eazy-E, much of it the result of questionable financial dealings on behalf of the latter. When Fox Television ran a segment about the conflict on Pump It Up late in 1990, all rappers involved felt that the piece smeared their reputations.
Consequently, when Dr. Dre encountered Pump It Up host Dee Barnes at a public event in January, 1991, he attacked his erstwhile friend, kicking and punching her and throwing her against a concrete wall. Barnes charged Dre with assault—to which he plead no contest—and charged Eazy-E, MC Ren, and Yella with libel, allegedly the result of comments they had made to the press asserting that she “deserved it,” in Ren’s words. The cases would drag on through 1993, exacerbating the group’s already shaky reputation with women both inside and outside the black community.
Like several other all-male rap groups, N.W.A.—and Eazy-E in particular—had come under fire from the beginning for the portrayal of women in their lyrics. Critics pointed out that their lyrics not only portrayed women exclusively as sex objects, but that they often glorified violence against women. Light, for example, argued that “the second half of [Efil4zaggin] —which includes such tracks as ‘To Kill a Hooker,’ ‘Findum, F—um and Flee’ and ‘One Less Bitch’—stands as a graphic, violent suite of misogyny unparalleled in rap.”
After Dre’s assault on Barnes, it was not hard to see a connection between the lyrics and this incident; Barnes, talking with Light, explained her perspective thus: “Now it’s bigger than just me—one individual—getting slapped around. It’s a campaign of them with a Number One album calling for violence against women. They’ve grown up with the mentality that it’s okay to hit women, especially black women. Now there’s a lot of kids listening and thinking it’s okay to hit women.”
But by 1993, N.W.A. was a group in name only. Eazy-E and Dre were both leading successful solo careers, though Dre’s success was a source of distress for Eazy-E. When Dre embarked on a solo career in 1991, he did so outside the auspices of Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records; by late summer, Eazy-E had charged his former friend with breach of contract, claiming that his products and talents were still the property of Ruthless Records. The litigation would drag on for years, rife with suits and countersuits. In the meantime, Ruthless continued to grow: the independent label signed a distribution deal with Sony-Relativity in 1993, harnessing major-label skill and dollars to promote Ruthless artists.
Eventually, the conflict with Dre began to effect Eazy-E’s reputation as a solo artist. While his 1992 EP, 5150 Home 4 tha Sick, would do well, a projected full-length project called Temporary Insanity appeared to be shelved indefinitely. He became a figure of ridicule when Dre’s wildly popular video for the song “Dre Day”—that single a highlight of Dre’s multiplatinum release The Chronic —lampooned him as “Sleazy-E,” complete with a look-alike actor who saw the clip out with a side-of-the-road sign reading “Will rap for food.”
When Eazy-E unveiled a disc in October of 1993, it was not the full-length album fans had anticipated. The title, It’s on (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa— the numbers 187 street slang for a gang-style killing—inspired reviewers to approach it with a grain of salt, despite its debut in Billboard at Number Five. It appeared, as Kevin Powell noted, to be “a thinly veiled obsession with the life and career” of Dr. Dre. A reviewer writing for the Source in December remarked that Eazy-E “comes up with a trunkload of half-hearted mediocrity. Perhaps realizing that without Dre behind the mixing board and the rest of the crew leading him along, many people wouldn’t be interested in hearing him drop lyrics for a whole record.”
Continuing in the same vein, the reviewer sensed that Eazy-E was “having a hard time staying on beat nowadays, and his delivery—which was once passionate, unique and endearing—now sounds like the last gasps of a defeated man just going through the motions.” Powell concluded his Vibe review similarly, asking, “Is there a more reviled name in hip hop than that of Eazy-E?” He went on to answer his own question: “The breakup of N.W.A. … and resultant attacks on wax from his former cronies, along with Eazy’s ongoing legal battles with Dr. Dre and Dre’s own stunning success …, have made the once infallible Eazy look meek, defeated, even ridiculous.” These jibes notwithstanding, few in the record industry, not to mention his fans, believed that Easy-E was down for the count. The rap singer was planning to release a double CD containing 40 tracks in the fall of 1994.
Eazy-Duz-It, Ruthless, 1988.
5150 Home for tha Sick (EP), Ruthless, 1992.
It’s on (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa (EP), Ruthless, 1993.
N.W.A. and the Posse (EP), Ruthless, 1988.
Straight Outta Compton (includes “F— tha Police”), Ruthless, 1988.
100 Miles and Runnin’ (EP), Ruthless, 1990.
Efil4zaggin (includes “To Kill a Hooker,” “Findum, F—um and Flee,” and “One Less Bitch”), Ruthless, 1991.
Billboard, April 28, 1990; September 7, 1991; January 25, 1992; October 24, 1992; January 30, 1993; February 13, 1993; August 28, 1993; November 13, 1993.
Daily Variety, July 19, 1993.
Melody Maker, September 23, 1989; March 30, 1991; May 23, 1992; October 31, 1992.
Rolling Stone, August 8, 1991; May 27, 1993.
Source, June 1993; December 1993.
Vibe, December 1993.
Village Voice, April 4, 1989; April 2, 1991.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
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