For Eazy-E, the concept of gangsta rap was fully formed in his mind.
By 1986, the genre, which nobody then called "gangsta rap" ("reality rap," please) had begun to sprout in L.A. by way of Ice-T's "6 'n the Mornin'," which was patterned after Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D's "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" But there was no gangsta-rap label, and certainly no gangsta-rap genre.
Eazy-E was an unlikely progenitor. "I didn't know he rapped," remembers MC Ren, his future bandmate in N.W.A. "Ain't nobody know."
Ren grew up in Compton two blocks from the diminutive, quiet Eric Wright, who made his name in the neighborhood selling crack. But Wright grew apprehensive about the lifestyle and sought to parlay his earnings into a rap business. His first single, "Boyz-n-the-Hood," caught fire in the streets, helping build his fledgling imprint, Ruthless Records.
"He was the only person I knew who had his own record on his own label," Ren says. "He didn't have no offices or no shit like that. It was just the idea that he had a record."
"He was a visionary," says Phyllis Pollack, who later became Eazy's publicist. "He came up with ideas for things that later happened." N.W.A's success begat Ice Cube and Dr. Dre's solo success, and Dre begat Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game and, to some extent, Kendrick Lamar. Even Tupac and Biggie owe Eazy a debt; their labels, Death Row and Bad Boy, followed in Ruthless' wake.
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But today, 20 years after his death, Eazy isn't venerated the way many of those artists are. Even with the N.W.A biopic on the horizon, he's remembered by some as a footnote, rather than a hip-hop colossus who changed everything. With Tupac and Biggie's faces chiseled onto rap's Mount Rushmore and the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, André 3000 and Eminem duking it out for the other spots, Eazy's not even in the conversation.
But he should be. In fact, he deserves to be on the mountain.
To be clear, Eazy was far from a technically great rapper. He famously took forever to record "Boyz-n-the-Hood" because of his poor flow. "I ain't never see nobody take that many takes," Ren says. And he usually didn't write his own verses. People such as Ice Cube, Ren, The D.O.C. and Dr. Dre often did that for him.
But Eazy's high-pitched voice -- alternately hilarious and terrifying -- stands up well on record. More importantly, he had the gangsta vision that ultimately took over hip-hop and remains its driving force today.
Eazy handpicked once-in-a-lifetime talents Dre and Cube for N.W.A, and they would reap much of the glory for their production and lyrics, respectively. But their inspiration, by all accounts, was Eazy's life and times.
"Seventy-five percent of the lyrics and content you hear in N.W.A was going on in Compton and was lived by my father," says Eazy's firstborn son, a rapper himself who goes by the name Lil Eazy-E. "All we're doing, we're plugging into Eric's life," said Dr. Dre, according to N.W.A manager Jerry Heller's memoir, Ruthless.
Eazy wanted to express what was really happening on the streets of late-'80s Los Angeles, then in the throes of the crack epidemic, gang violence and police chief Daryl Gates' assault on its poorest citizens.
"We're telling the real story of what it's like living in places like Compton," Eazy told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "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."
The media often were dismissive of N.W.A during their time. Straight Outta Compton "is well-known for an obscene anti-police number," the Times wrote glibly in 1992. The song in question was, of course, "Fuck tha Police," which pre-dated Rodney King, Michael Brown and the entire #blacklivesmatter debate. It's now considered the greatest protest song in rap history.
N.W.A weren't usually political in the same way as, say, Public Enemy. But Eazy's vision was progressive in its own way -- he let his artists talk about whatever they wanted to.
"Now you can say anything in hip-hop and express yourself," MC Ren says. "But back when we were doing it, record companies would be skeptical about the shit we would say. The average company wouldn't have let us come out."
"We were able to do hardcore music at Ruthless Records without any restraints," seconds Big Hutch, of Ruthless act Above the Law. "In the late '80s, early '90s, that was unheard of."
Eazy's ideas about what gangsta rap would look, feel and sound like seemed to emerge from him fully formed. Before Ice Cube wrote "Boyz-n-the-Hood," Eazy explained to him the street mentality he was trying to capture. In fact, "Boyz" initially was intended for a New York act called H.B.O., who didn't know what to make of its West Coast slang.
The first time he met with N.W.A's future manager, Jerry Heller, Eazy laid out his vision for the group. "He was explaining how, all of the stuff we rap about, we try to sound like New Yorkers," remembers N.W.A promoter Doug Young, who was also at the meeting. "So the concept of this group, they're going to be hip-hop, they're going to be real street with it. But they're going to represent the way that we talk in L.A., the way that we act in L.A. They're going to promote the L.A. culture."
Thanks to albums like Straight Outta Compton, The Chronic and Doggystyle, L.A. culture became synonymous with gangsta-rap culture, which became synonymous with hip-hop culture generally. "This is [the] place where it originated from, when it comes to talking about what's going on in the streets," Ice Cube says. "And by this being the original place, it has power. It has an aura to it. And I think the whole country is [as] fascinated with L.A. living as they are [with] something like The Sopranos, something where they want to know more but they don't want to get no closer."
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Golden-era acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul may have emphasized the positive, but hip-hop remains, more than any other, the genre where artists outside the white mainstream can tell gritty, urban stories in all their uncensored glory. And it wouldn't have been possible without N.W.A.
Eazy himself released a pair of classic solo albums: Eazy-Duz-It and It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, the former the humorous complement to Straight Outta Compton and the latter the fiery (but still quite funny) response to Dre's disses on "Fuck wit Dre Day (and Everybody's Celebratin')." It's On, made after Cube and Dre had abandoned him, demonstrates that Eazy was more than just the beneficiary of their brilliance.
And his influence remains massive today. Practically every young artist considers himself or herself not just a rapper but also an entrepreneur and the leader of a "movement." Eazy, who launched the careers of dozens of artists, set the archetype.
In fact, until the day he died, at Cedars-Sinai of AIDS on March 26, 1995, he maintained his unwavering vision: to promote music made by and for people from downtrodden urban areas. That everybody else seemed to like it, and continues to clamor for it to this day, was simply gravy.