ON HIS DEATHBED, he received 100 telephone calls per hour. More operators had to be hired to handle the load. "We've never had this number of calls, even when Lucille Ball was here, Kirk Douglas or George Burns," said Paula Correia, spokeswoman for Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "Never anything like this, ever."
One person who visited the dying man said: "It's a real shame. I went to the hospital and saw him, but he was unconscious. He didn't even know I was in the room. It wasn't a pretty sight, man. It was sad . . . I think it's terrible that this happened. This is a serious wake-up call."
In a letter to his fans, the dying man said he wanted "to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys and their kin because I want to save their asses before it's too late. I've learned in the last week that this thing is real and it doesn't discriminate."
The dying, and now dead man, was Eric Wright, better known as Eazy-E. The person who visited him was Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre. Both young men were in a group called N.W.A. that tortured the ears of grown-ups with nihilistic fantasies about killing cops and bestial treatment of women. Their signature song was "F--- Tha Police," on which Eazy-E was the lead voice. The curse-laden album "Straight Outta Compton," sold more than 2 million copies with little mainstream radio play.
N.W.A. did have some legitimate points to make. Two years after being condemned by cops and public officials all over the nation, Rodney King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police in an assault captured on videotape. "I guess now after what happened," Wright said, "people might look differently" at N.W.A.
Wright's death now challenges the rap community to look differently at its own behavior. After seven years of macho raps about gunning down enemies and dodging bullets, Wright was laid low by the silent killer rappers do not want to talk about. Wright, 31, died from the leading killer of African-American men his age: AIDS.
The way Wright died spoke volumes about his ignorance of the disease. Wright apparently did not know until the last month of his life that what he thought was asthma was full-blown AIDS. The disease cut short a promiscuous heterosexual life in which he fathered seven children by six women. Two years ago, he was ordered to pay $58,000 in child support for a daughter in Nebraska he obviously wanted to forsake.
The easiest thing to say would be that Eazy-E got what he deserved. As I rode in a cab the day after Wright's diagnosis, the cabbie was listening to the Don Imus radio show just as a group of commentators called Eazy-E a "jerk." The cabbie, an African-American, laughed with the callers. "They're calling it like I see it," he said.
Such simplistic condemnation ignores the idea that Wright and his raps did not stand in some sociopathic isolation. He was but an extreme example in an entertainment pop music industry notorious for glorifying sex with no concern for consequences. His death should be seen as a step toward the realization that AIDS does not discriminate, whether your art is banned from the mainstream or whether you are a beloved champion, such as Magic Johnson or Greg Louganis.
The best part of Eazy-E's letter to his fans was the message, albeit brief, of responsibility. "I'm not looking to blame anyone but myself," he said. Many rap journalists claim or hope that Wright's passing will spur many of the 2,000 people who called the hospital to wish Eazy-E well will also jam AIDS awareness phone lines.
I am not so sure. The real cause of Wright's death came and went so fast that it might have been too fast. So much of rap, like a lot of pop culture, is derived from the fantasy that it can reject authority and rules at no cost. I suspect it will take a lot more AIDS deaths in the rap community to convince young people that sex is not as Eazy as Eric Wright once thought it could be.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.