On March 15, Eric "Eazy-E" Wright lay in the intensive care unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 31 years old and fighting for his life. Heavily sedated, Eazy-E had a respirator tube running down his throat to help him breathe. In the cramped, fluorescent-lit room, a few close friends and Tomica Woods-his new wife and the mother of his youngest son-gathered around his bed.
"We told him we loved him, " says Jacob T., a six-foot-three, 300-pound Samoan, one of Eazy's longtime twin bodyguards. He and his brother, John T., were with Eazy through most of his last days. "But he couldn't talk. Then we said, 'If you can hear us, just squeeze our hand.' He did."
Big Man (a.k.a. Mark Rucker), who grew up with Eazy in Compton, removed a gold ring his wife had given him on their 10th anniversary. He slipped it on Eazy's index finger. "I told him, 'I want you to give this back to me when you get out of here.' " But Eazy never got out. His immune system had become too weak to fight off the infection that was ravaging his lungs.
About a week later, Eric Wright fell unconscious and remained so until he died on March 26, 1995, at 6:35 p.m., from AIDS-related pneumonia.
The announcement that Eazy had AIDS sent shock waves throughout the hip hop nation. Fans, friends, even journalists wept openly on March 16 as his attorney, Ron Sweeney, read a statement from his client outside the old Motown building in Hollywood. The founder of N.W.A, the man who popularized gangsta rap worldwide, was suddenly thrust into the role of AIDS educator: "I would like to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys, " Eazy said through Sweeney. "I want to save their asses before it's too late. I'm not looking to blame anyone except myself."
Though Eazy didn't say (and perhaps didn't know) how he contracted the virus, he implied that it was through unprotected sex with women. "I have seven children by six different mothers, " said the statement. "Maybe success was too good to me." At the Beat, L.A.'s KKBT-FM, where Eazy had hosted a show every Saturday, the phone rang. It was Snoop Doggy Dogg, who, in a call filled with long, pregnant silences, said he was praying for Eazy. The next day Ice Cube phoned in.
"Me and Eric worked out our differences, " said Cube. "I had just seen him in New York, and we talked for a long time. We was laughing and kickin' it about how N.W.A should get back together. I'm just waiting for a call that says he's cool enough for me to go to the hospital and check him out...and let him know that he's still the homie, when it comes to me."
On Friday, March 17, Dr. Dre-who's traded wicked insults with Eazy since the dissolution of N.W.A-paid a visit to Cedars-Sinai. Dre got in; he saw Eazy. Only he knows what, if anything, was communicated. By that time, the hospital's switchboard had been blowing up for two days straight.
"We've been overwhelmed with thousands of phone calls asking about Eazy-E, " says Paula Correia, Cedars-Sinai's director of public relations. "Lots of young, people-emotional, upset, concerned. We've had a high volume of calls for other celebrity patients-Lucille Ball, George Burns, Billy Idol-but never this many."
But not everyone was sympathetic. According to one hospital staffer, some women claiming to be Eazy's former lovers were phoning in death threats. Across the country, at a panel discussion in Virginia, Compton rapper DJ Quik was saying that Eazy-E knew he had the disease two years ago and vowed to spread it around. (Ruthless employee Keisha Anderson went on KKBT on March 16 and said that "Eazy was tested 18 months ago, and it was negative.") Rumors were snowballing: Eazy was a closet homosexual, Eazy was a heroin addict. Eazy was on his deathbed, Eazy was getting better. On and on. The fevered gossip said more about the anxiety running through Planet Hip Hop than it did about the truth.
Eazy-E was the first major pop music figure who was not openly gay to die from AIDS. But instead of seizing this opportunity to educate, the media downplayed Eazy's death. MTV had devoted around-the-clock coverage to Kurt Cobain's suicide, but squeezed only a few paltry minutes on Eazy into their regular MTV News broadcasts. The New York Times and People offered slightly expanded obituaries, and BET seemed asleep at the wheel. The media's laxity was especially shameful considering that Eazy's core audience-young people of color-are currently contracting the virus at such an accelerated rate.
A middle-class kid from Compton who got caught up in drug dealing and petty crime, Eazy went legit by investing his money in his own label, Ruthless Records. With his distinctive, high-pitched whine, Eazy coined the term "Boyz-N-the Hood" and ushered in the gangsta rap era. "As long as you're being talked about, " said the man whose rhymes enraged the FBI-yet who, in 1991, took time out to hang with George Bush-"people still remember you."
Right before he got sick, Eazy was at his busiest: shopping a screenplay, executive producing Bone Thugs 'N' Harmony's upcoming album, and preparing to release his own oft-delayed double album-a collection culled from more than 70 tracks recorded with everyone from Bootsy Collins to Slash of Guns N' Roses.
"He was driven by the thought that when he was sleeping, he was missing something, " says Jerry Heller, Eazy-E's longtime friend, personal manager, and the controversial former general manager of Ruthless Records. "He worried that people were getting ahead of him. He just never slept."
"Eazy lived the life of a straight-up G, " says Rhythm D, one of Eazy's former roommates and producers. "You know. A mack." Heller puts it more gently: "Eazy loved women. He had lots of them. Lots of kids. They were a big part of his life."I knew he was sleeping with other people, " says one of Eazy's most recent girlfriends. "But I didn't know to what extent. It was only after he went into the hospital that I found out he was living with this other woman, Tomica. But he was never anything but good to me. As far as I was concerned, we were still together."
Linda Bell, the mother of Eazy's second-oldest child, a nine-year-old girl, says she and Eazy were no longer seeing each other but that he willingly provided for their child. On the day of her own HIV test, she spoke highly, if somewhat numbly, of her former lover: "Eric was so busy it was hard for him to spend time with his daughter. Just before he got sick, he said he was gonna come pick her up and take her to some event-the Ice Capades. He never did get the chance."
Even though Eazy was living a player's lifestyle, his death seemed to come out of nowhere. "It was a shock to everybody, " says Steffon, a former cohost of the syndicated video show Pump It Up and an MC signed to Ruthless Records. "About a week before he went into the hospital, I was at his house and he was the same ol' E. We was just chillin', bumpin' tunes, smokin' weed, talkin' about business."
According to his bodyguards, Eazy was having cold symptoms and some difficulty breathing as early as mid-January but avoided seeing a doctor. "He'd had bronchitis off and on since he was a kid, " says Big Man. "So it wasn't completely new." But Eazy's breathing became increasingly strained, and on Thursday, February 16, Jacob T. and Big Man took him to the emergency room of Norwalk Community Hospital.
"He sounded worse than I'd ever heard him, " says Big Man, "but he wouldn't have gone if it were up to him. We practically had to force him to go." Eazy was admitted for a breathing problem and released on February 19. After leaving the hospital, he went home to Topanga Canyon, where he rested, trying to get over what everyone assumed was bronchitis-related asthma.
"That Thursday, we slept over at his house, " says Jacob. "Eazy was still wheezing and short of breath. He had an appointment with his doctor the next day." On Friday, February 24, Eazy-E was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Under the alias Eric Lollis, Eazy stayed in room 5105, where he was given antibiotics for an infection in his lungs.
"He was smaller because his appetite had decreased. But there were no lesions or dementia. None of the other things you associate with AIDS, " says Charms Henry, Eazy's former personal assistant and longtime friend. "I know because I lost an uncle to it last year." In the hospital, Eazy wore black Calvin Klein long underwear and sometimes a gown to cover his upper body. His mom was bringing him home-cooked food and fresh fruit. He had a radio but spent most of the time watching television.
"Me and one of his girlfriends would get him to sit up and move around, " says Henry. "But he couldn't walk much because it was hard on his breathing. His spirits went up, then down, and we'd try to cheer him up. I did the running man to Montell Jordan's 'This Is How We Do It, ' and he laughed."
Eazy was diagnosed with AIDS March 1. "He told me it wasn't fair, " says Henry, her voice tense with emotion. "That he didn't want to die. He said he wouldn't care if he didn't have a dime; he said he wouldn't care what anybody said, if he could just drop the top on his car and ride up the coast one more time."
"She told you, right?" is how Eazy-E told Big Man and Jacob T. that he was dying of AIDS. The "she" was his soon-to-be wife, Tomica, who had been keeping a bedside vigil since Eazy was hospitalized. Eazy was scheduled for surgery the next day, March 15, so that excess fluid could be drained from his lungs. Amid concern that he might not survive the surgery, he married Tomica Woods. Woods and her daughter subsequently tested negative for HIV, though they may not be out of danger, as the virus sometimes takes months to show up in tests.
Eazy recited his wedding vows at approximately 9:30 p.m. on March 14. He was unable to stand. His parents, Kathie (a grade school administrator) and Richard Wright (a retired postal worker), were in attendance, as were his sister and brother, Patricia and Kenneth. The same night Eazy reportedly signed a will naming attorney Sweeney and Tomica Woods cotrustees of his estate. The surgery, however, never happened. Shortly after dawn, Eazy was transferred to the hospital's intensive care unit. There he was hooked up to life support.
"I was told that they couldn't drain his lungs because he was too weak, " says Jacob. From that point on, Eazy remained in critical condition. Charms Henry saw him on March 24, two days before he died. "I was talking to him but he didn't respond, " she says. "It looked as if he was asleep. It was the first time he looked comfortable in a while. He looked peaceful."
Less than 24 hours after Eric Wright's death, war broke out over his estate. Mike Klein, Ruthless's director of business affairs, filed a $5 million lawsuit charging that Tomica Woods and Ron Sweeney, who became Eazy's attorney in January 1995, wrongfully claimed ownership of Ruthless. In a motion filed March 27 in L.A. Superior Court, Klein claimed to own 50 percent of the label, per an agreement signed with Eazy in 1992. Klein says he fired Sweeney on March 24, and then when Klein showed up to work at Ruthless on March 27, 10 security guards blocked his entrance. The LAPD subsequently shut down the company's Woodland Hills offices until the legal dispute could be settled. Klein told VIBE that Eazy had expressed "no interest" in getting married and that whatever will he may have signed on his deathbed, "he signed because he was not in the right state of mind." Sweeney and Woods declined to comment.
More than one of Eazy's ex-girlfriends have expressed concern over whether their kids will continue to be provided for. "I'm not some groupie tryin' to jump in for money, " says Tracy Jernagin, owner of a music production company and the mother of Eazy's four-year-old daughter, Erin Wright-who has since retained a lawyer to assure that her child's interests are protected. "Eric was very generous and loving toward his daughter. I know he wanted her provided for."
Regardless of who inherits his ample fortune (estimated at $35 illion), Eazy-E deserves props for many things: for pioneering some of the funkiest hardcore music ever made; for opening people's eyes to how bad things have gotten in urban America; for being a successful entrepreneur; for being one of the first people to tell cops to fuck off in song.
But since his death, the fact that stands out more than any other is that his music unabashedly glorified the lifestyle that ended up killing him. "Feel a little gust of wind /And I'm jettin', " he rapped in "Straight Outta Compton." "But leave a memory no one'll be forgettin' / So what about that bitch who got shot? / Fuck her / You think I give a damn about a bitch? / I ain't a sucker / This is the autobiography of the E / And if you ever fuck with me you'll get taken." Well, E got taken. The truth is, hip hop's attitude of invincibility is a joke in the face of the AIDS virus.
"When Magic got it, people thought about it for a minute, " says former N.W.A. member DJ Yella. "But everybody knew Eric; he's right there in the streets. His dying from AIDS has got a lot of people thinking, 'Now that's close, it can't get no closer but me getting it.' " Only days after Eazy passed, a young street vendor stood on the corner of Florence and Crenshaw Boulevards in South-Central Los Angeles selling T-shirts. Two weeks ago they might have borne messages like FREE OJ or BITCHES AIN'T SHIT. Now the shirts say in big black letters: AIDS IS RUTHLESS. SO TAKE IT EAZY. RIP 3/26/95.