Eric Lynn Wright may not have been the most talented or endearing figures in the history of hip-hop, but you can’t deny the impact he has come to inflict on the planet. Whether that’s good or bad is still up for debate. He was the grandmaster of gangsta’s influence at the dawn of rap’s immutable market viability. Though short, Wright’s life was host to a remarkable amount of struggle, regret, sex, and miraculous success. Jim Morrison may have been the one who said, “I’m gonna get my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.” But the man remembered as Eazy “muthafuckin’” E based his career on the notion. Like Jim, E burned bright and hot for a handful of years, and left the world to pick up the pieces as quickly as he came.
Eric Wright was born in 1963 and lived his whole life in Compton, a neighborhood as perpetually tremulous as himself. Like many youth of the area then and now, he pledged allegiance to the Crips and dropped out of high school to sell drugs. Eric’s aptitude for business shone through his vocation and he soon had enough cash to found his own label, Ruthless. He immediately signed Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who wrote the rough draft for “Boyz-N-The-Hood” right around then. Among others, HBO was approached to record the number but rejected it outright. I wonder if HBO regrets that decision now?
To get the job done right, Eazy formed the first installment of the NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitude, as if you didn’t know) with Dre, Cube, and a couple producers. Their first appearance came in the form of 1987’s spotty NWA & The Posse, which was basically a label sampler and stumbled out of the gate with barely a whisper. A reissue or two later would see it attain gold record status (both of E’s tracks with Ron-De-Vu appear on Featuring, but it didn’t really change the game that much). They focused their line-up and theme for their proper ‘88 debut Straight Outta Compton and it paid off big time. That album would become a triple platinum seller and redefine expectations for hip-hop. The burgeoning subgenre now recognized as gangsta rap—something they ironically proclaimed to be “reality rap” at the time, and now contains as much reality as “reality TV”—could no longer be ignored by capitalism.
At the brownish tail end of the trickle-down Regan era, hip-hop was still considered underground. They wouldn’t even have a Grammy for it ‘til 1989, a full decade after the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first hip-hop record to go gold. Naturally, it was picking up steam, but it was also at a crossroads. On the one hand, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and the like, espoused a fierce social conscience and activism; and then there was the NWA, who were more concerned with stories of urban decay and bragging. America had a choice presented to it between righteous left-wing activism and a big middle finger covered in joy juice and bullet holes, and the ramifications from that would not be felt for many years. Out of a self-serving fear, the corporations endorsed the maniacal fantasy world without positive change as painted by “reality” rap. It’s always been easier to prop up and wag the family values finger at the obvious controversies of violence, drug use, and sexuality than to deal with any well-read commentary on actual political issues. From there, stories of ho’s and clouds of bullets attracted legions of fans, the silent majority of which were from white suburbia, who use the ghetto’s struggles to fulfill their own detached fantasies (à la 1999’s Whiteboyz).
Straight Outta Compton busted a nut across the world’s face on the back of the riot inducing “Fuck Tha Police” and the anthemic title cut, and landed rap permanently in mainstream conscience. The fantastic commercial possibilities for gangsta rap were of all of a sudden obvious, and everyone in and about the Ruthless gang became overnight superstars. Eazy seized the opportunity to issue his solo debut Eazy-Duz-It later the same year, with Dre and DJ Yella producing the beats, and MC Ren co-writing most of the album. It would be the only full-length completed in E’s lifetime, and sold accordingly, going on to shift over 2 million units (thus making the inclusion of three tracks on the rarities based Featuring somewhat odd).
Like Eazy E, NWA wasn’t built to last. Ice Cube lost his attitude in ‘89, which left a sizable songwriting hole. Eazy (and his ghostwriters) took the challenge in stride and had a much bigger role in the group’s Efil4zaggin LP from 1991, and that was the end. Shortly after that, everyone aside from Ren ran into the manipulative hands of Suge Knight, and things got a little strained for old Eric Wright. For the rest of his life, a nasty feud between Eric and his former comrades raged, mostly traced back to Ruthless executive Jerry Heller’s Nazi-ish business tactics. And, without the stellar supporting cast, the public began to notice E’s general lack of skills for bill paying and one-note-pony lyricism, which had mostly been written by Cube or Ren anyway. Though he received some sizable residuals from his former partnership, times began to grow desperate creatively and sales wise (except for the promising Bone Thugs-N-Harmony).
Eazy managed to get one more confrontational EP out and was working on a sophomore album when he was taken to the hospital in early 1995. He was diagnosed with AIDS, and it was critically advanced. A father of seven by six different mothers, Eric Wright barely had time to issue a message of support for his friends and families and to make amends with Dre and Cube, before passing away on March 26th, less than a month after being admitted. Eazy E was one of the first major hip-hop successes and tragedies. From his roots as a drug-slinging thug to his death from an overdose of fucking, he was the first to take rap off the streets and blow it up to cartoon proportions. Though he obviously loved women a great deal, most of Eazy’s songs were brutally sexist. And any songs that didn’t debase females as being basically non-humanoid moist holes in existence only for the pleasure of men, saw truth-nugget hood stories expanded to cast E as a walking Uzi with gold bullets for blood. Even his adolescent voice seemed unreal.
And yet, Eazy played out his hand just like the man wanted him to. He promoted inequality, intolerance, cash at any cost, homophobia, black-on-black violence, and then died young of his own accord. Anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps is condemned to outdo him or fade away; hence 50 Cent’s utter “jumping the shark” absurdity. At the end of the day, though, Eric Wright was just a man, a musician, and he did inspire some people to at least better themselves, if no one else. If you don’t take him too seriously, he had some pretty funny moments and props for the vision to bring the beats together. NWA never would have happened without him. He is still name-checked relentlessly to this day, and the majority of Compton went so far as to declare April 7th to be Eazy E Day. Plus, E’s deathbed recounting exuded honest love for his many children and a desire to warn all his fans that AIDS is real (a message still not heeded). He’s as easy a man to love as he is to hate.
In supposed celebration of Eazy’s legacy, Priority/Capitol compiled Featuring to shed light on “his best collaborations and rare solo recordings.” The track listing disagrees. Ten of the 16 selections were originally issued as Eazy E tracks on his own albums or as a member of NWA, neither of which are particularly rare. Straight Outta Compton is about the only album not represented, and it didn’t sell all that much more than Eazy-Duz-It, relatively speaking. L.T. Hutton produced two other tracks posthumously and, thus, they aren’t really collaborations. Of the four previously out-of-print tracks, two are from the Penthouse Player’s Clique debut Paid The Cost (which deserved to be reissued in its own right) and one is a seven-minute remix of the hit “We Want Eazy”. Basically, only the gun-clap Beverly Hills Cop III soundtrack contribution “Luv 4 Dem Gangstaz” is an actual rarity on a compilation claiming rarities, while only featuring four guest appearances to cover the collaborations claim. All that makes it pretty hard to see Featuring as anything other than a blatant grave robbing.
Granted, the tasty guitar and drums beat for “2 Hard Muthas”, the notorious “Find’em, Fuckem, and Flee”, and the ragtime “Automobile” all see E at the top of his game, as lewd as he is humorous. Any fan of his will already own all of these on their original albums, leaving completists waiting for the Paid the Cost reissue with only the Beverly Hills Cop cut as a reasonable excuse for purchase. Ignoring the title and announced motive, and Featuring would be a fine greatest hits accompaniment except the latest reissue of Eternal E is already two CDs and a DVD long and contains several of the same tracks. So, unless you’ve got nothing else in the way of Eazy E aside from Straight Outta Compton, you could do a whole lot better.