"To live fast and die young" is often cited as the ultimate hard-guy credo, but it would be hard to imagine the tough who'd want to die young the way Eazy-E did.
Born Eric Wright 31 years ago, the gangsta rap star died of AIDS on Sunday, four weeks after checking into the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with what he assumed to be asthma. He left a wife, six children and a lot of questions.
To say that his sudden death was a shock to the hip-hop community would be an understatement. Before March 16, when he released a press statement announcing he had AIDS, no one even knew he was HIV-positive. Eazy wanted the news to serve as warning to "all my homeboys and their kin" about "what's real when it comes to AIDS." As MC Ren, who worked with Eazy in the group N.W.A., told MTV News later, Eazy's statement was "one hell of a reality check."
How he became infected is not known, although the rapper was quick to rule out homosexual acts or intravenous drug use. He made no secret of his heterosexual activities, however, announcing that he had fathered seven children with six different women, only one of whom he married.
To many, sexual profligacy will seem just one of the many sins Eazy-E glorified during his brief but profitable career. Although he was hardly the first rapper to adapt gang colors and a hoodlum attitude, Eazy-E was definitely responsible for pushing the gangsta aesthetic -- from its sex-and-violence braggadocio to its crude phonetic spellings -- into the mainstream.
On record, his high, drawling voice could be heard advocating all sorts of evils: Drug-dealing ("Dope Man"), gang-banging ("Boyz-N-the-Hood"), cop-killing and an almost unimaginable range of misogyny ("To Kill a Hooker" and many more). He often tried to dismiss the sexism and violence in his music as mere reflections of harsh, urban reality. As manager Jerry Heller put it, "I firmly believe N.W.A. are audio documentarians."
Eazy-E certainly knew whereof he rapped. Born in the hardscrabble Los Angeles suburb of Compton, Calif., he started out as a drug dealer. But by 1985 he was in the music business, rapping both on his own and with N.W.A., and running his own label, Ruthless Records. He had a fair amount of local success with the single "Boyz-N-the-Hood," which had been written by a teen-age Ice Cube and which later inspired a full-blown film treatment, but Eazy didn't really hit the big time until 1988, when N.W.A. released its first album, "Straight Outta Compton."
Not quite an instant success, "Straight Outta Compton" went on to sell more than 2 million copies. But it was the album's subject matter that attracted the most attention, stirring fears of riots or worse in police departments nationwide.
N.W.A. was forced to curtail most of a planned national tour due to police pressure, but one song prompted FBI assistant director Mitch Ahlerich to send a letter of concern to Ruthless Records' distributor, Priority Records, stating that "recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to . . . brave, dedicated officers."
Just as disturbing to the parents of N.W.A.'s white, suburban fans -- a group that did not personify N.W.A.'s audience, but which greatly swelled its ranks -- was the group's seeming glorification of urban (read "racial") violence. Between his penchant for gun-pointing poses (check the covers of "Straight Outta Compton" or his solo album "5150 Home 4 tha Sick") and his seemingly bloodthirsty grudges against former N.W.A. members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (his last release, "It's On (Dr. Dre) 187-um Killer," was an almost album-length death threat), Eazy-E hardly seemed a role model of any sort.
It's easy, then, to sneer that Eazy-E got what he deserved. But did he? It wasn't gang-banging, gun-toting or drug-dealing that killed Eazy-E; it was unprotected sex. At bottom, his death from AIDS has no more to do with the evils of gangsta rap than Magic Johnson's infection has with professional basketball.
No, the real tragedy of Eazy-E's death is that it doesn't reflect one way or the other on the excesses of gangsta rap. He may have made millions playing with fire, but it ultimately had nothing to do with how he got burned. And that will just make it harder for listeners to appreciate the difference between provocative thoughts and mere rabble-rousing language.