Eric Wright, Jr. could not make out what all the fuss was about. This was not at all shocking considering that the six-year-old boy lovingly known as Lil’ E by friends and family had other priorities on his particularly focused mind. It was the summer of 1989 and at the fabulous Los Angeles Forum, Junior’s notorious father, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, was onstage performing with his provocative group N.W.A.—a five-man, gun-toting, censorship-igniting, F.B.I.-agitating crew brazenly self-billed as The World’s Most Dangerous Group.
For the purpose of this story, it’s best not to dwell on the question of whether a rap concert featuring arguably hip-hop’s most controversial group—who defiantly proclaimed themselves N*ggaz Wit Attitudes—was a suitable place for a child who would have trouble getting on the rides at Disney Land. Let’s just say Compton was in the house. And so was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.
“I remember watching the show from the backstage,” recalls the rapper, who years later fittingly goes by the name of Lil Eazy-E. Although he is taller than his stocky 5-foot-5 pops, he shares his father’s strikingly deceptively, youthful gaze. “I was standing right next to Janet Jackson! I didn’t pay it any mind because I was really into the show. When we all got back home my uncle was like, ‘Well, guess who was standing next to Janet Jackson and didn’t say a word to her?’ My father would always clown me about that [laughs]. He was like, ‘How you gonna stand next to Janet and not say anything to her?’”
This Father Knows Best moment is brought to you by Eazy-E.
When fanboys and girls, the curious and skeptics packed theaters to see legendary hip-hop outfit N.W.A. in the big screen release of Straight Outta Compton [which hauled in a box-office busting 60.2 million dollars, shattering first weekend projections], onlookers witnessed the former drug dealer/unlikely rapper and Ruthless Records impresario’s very same impish spirit in all its Jheri curl, Raiders hat glory.
But it was far from all smiles. Lead lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, groundbreaking producer, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, the criminally underrated Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, jovial Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and enterprising visionary Eazy—who in 1995, shockingly died of complications from AIDS—raised a conspicuous middle finger at Ronald Reagan’s conservative white America that definitely wasn’t of the belief that #BlackLivesMatter. Suddenly, damn near the entire world was put on to Compton, the small yet troubled Los Angeles suburb of which N.W.A. proudly represented.
“I didn’t think a studio would have the courage to make [Straight Outta Compton]… not the way I wanted it made,” admits an in-a-daze Cube to VIBE. He is holding court at the Beverly Hills’ regal Four Seasons Hotel during a manic press day. A primary producer on Straight Outta Compton alongside Dre, Eazy’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright and the film’s veteran director F. Gary Gray, the Tinsel Town powerhouse is still getting used to the reality that the hell-raising story of N.W.A. has been given the Hollywood red carpet. “At any moment I was ready to bounce because it was like, ‘Yo, if we can’t do this right we shouldn’t do it at all.’”
Let’s get it out of the way. Cube gets ample credit (and deservedly so) in Straight Outta Compton for being N.W.A.’s chief wordsmith. In fact, compared to the lyrically gifted Mr. Jackson, Eazy had the lyrical prowess of a mischievous fifth grader who smirked incessantly after being sent to the corner for disrupting class. He didn’t write his own rhymes, still a cardinal sin within hip-hop–apparently unless your name is Drake. And E was totally devoid of the peerless production genius of Dr. Dre. But he had something else just as important: authenticity.
“He never seemed like he was playing a role,” recounts Black Eyed Peas leader Will.i.am, who was discovered and signed to Ruthless Records by Eazy in 1992. “When you listened to N.W.A. you forget that Cube went to college and that Dre was in an electro funk band called World Class Wreckin’ Cru. That’s how real Eazy was. He was the one in the group that really was driving the ‘64 and hustling drugs in the streets to survive.”
Throughout rap’s 40-plus year run, no one else, for better or worse, personified the genre’s hustler-gone-legit trope more than Eric Wright. His DNA is everywhere: from James Prince (Rap-A-Lot) and Brian “Baby” Williams (Cash Money Records) to Shawn “Jay Z” Carter (Roc-A-Fella), Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (G-Unit) and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, founder and CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, the label home of acclaimed hip-hop golden child and Compton native, Kendrick Lamar.
N.W.A did not cut it in Harlem the first time around, but they definitely got better. They were saying, ‘We are going to talk about where we are at instead of where we want to be.’ — Chuck D
According to Top Dawg president Terrence “Punch” Henderson, Eazy-E cast a mammoth shadow over West Coast rap, its culture and beyond. “The line ‘Cruising down the street in my 64’ created gangsta rap,” says Henderson of the sentence Eazy squeezed out on N.W.A.’s bruising 1987 introduction “Boyz-n-The Hood.” “If any other person would have said those words that Ice Cube wrote, history would be completely different. [But] Eazy was what Gangsta Rap and the West Coast looked like. Decades later, he IS the image of Southern California.”
Eazy-E kicks off N.W.A.’s cinematic retelling with a bang during a scene ripped right out of Compton’s wild mid-80s drug epidemic. After dropping off some coke to a fortified crack house, our anti-hero demands payment only to be threatened at gunpoint. Within seconds, police show up with a battering ram as a resourceful Eazy runs like hell, alluding a pitbull and cops as he scampers away over a rooftop.
It’s an A-level opening that finds Straight Outta Compton cinematographer Matthew Libatique in grandiose form. But it would not work if we didn’t believe the story of the forward-thinking Eazy-E, who at the age of 23 saved up a little over $250,000 from dealing drugs and flipped some of that cash to build Ruthless Records. His ridiculously talented homeboy Dr. Dre had dreams of making records that not only rivaled his favorites like Run-D.M.C., but also captured the infectious grooves of the stellar funk and soul records that littered the floor of his bedroom.
Dre wanted Eazy to bankroll a new group that would include brilliant South Central spitter Ice Cube, the strong and steady MC Ren and scratch master DJ Yella. It was a no-brainer for E, but when he was asked to join the future N.W.A., the lyrically-challenged Wright thought the notion was laughable. The rest of the group, however, saw something special within Eazy-E. His Ruthless imprint would not only feature himself and N.W.A., but universally praised Texas rapper The D.O.C., girl power hip-hop trio J.J. Fad, lethal Cali duo Above The Law, platinum R&B vocalist Michel’le, and much later, melodic Grammy-winning Cleveland spitters Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Eazy-E simply had an innate gift for scouting talent. “He would tell me, ‘Your songs don’t match the energy of your freestyles,” remembers Will.i.am. “Eazy signed me because I could freestyle and make beats. Think about what Black Eyed Peas became. Years later we would sell out stadiums, sell millions of albums, and travel the f**king planet. There’s a person by the name of Eazy-E that saw that before we even figured that out.”
His persona was, ‘even though I’m not writing a lick of this sh**, I’m the one.’ — Irv Gotti
Then there was Eazy’s infectious delivery and a wise-a** attitude which enabled the cartooned voice Wright to keep tabs on his lovable persona. Never mind that N.W.A. was on an incendiary mission to drop uncompromising testimony of the violent, dope-plagued politics of the streets. “Little did he know I had a loaded 12 gauge/One sucker dead, L.A. Times front page…” Eazy darkly mused on “Boyz-n-The Hood.” No, this wasn’t “Rapper’s Delight.”
The “Boyz-n The Hood” experience came to life while shooting the radical album cover for N.W.A.’s second and final solo album, Efil4zaggin (Niggaz 4 Life). Eazy-E’s ballsiness and creative mind made for an experience Peter Dokus (the photographer behind this VIBE cover image) would never forget. “I found a real crack house that had gotten shut down a couple of days before. We shot a picture [in front] of three, four, five hundred people. They shut it down. Cops came in, helicopters came in.” Once again, a risk taken by Eric Wright would prove iconic.
Two years earlier in 1989, when Eazy was asked by influential hip-hop journalist and former San Francisco KALX radio DJ Davey D if N.W.A. had a responsibility to help end the violence that was smothering urban American cities like Compton, he fired back: “[When] the motherf**kin’ police can’t do sh**?…If you could just put out a record and it could stop violence you [wouldn’t] need police, we’d just need to do records: ‘Stop robbing banks, stop snatching purses.”
Public Enemy frontman Chuck D witnessed N.W.A.’s explosive ascent first hand after giving the hungry upstarts an opening slot on P.E.’s 1989 Bring The Noise tour. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer walked away impressed following a series of gigs despite the act’s rough start.
“I remember they played at [New York’s legendary Harlem venue] the Apollo and it was not a good night,” says Chuck, whose mighty Bomb Squad production unit went on to produce Ice Cube’s landmark 1990 solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. “N.W.A. did not cut it in Harlem the first time around, but they definitely got better. They were saying, ‘We are going to talk about where we are at instead of where we want to be.’ That was very powerful.”
“It was no holds barred,” MC Ren detailed of the group’s uncompromising message during a live-streamed conversation at the YouTube campus in West Los Angeles in support of promoting the then upcoming film.” Eazy said, ‘Do whatever you want to do. We don’t have nobody telling us we can’t curse on the records, whatever we wanted to talk about we can talk about.’ We went through so much, it was just so simple when we got in there and [wrote] what we saw.”
I showed him a picture of Chris as MC Gusto, who is basically wearing an Eazy-E outfit with the Jheri curl and Locs sunglasses. Eazy chuckled…he totally got it! — Nelson George
With such unapologetic statements as the aforementioned “Boyz,” the hilariously cautionary “Dope Man,” and the anthemic title track to their double platinum album, Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. presented themselves as America’s worst nightmare: young, black and giving no f**ks whatsoever. If Ice-T gave birth to West Coast reality rap with his epic 1986 game changer “6 in the Mornin’,” N.W.A. unleashed an even harder, scarier genre: gangsta rap. Even when the group was asked to contribute to the all-star anti-violence anthem “All In The Same Gang”—the West Coast’s answer to KRS-One’s successful East Coast-backed “Self Destruction”—it was on N.W.A.’s own terms.
Multi-platinum selling producer and founder of Murder Inc. Records, Irv Gotti, recalls watching the video a coast away in his family’s Queens, New York home and being particularly floored by a certain pint-sized provocateur. “Eazy-E’s verse on [“All In The Same Gang”] is the illest verse to me because he’s like…’Eazy-E, the violent hero,’ laughs Gotti. “‘Everyone else talking peace, but I ain’t gonna tell you that!’ When he was on [the original] Arsenio Hall [late night show] with the hockey mask on… Arsenio would ask him a question and Eazy would lean over to MC Ren, whisper something in his ear, and Ren would be like, ‘Eazy said…’ His persona was, ‘even though I’m not writing a lick of this sh**, I’m the one.’”
On his platinum 1988 solo debut Eazy-Duz-It, he gave an actual tutorial on breaking and entering (“Easily made my way to the window…”). The absurdity of it all was not lost on Nelson George, producer of the howling 1993 Chris Rock comedy film CB4. The too-close-to-home romp mercilessly parodied the gangster-or-bust obsessions of N.W.A. and others. “Chris came to me with the idea for what he called the rap Spinal Tap,” says George, author of the mystery novel The Lost Treasures of R&B. “He came back with the frame for Cell Block 4 and some of the hilarious MC names like Dead Mike and Stab Master Arson. ‘Straight Outta Locash’ was basically our take on N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ We felt like they had taken hip-hop to a point that was almost wrestling; a kind of over-the-top craziness. We felt like no band represented that more than N.W.A.”
George, however, was totally won over during a meeting with Eazy, who made a scene-stealing cameo in CB4. “I showed him a picture of Chris as MC Gusto, who is basically wearing an Eazy-E outfit with the Jheri curl and Locs sunglasses. Eazy chuckled…he totally got it! I discovered that Eazy thought the whole thing was a joke. Not just CB4, but the outrage N.W.A. was generating. I just got the sense from him that he really enjoyed the theater part of it.”
Listening to N.W.A was like kicking it with my homeboys down the street. It was somebody that you knew like your uncle or your cousin who was harassed by the police, face down and getting searched. — Will.i.am
But beyond the jokes, N.W.A. managed to make some revolutionary protest music. “F**k Tha Police” immortalized the act as rebel outlaws to be taken seriously. “F**king with me ‘cause I’m a teenager/With a little bit of gold and a pager/Searching my car, looking for product/Thinking every n***a is selling narcotics,” a fiery Cube testified before threatening payback for years of daily harassment and police brutality. “Ice Cube will swarm on any motherf**ker in a blue uniform…A young n***a on the warpath/And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath!”
When “F**k Tha Police” was featured on a 1990 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, N.W.A. and other rap and rock acts were presented as proof that society had plummeted to the all-time low depths of fire and brimstone. For their troubles, the guys were sent a cease and desist letter from the FBI to stop all live performances of what law enforcement agencies believed to be a song that promoted violence against cops. Black church leaders and community activists protested N.W.A.’s brand of self-proclaimed “street knowledge.” CDs and records were literally steamrolled. Politicians called out names. Will.i.am explains, “Listening to N.W.A. was like kicking it with my homeboys down the street. It was somebody that you knew like your uncle or your cousin who was harassed by the police, face down and getting searched. All the things we were going through in the ‘hood, N.W.A. was now talking about in songs.” Sh** got real.
Safe to say N.W.A. had no clue that “F**k Tha Police” would in 2015 become the soundtrack for many outraged protesters fighting against what they believe to be the systematic targeting of African-Americans (and specifically black men) by trigger happy, overly aggressive cops. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray all could have been members of N.W.A. “There are a lot of kids out there in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, McKinney, Texas and Staten Island,” says Will Packer, the Hollywood powerhouse who serves as executive producer of Straight Outta Compton. “There are a lot of kids in those areas that see the success story of a Dr. Dre, Ice Cube or Eazy-E and say, ‘I can rise above what I see around me everyday.’ That’s what I love about the Straight Outta Compton story.”
Dr. Dre insists that N.W.A. never expected to reach music icon status. “Keep in mind we weren’t serious about becoming superstars, or anything like that,” he says. “We just wanted to be popular in our town.” But Eazy-E never let the fellas forget that they didn’t call it the record “business” for nothing. The Straight Outta Compton film captures the brilliant moment when Wright decides to use the FBI threat as a marketing tool. He realized that the federally-backed letter could be used to sell hundreds of thousands of more copies of N.W.A. albums. We are, after all, talking about the same calculating ‘hood PT Barnum figure that appeared on the album cover of Straight Outta Compton menacingly pointing a gun.
For Gray, filming Straight Outta Compton was a surreal experience. “I’ve known these guys for a very long time…I’m from Los Angeles and that era,” says the South Central native. “I’m a huge N.W.A. fan, but I [feel] like Straight Outta Compton is my life as well. This film is personal for me.” DJ Yella sees the movie as proof that fearlessness pays off. “We did what we wanted to do, and we didn’t let the FBI, MTV banning us, no radio play, nothing [stop us],” he proudly boasts of his group’s accomplishments. “And the message behind the movie is young people, whatever you are: a painter, writer, whatever it is—if you got a passion for it, just do it; don’t let nothing stop you and don’t change it.” Sometimes, however, N.W.A. took their passion too far.