August ’88: Eazy E props his Air Jordans up on a desk, stares at the ceiling, and leaves the room whenever the beeper on his belt goes off, which is often. He answers most of the reporter’s questions with a noncommittal mmmmm; he could as well be talking to a parole officer as a writer from the slicks. Eazy’s group N.W.A — Niggas With Attitude — has just finished mixing down “Gangsta Gangsta,” a breathtakingly violent, vulgar gangster-rap jam that is their first single in more than a year. In the office of the record company president, Dre, the producer, slaps in a tape; it’s the first time anybody has heard the song outside the studio. Ice Cube’s angry voice cuts through the room over a funky Steve Arrington guitar riff: “.?.?. Out the door, but we don’t quit./Ren said, ‘Let’s start some shit.’/I got a shotgun, and here’s the plot:/Takin’ niggas out with a flurry of buckshot .?.?.”
Fifteen sets of jaws go slack, including their manager’s, their publicist’s, and the president’s. Fifteen sets of eyes stare at the carpet, the ceiling, the California Raisins gold records on the walls, anywhere but the cassette deck. The white people look shocked, the black people embarrassed. A drive-time jock rubs his temple hard. One promotion guy cackles in the corner, muttering, “I love to work dirty records. I love to work dirty records.” Eazy smirks. The hooks are tight, the rhymes are tough, the rapping right on key — it’s a perfect hardcore rap track .?.?. and unthinkable.
February ’89: On the morning his solo record was certified gold, Eazy E stood blinking in the well-kept backyard of his mother’s house in Compton, 15 minutes south of downtown. He is tiny, his neat Jheri curls just so beneath a black Raiders cap, the gold chain around his neck thick as his frail wrists. He slouched, eyes puffy, as if his body couldn’t believe it wasn’t still in bed. He and his friends in N.W.A had hung out at a Bobby Brown gig, holding court, until late. Two days earlier they had hosted a segment of Yo! MTV Raps (though MTV would refuse to play their video); later that afternoon they will be interviewed by Word Up!, a black-teen pinup magazine; the next day they will fly to New York for something called the Urban Teen Awards.
Eazy, who signs checks as Eric Wright, is sole owner of Ruthless Records, an independent hip-hop production company that releases music through Atlantic, Elektra/Asylum and Priority, a compilation label run by a former K-tel executive who had never before dealt with an act, unless you count the California Raisins. The Ruthless touch, the raw, danceable Compton street sound, is hot, and each of the label’s three Dre-produced rap albums — by Eazy, N.W.A and J.J. Fad — is certified gold, well on its way to platinum. This spring there’ll be three more, plus an unexpurgated N.W.A video album and, for squeamish retailers (and the armed services), a self-censored version of Straight Outta Compton minus “Fuck tha Police,” half the violence and all the cuss words. (The censored version of Eazy-Duz-It reportedly accounts for close to 200,000 of the roughly 900,000 copies sold.) The final figure hasn’t been released yet, but Ruthless is rumored to have shopped around the Dr. Dre–produced album by rapper D.O.C. for a cool million, and Sylvia Rhone of Atlantic A&R snapped it up. When this summer’s projected tour with Ice-T fell through last week, Eazy arranged a 60-city Compton Posse tour himself, with N.W.A headlining over MC Hammer and Too Short.
Each of the five members of N.W.A writes songs for each of the Ruthless albums, whether dance, rap or squishy soul. Each member of N.W.A — young Compton men who all grew up in the same couple of blocks — will probably earn in the six figures this year. Eazy’s manager, Jerry Heller, who was instrumental in breaking Elton John and Pink Floyd, supposes $75 million in retail sales for Ruthless next year might be about right, and thinks Eazy might be the most important black-music entrepreneur since Motown’s Berry Gordy.
“I’ve been in the music business 30 years,” Heller says. “Eazy is the most Machiavellian guy I’ve ever met. He instinctively knows about power and how to control people. The couple of times I’ve gone against him, I’ve been wrong. And his musical instincts are infallible. In a few years, Ruthless could be as big as A&M.”
Today, N.W.A is being photographed. “If this is going to be on the cover, we should find us an alley or something,” Eazy says. “Man, if we get us in an alley for this picture, niggas gonna know we drove to an alley in a Benz,” Ice Cube says. “Let’s do it right here in the back yard.”