When Eazy-E's group Niggaz With Attitude - inevitably abbreviated to its initial letters NWA - first emerged in early 1989, they seemed like a breath of fresh air; indeed, the five-piece rap group's name seemed a positive irony, one that seemed to speak of defiant underdogs rising and claiming, with a certain sense of humour, their rightful position in society.
From the ghetto of Compton (their first big-selling album was called Straight Outta Compton, 1989) in south central Los Angeles, NWA took off from the springboard of success provided by such local but safer acts as Tone Loc, virtually creating gangsta rap, and overturning New York's domination of hiphop. With tunes like "Fuck Tha Police" they made previously militant rap heroes like Public Enemy seem mere camp pussycats. No wonder their second album, entitled Efil4Zaggin (Niggaz For Life spelt backwards), went straight to No 1 in the American charts in 1991, selling over 6 million copies - mainly to middle-class white teenagers in the US Midwest - of its vicarious rebellion. By the end of 1989 Eazy-E had enjoyed his own million-selling album, Eazy-Duz-It.
Those turned on by NWA's radical chic soon found, however, that their "Attitude" was not entirely the kind that comes of an art-school pose. As spoofed in the rap film Niggaz with Hats (1994), NWA were not quite as "Street" as they pretended: Ice Cube, who wrote many of the lyrics, had a degree, and Dr Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella were almost as middle-class as Miles Davis. Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, meanwhile, was the son of a successful musician, Charles Wright, who with his 103rd Street Rhythm Band had a big hit in the early 1970s with "Express Yourself", covered and released as a single by NWA. Eazy-E, however, was The Real Thing. After a highly successful first job as a teenage cocaine and crack dealer, he turned the profits of his undoubted business acumen to the music business, establishing his own label, Ruthless Records. The rest is a sort of history.
Although the huge-selling Efil4Zaggin had similar compulsively addictive rhythms to Straight Outta Compton, its lyrics, especially in their attitude towards women, were egregiously reprehensible. With the women in their songs characterised as "bitches" or "hos" (whores), NWA brought to public knowledge the troubling misogyny of some male American ghetto youth; one might feel that with song titles like "To Kill A Hooker", "One Less Bitch", and "She Swallowed It", it was NWA themselves who were manifesting such thinking. It would perhaps have been surprising had not members of the group almost daily seemed to be charged with assaults on women.
If Eazy-E had consciously decided to court controversy for his group he certainly succeeded. The sentiments expressed in "Fuck Tha Police" led to the members being shadowed by the FBI; when they toured Britain they were legally banned from performing the song at a number of venues. Perhaps indicating an ability to perceive the individual merits of controversial situations, Eazy-E surprisingly went on public record as supporting Theodore J. Briseno, one of the four Los Angeles Police Department cops accused of assaulting Rodney King.
Ice Cube left NWA in 1990, going on to enjoy a successful solo career; he claimed that Eazy-E had stolen the group's profits; Dr Dre, meanwhile, recorded the pivotal gangsta rap LP The Chronic, and produced Snoop Doggy Dog, his half-brother.
NWA never officially split up; they simply drifted apart, a chilling bitterness overhanging the relationship between Dre and Eazy-E, whose second solo album, It's On (Dr Dre) 187 Um Killa (an encoded gang threat), was essentially an attack on his former partner in rhyme. Eazy-E subsequently produced two acts, both of whose records were released on his own Ruthless Records: the Blood of Abraham, a group of white Jewish rappers; and Bone, Thugs and Harmony, who had a big US hit last year, with whom Eazy-E sang the lead vocals on their current two-million-selling hit. Last year Eazy- E also co-hosted a Los Angles radio show, and he had been working on a further solo album.
In 1994, however, both Ice Cube and Eazy-E were named by police in the American north-west as having been targeted for execution by a group of white supremacists. One wondered if Eazy-E's potential assassins were aware that in 1991 he had donated $2,500 to the Republican Party and found himself invited to lunch with George Bush.
The diminutive Eazy-E had seven children by six different women. The announcement that the 31-year-old rap star was suffering from fully developed Aids was a brave admission for a man constricted by so much cultural confusion about the origins of the disease, a point he made in a press statement, a message that might dilute the misogynistic, homophobic stance of the urban Californian 'hood. Eazy-E was taken for treatment to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where fans flooded the hospital with more calls than were received for the dying Lucille Ball in 1989.