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.
When you said that Eazy took off, was he into being a rapper after that? You said that Dre had to convince him. Did he want to rap after that?
Yeah, once he found out he could do it and knew that he was good since he had a voice and an image, people wanted more. He fell all the way into it. He wasn’t reluctant no more. He worked hard at being good because then we had to go and turn him into a performer too. Because people wanted to see it live. We just kept working, and soon it was all good.
What was the first show?
Just local stuff in L.A.
Yeah, clubs and college parties, college campus shit. It was anywhere we can. It was just everywhere.
For Eazy to do his first show in public, did people feel him right away?
Yeah, it was his song and we supported him. It wasn’t like we threw him up there by himself. We were up there with him. We had routines, good shows.
I wish those were on YouTube, I wouldn’t mind seeing one of those early shows, that would be crazy.
Yeah, if someone resurrected it from a VHS tape.
Once Eazy found out he could do it and knew that he was good since he had a voice and an image, people wanted more. He fell all the way into it.
When you went your own way and did the solo thing, there was a time where records were going back and forth between you and the group and it seemed personal in the lyrics. But did you get to a better place at certain point?
Yeah, we did. After the initial back and forth and they went their separate ways, I went my separate ways, I was successful, they were successful. It was like we didn’t want to take it to the streets because this is what we are trying to escape from, so why go backwards? We could leave it on wax and just rap about it. Also, we made a decision to squash it so when we seen each other, it was like old times. We didn’t mention it and we talked about new stuff that we wanted to do. So it was cool.
On his first album, other than “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” what was your standout track?
"Eazy-er Said Than Dunn," "8Ball."
And are these songs that you wrote or just songs you dubbed?
I wrote them. DOC wrote a lot on Eazy’s record too.
And how would the writing work? Would you sit down together and work? Or did you put it on paper and get together afterwards?
We just had it down and brought it back. Some of them were written there on the spot. We were trying to save money.
Was there any that he did by himself?
Nah, I don’t think so. He was just clowning around. He had the best writers and producers around him.
Is there anything about you that you want to share that you want us to know about?
I'm working on a movie with Kevin Hart that will be out January 17th. I’m working on 22 Jump Street with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. I’m working on new music.
I know you heard the Kendrick Lamar verse that he did with Big Sean, how did you like that?
It was dope, what are rappers supposed to say? It’s not all combat. You have to have friendly competition sometimes. Keep everybody on their toes.
I mean he said that he was the king of New York.
It’s a blasphemy but fuck it, it’s hip-hop.
You did a show in New York one time and you just did that record with The Bomb Squad, and you had a hoodie on and you pulled it back, and you had The Yankees cap on.
That’s love. He knows there’s true kings of New York , you got to stir the pot a little bit. Nothing wrong with that. I remember getting the same heat. I did a record one time and I said hip-hop started in the West. People went crazy.