At virtually any rap concert, you're almost certain to hear the names of two rappers lionized: Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., two of rap's most significant artists. But there's another long-departed rap figure who was even more important: Eazy-E.
He hasn't received half the attention given to Tupac and Biggie in the years since they died, but by some important measures, Eazy-E had an even greater impact on rap.
Not only did his life provide the raw material used by his cohorts in N.W.A -- Dr. Dre and Ice Cube -- to create West Coast gangster rap, but the Compton drug-dealer-turned-rapper almost single-handedly created the model for the rapper as businessman, a model still in place long after his AIDS-related death -- a decade ago this weekend.
With his self-financed Ruthless Records, Eazy-E (born Eric Wright) was the first rapper to own a nationally successful record company.
"What Rosa Parks did for the civil rights movement, Eazy-E did for hip-hop," says Phyllis Pollack, a publicist who represented Eazy-E. "Right now everybody claims to have a label, but Eric was the first hip-hop artist to really make this work on the level he did."
Another Compton rapper, the Game, has given Eazy-E renewed respect by citing him and N.W.A as key inspirations. The Game released mix-tape material of Eazy-E rhyming with him before the January release of "The Documentary," his debut album that's sold more than 1.6 million copies.
Two decades ago, major record companies essentially ignored rap, turned off by its street imagery and unconvinced of its commercial potential. At a time when no rap artist from the West Coast had made a national impact, Ruthless signed a production deal with the larger Priority Records for albums from Eazy-E and N.W.A.
And in 1988, Ruthless/Priority released Eazy-E's "Eazy-Duz-It" and N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton," landmark albums brimming with violence, profanity, sexually explicit content and antigovernment themes. These albums established Eazy-E, from the then-little-known suburb of Compton, as a major player in the rap industry.
"Eazy-Duz-It" sold more than 2 million copies and "Straight Outta Compton" earned a spot on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time." Without industry clout, Wright took the revolutionary step of retaining ownership and control of his music, something almost taken for granted by rappers today.
"If it wasn't for Eazy-E, there probably wouldn't have been any Master Ps or Roc-A-Fellas," the company cofounded by Jay-Z, says Layzie Bone, of the Grammy-winning rap group Bone thugs-n-harmony, which was signed to Ruthless and now has its own Mo Thugs label.
Jerry Heller, Eazy-E's business partner and mentor, brings up Motown Records founder Berry Gordy as one member of "an elite group of a half-a-dozen people that have really shaped the music business. I think Eazy was that kind of visionary."
A couple of factors help explain why Wright doesn't get the attention of some of his peers. He didn't play to the music media, often letting his label's other acts take the spotlight.
Then there's the way he died.
"If he would have gotten shot 12 times, he would have been a hero," Layzie says. "But because he died of HIV and full-blown AIDS, people weren't really ready to face that in 1995. Nobody wanted to look at the reality that sex was killing people."
Still, Eazy-E remains one of rap's most important figures.
"He inspired [fans] to make something of themselves," Heller says. "He showed that you didn't have to wind up dead or in prison just because you were born in Compton."