Joe Fierro, a bodyguard for N.W.A who was known as KJ Mustafa, died yesterday in Pleasanton, California. He was 61.

Fierro was right in the thick of things during the Compton-based gangsta rap group’s most volatile years. As head of security for their label, Ruthless Records, he was in charge of protecting the group at a time when countless people were gunning for them, both figuratively and literally.

For N.W.A’s first national tour in 1989, shortly after the release of Straight Outta Compton, Fierro gave the group firearm training. For all their bravado, it turns out they didn’t really know how to handle guns.

“Dre was … wanting to shoot the way they show you on TV,” Fierro told me in an interview last year, “sideways, like a gangster.” Eazy-E, meanwhile, had all sorts of weapons at his disposal — “.38s, .45s, M-16s” — but had no experience beyond “street shooting.” So on their tour, they stopped at firing ranges and he showed them the ropes.

At each tour stop, Fierro also was in charge of smoothing things over with local law enforcement, who were furious over N.W.A’s song “Fuck tha Police.”

A Vietnam veteran (KJ, short for “Killer Joe,” was his military nickname) who was also a karate specialist, Fierro put his life on the line for the group. He was shot in the hand following a 1991 show in Seattle, he says, when a disgruntled fan followed them back to the hotel and started firing. (I couldn’t find any news accounts of the incident, but the bullet scars he showed me on his left hand were very real.)

“He used to tell some crazy stories on tour, like war stories,” says DJ Speed, who traveled with the group and DJed for affiliated rapper The D.O.C. “I was like, ‘Dude, those stories are too way out. That’s like a Vietnam movie right there.' But we had fun.”

Closest to Fierro’s heart was Eazy-E, whom he described as extraordinarily generous. “You didn’t have to want for anything when you worked with Eazy,” he said, adding that the rapper and owner of Ruthless Records covered everything from Fierro’s lobster meals to the births of his children. “Eazy took care of you, mind, body and soul.” When posing for pictures, Fierro would put up Eazy's “sign” — three fingers extended horizontally in the shape of an “E.”

In recent years, Fierro had fallen upon hard times, requiring lengthy dialysis treatments for his diabetes. As of last year he was homeless and living out of his car in parks. When I last spoke to him in January, he’d just had a heart attack. His common-law wife, Marvyne Dixon, aka Miss G, said his death was related to heart problems. She has requested that anyone willing to help defray funeral costs donate to a GoFundMe campaign.

In addition to Dixon, he is survived by his four children.

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