As the story goes, Eazy E became a rapper by accident. In 1987, the man then known as Eric Wright hired his future N.W.A bandmate Ice Cube to write a song called "Boyz-n-the-Hood" for another group signed to his upstart label, Ruthless Records. One of the guys in the other group balked at rapping the lurid lyrics, so Eazy, who'd been listening to a demo version of the song for days on end, stepped into the booth and laid it down himself.
As a rapper, that was probably Eazy's peak. Those verses weren't only the first he put on wax, they were probably the best. Despite everything the former Compton crack dealer brought to hip-hop, he was never much of an MC. He couldn't write rhymes and he couldn't spit the lines out much faster than the average person could speak them. Still, somehow, it worked. Maybe Eazy's amateurish delivery added the needed air of authenticity to the streetwise stories, or maybe Cube's vivid imagery of life in urban Los Angeles couldn't be blunted by any delivery, no matter how high-pitched or slow. Whatever the reason, those lyrics seemed to spill out of Eazy almost preternaturally.
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Woke up quick at about noon,
Just thought that I had to be in Compton soon.
I gotta get drunk before the day begins,
Before my mother starts bitchin' about my friends.
That song launched Eazy's group, his label, his coast, and an entire genre. It also set him up to become The Greatest Gangsta. Not as a rapper, but as the man who oversaw the evolution of a worldview that dominates hip-hop to the present day. You can hear the ideas conveyed in Eazy's nasal rhymes echoing through to the greatest rap songs of the past decade — just watch the video for what's possibly the best rap song of the past decade, T.I.'s "What You Know." The cars are fancier and the girls are hotter, but the connection is clear.
Tupac Shakur's "Thug Life" philosophy was arguably the ultimate extension of gangstadom, but Pac was just a Digital Underground dancer/roadie when Eazy changed the course of popular music forever.
People forget how revolutionary it was at the time, says Granville "MC Chip" Moton, a bit-part player in the grand drama of gangsta rap who, like N.W.A's MC Ren, grew up around the corner from Eric and is pictured on the cover of N.W.A's first record.
"It's a trip. I still remember when Eric let me hear 'Boyz-n-the-Hood' for the first time," he says. "That was some crazy shit, man, because you're sitting there listening to it and you're like, 'Man, he's cussing on this rap!' You're thinking, like, 'Damn, how's he gonna get radio play?' But one thing you knew about it was, that shit was tight. There wasn't nobody else on that level doing that type of thing."
The stories that Eric (talking to people who knew Eric, as I've done over the past three weeks, you realize that the people who knew him best can't call him anything but "Eric") delivered so naturally are de rigueur now. For better or worse, if you ain't rappin' about street life — money, cars, casual sex, and violence — you ain't rappin'.
Eazy may not have written "Boyz-n-the-Hood," but he more or less lived it, says Arabian Prince, an original member of N.W.A, who left just before the group finished its second album, the breakthrough Straight Outta Compton. Gangsta rap has always been built around image, with fabled incidents like 50 Cent's nine shots playing almost as much a role in his career as the unassailably brilliant beat under "In Da Club." Eazy had the image, Prince says, and, like all the greats who followed, there was some truth to it — though not as much as people believe.
"Eazy was the only one in the hood who was really a real gangsta, doing the drug thing, doing everything else," he says. "All the rest of us were just DJs. We were producers. We had done a lot of records, and that's how the whole thing came together. Cube wasn't actually doing anything. He was in school [in Phoenix] until we brought him back. Ren was just Eazy's boy. He lived down the street from him. And, I mean, Ren wasn't really banging, but he was probably the next closest thing to Eric."
That doesn't mean Eric was a straight-up gang-banger, says Ren. On the contrary, he was a laid-back guy, a practical joker who enjoyed money much more than violence and didn't mind being incendiary in song to get a little cash. People who've internalized the murals of Eazy holding two glocks don't understand who he really was, Ren says.
"A lot of people have other thoughts about him — how they think he was from the records and all that shit. A lot of people think he would just straight-up shoot somebody. You know, trippin' mean, gangstered-out and all that shit. But, you know, he was the total opposite. He was just like one of the coolest motherfuckers you'd want to meet. Just cool," says Ren. "He always had the tightest car, expensive clothes, you know. He was making his money. He wasn't out there trying to thug out on fools. He was about paper. Straight paper."
Former manager Jerry Heller, who has been skewered relentlessly in song (Ice Cube's dis track "No Vaseline") and video (Dr. Dre's "Dre Day"), calls Eazy "a visionary." Eric's talents weren't as an artist, Heller says, but as a boss. It was behind the scenes where Eric made his mark on Cube, one of the greatest gangsta lyricists, and on Dr. Dre, the greatest record producer of the past 25 years.
"Eazy had the ability to influence you to be better than you were. Even though Ice Cube went to a really good upper-middle-class high school in the San Fernando Valley, and was a great lyricist, he would write the verse and Eric would say to him, 'You know, that's really corny.' He would make him change it to where it had some street credibility," Heller says. "He was an interesting guy because while he may not have been the original creator of things, he had the ability to influence you to achieve things you maybe never would have achieved."
That ability to inspire greatness was a big part of the reason that, at the time of Eric's 1995 death, the West Coast was the center of the hip-hop universe. Everything fell apart in a little over a year. Soon after Eric died, Suge Knight bet the Death Row franchise on Tupac Shakur by bailing him out of jail, alienating Dr. Dre, who then decided to start his own label. Then Pac got shot. With Pac dead, and Dre "in the lab, with a pen and a pad, try'na get this damn label off," there was an opening for the East Coast's Bad Boy Entertainment to steal center stage.
The West has not been best since.
Ren says it all could have been different if Eric had lived.
"I tell people this: If he had been here to see people like Puffy and Master P and all of them, how they had their companies run, he was the type of person who would have wanted to compete with that. If he saw them doing it like that, he would have done anything in his power to have it crackin' like that," says Ren. "It's not like he would have just sat back and watched . . . He would have done that same shit to compete with them."
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Yes, everything could have gone a different direction. Maybe "Golden State of Mind" would have been named The Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll's "Song of the Year" last year instead of Jay-Z's tribute to his native New York. Sound crazy? The guys who knew Eric, guys like Ren and Chip, have no doubt about it. Eric worked too hard not to have a huge effect on things.
"Back in the day, he would come get me and Ren, early in the morning, and I can remember jumping in the truck with Eric. We would just go grab some records from Macola and just go out to the swap meets and just give them to people. We would just hand them out, and that gave Eric a lot of street buzz," remembers Chip.
Maybe he couldn't rap with the best of them, but The Greatest Gangsta understood the game better than anyone.
"What people don't realize about Eric is that Eric had an ear, you know? They say people that can see into the future, they create the future. He was one of those people. He had foresight," says Chip. "Eric could see things happening before they happened. If he hadn't passed away, yeah, there's a lot of things that would have been different."