Eazy-E's tragic real-life story
Eazy-E's life was brief and eventful. Born Eric Lynn Wright in 1964, his story began on the streets of Compton and ended in 1995 in a medical center in downtown Los Angeles. In the years between, however, he amassed a small fortune through drug dealing, founded a legendary record label, and formed one of the greatest acts in hip-hop history: N.W.A.
Much like many other icons of the genre, Wright's life — beneath the music videos and record deals and parties — was marked with hardship, violence, crime, and death. The eventual happy ending he might have found through his music was never to be. At the age of 30, only a decade into his career, he succumbed — not to feuding or gang crime, but to disease. Eazy-E's estate and family have been embroiled in a slew of troubles ever since his death, but even their squabbling can't touch the unassailable legacy of the "Godfather of Gangsta Rap."
Born on a battlefield
Compton was a dangerous place to be in the 1980s. What had once been a quiet suburb of L.A. — known, if anything, for being a sought-after place of residence for affluent Americans — soon became a home to a struggling lower class. As the middle-class demographic fled the area in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots, crime began to seep in. During the 1970s, Compton was afflicted by gang warfare (specifically between the Crips and Bloods), a burgeoning drug trade, and a police force whose approach to violent crime was draconian to say the least. By 1990, Compton's murder rate was a ridiculously high 91 homicides per 100,000 residents.
This was the world that Eric Wright was born into. His father was a postal worker and his mother was employed by a local grade school. Neither their family, their home, nor their neighbors were fortunate in circumstances. So how did Eazy-E do it?
Dope man or victim?
After dropping out of school in 10th grade, Wright became a drug dealer, not only to provide himself with a lucrative source of income, but also to survive on the chaotic streets of Compton. Wright's future manager Jerry Heller wrote in his memoir that "no one survived on the streets without a protective mask. No one survived naked. You had to have a role. You had to be 'thug,' 'playa,' 'athlete,' 'gangsta,' or 'dope man.' Otherwise, there was only one role left to you. 'Victim.'"
Not much is known of Eazy-E's time as a drug dealer. Even Heller himself, who eventually came to doubt the extent to which Wright slung dope, had trouble getting anything out of him. But the reputation he acquired from his time on the streets would last well into his career as a rapper, eventually cementing his legacy as the gritty, authentic face of N.W.A.
The rise of hip-hop
Before long, Wright decided to stop dealing drugs (if he'd ever actually been dealing) and start making music, possibly spurred on by the violent death of his cousin. At the time, the L.A. hip-hop scene was just beginning to take off. It had originated in the '70s with Uncle Jamm's Army and eventually the foundation of World Class Wreckin' Cru in 1983. The first West Coast rap label was launched in 1981 by Duffy Records; a few years later, Mixmaster Spade set up the Compton Posse, and gangsta rap as we know it was born.
Eric Wright, however, had spent years as little more than a street-level dope dealer. With no contacts in the music world, no high school diploma, and no discernible prospects, an uphill battle was inevitable. He began, in the mid-'80s, by setting up an ad hoc studio in the garage of his parents' home and using it to make his first recordings.