It's been 25 years since Eric "Eazy-E" Wright released his debut album, Eazy-Duz-It, on Ruthless Records, the aptly named independent label that he founded in Los Angeles with Jerry Heller. Eazy had become a sensation on L.A.'s burgeoning rap scene on the strength of a single called “Boyz-n-the-Hood” that was so raw it became an instant classic despite receiving nearly no radio play. The lyrics to that song—and many other Eazy-E classics—were written by O'Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube.
Earlier this year, some misguided website named Eazy one of the worst rappers ever. His sound was unusual to be sure. His voice was unusually high-pitched for a rapper and his cadences were looser than most, but there was no mistaking the unquenchable menace behind his words. When Eazy stepped to the mic to "bust that crazy shit" he simply could not be dismissed. He was, in short, as real as they come. And although Ruthless also pushed poppier acts like J. J. Fadd, it's no overstatement to say that Eazy and N.W.A changed the course of hip-hop and pop culture as a whole.
As we reach the quarter century anniversary of Eazy's debut album, we decided that someone needed to speak on this momentous occasion. And since Eazy can't speak for himself—having succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1995—we rang up Ice Cube, who took time out of his busy schedule making movies and records to talk about his old homie. Yes, they had their differences over the years, particularly when Cube left N.W.A to pursue a solo career. But thankfully those issues were settled long ago, and all that remains is the respect.
Interview by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It were released pretty close together, less than a year apart right?
Yeah, it was real close. It was like 6 months.
Was it all one big project that you were creating and then you put it in two different baskets? Was it like, ‘We're going to do Eazy's records now, this is a different thing.'
Eazy had taken off first. It was a concentrated effort to get that record done. And then we figured after his record, we would work on the N.W.A record. So we were looking at him as one record at a time.
Although N.W.A came out first in the end right?
Yeah, that to me is, I think some release dates are not right.
Set the record straight!
Eazy came out '88, N.W.A came out early '89. That's how I remember it.
How did you meet Eazy?
We connected through Dre. Him and Dre knew each other from high school. He used to DJ or promote parties or something, he used to throw high school dances.
They had fell out of contact. So when I was started to hang with Dre and do music, Eazy started coming around and doing these mixtapes. Eazy got a hold of him and started coming around.
So was he rapping on the mixtapes?
No, he was not rapping at all. He was trying to learn the business.
So he was more of a businessman?
Yeah, he wanted to be a manager and he wanted to run his own label, Ruthless.
Right, but you mentioned that his thing took off first, so what took off?
We did a song in '86 called “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and that song was like his first single and it blew up. He was on his way from there.
What was your role in that song?
I wrote the song. “Boyz-n-the-Hood” was actually supposed to be written for Eazy's group. He had a group out in New York called Home Boys Only, called HBO. One of them looked like LL Cool J. Eazy wanted to write a song for them, a street song, like what we were doing on the mixtapes. So when I wrote it, it was too West Coast for them. They didn't understand the terminology. So they rejected the song. I paid for the studio time already, so Dre convinced Eazy that he had a good enough voice to do it.
So that was Dre's idea for Eazy to rap it? Did it sound the way you thought it would sound when Eazy put it down?
Yeah, it was dope. It was exactly what I wrote and Dre's production was tight. We were finally making the records that we wanted to make.
Did you see the magazine that listed the worst rappers? GQ did a list of worst rappers ever and Eazy was on that list.
I mean, who would listen to GQ about rap music? It doesn't even make sense. They need to talk about suits, shoes, fashion, and lifestyle. Who cares about GQ’s top ten rappers? Nobody cares about that. They don’t know what they are talking about.
Who would listen to GQ about rap music? It doesn't even make sense. They need to talk about suits, shoes, fashion, and lifestyle. Who cares about GQ’s top ten rappers? Nobody cares about that. They don’t know what they are talking about.
That one particularly stuck out to me. It was just like "Someone does not know what they are speaking on." Because there’s a whole new generation now—I’m one of the older guys at Complex—a lot of people weren’t around when N.W.A first came out. If you could put into words what Eazy meant to hip-hop, how would you say that?
Well, I think he’s a true original and a true visionary. He made it ok for all artists to be themselves; you don’t have to put up all the front. You can be as hardcore as you want to be and still make money like the bubblegum, pop stars and be just as famous as the bubblegum pop artists who have to put on a facade to be that. So we just made it ok to be what you want to be, say what you want to say, and you could still be just as famous as the ones that are scared to be themselves. So that is one of the biggest contributions to pop culture that you could make, is to take the shackles off of artists everywhere, all over the globe. To be themselves if they want to.
That’s pretty major! You said they were scared to be themselves. So he was never scared?
Not all, but some were.
But would you say Eazy was not scared in general?
Nah, not at all.
This whole thing about people having writers in hip-hop has become a debate. People like to imagine that rappers freestyle their lyrics and it comes from God to their brain, but for you being the writer, was that a strange feeling to hear someone else saying your lyrics?
It was cool because I had help trying to write a song, it wasn’t no big thing. I actually hate those records, even though I was on them. It does take the essence out of what it’s all about. Having somebody write your shit, it really just turns your favorite rappers into vocalists. But that’s the place where I came from. A few people that I worked with, I wrote lyrics for.
I actually hate those records, even though I was on them. Having somebody write your s**t, it really just turns your favorite rappers into vocalists.
You were rapping for yourself before you were writing for other people right?
Yeah, no doubt. I was with a group. First it was called The Stereo Crew, then we switched it to CIA.
What’s that stand for?
Criminals In Action. But they made us put Cru’ In Action on the cover because we were with another record label that didn’t want the hardcore stuff.
That was a big thing with Ruthless wasn't it?
Just go all the way hardcore, that hadn’t really been done too much before that. Yeah, but ironically their first hit was “Supersonic” by J. J. Fadd.
True, good point.
That’s the first hit on Ruthless records. I think he wanted to be on a hardcore label, that was his dream. But he was a businessman and if he had some shit that can sell, he had no problems being whatever he needed to be.
Yeah, that was pretty much his expertise, his contribution to the group. That was the debate, could we sell these hardcore records? That was before we came up with the clean versions.
Where did you sell them?
They just took off. People were just wanting them. They might had put them in the back of the record store. They had to put them out front because people wanted them. It fueled a whole new lane that would sell, which was hardcore. A few people were dibbling and dabbling, but we were the ones that went all the way with it.