At the time of his death, Easy-E was only 31 years old and at the height of his solo career. With the N.W.A. biopic ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in theaters this week, we explore the conspiracy surrounding the polarizing rapper’s untimely passing.
At a Hollywood news conference on March 17, 1995, former N.W.A frontman Eazy-E told the world that he had AIDS. In a prepared statement, Ron Sweeney, the rapper’s friend and attorney, said that Eric Wright had learned two weeks prior – and that he was listed in critical condition at the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “I’m not religious, but wrong or right, that’s me,” Sweeney said on behalf of Eazy-E. “I’m not saying this because I’m looking for a soft cushion wherever I’m heading. I just feel I’ve got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what’s real when it comes to AIDS. I’ve learned in the last week that this thing is real and it doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone.”
In the years before Wright’s announcement, two other prominent men in the African American community had come forward with their own HIV revelations.
On November 7, 1991, Lakers guard Magic Johnson held a press conference to reveal that he was HIV-positive. Johnson had undergone a routine physical in October of that same year in order to secure a life insurance policy. While he was in Salt Lake City for an exhibition game against the Utah Jazz, he received a call from Lakers team physician, Dr. Michael Mellman, who delivered the news. Johnson simply thought it was a mistake and requested a second test – which also came back positive. As the regular season rolled around, many questioned why Johnson wasn’t in the lineup. After a third positive test, Johnson knew he had to tell the world. Bending his head and speaking into a microphone at the LA Forum, Johnson announced, “Because of the virus I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers.”
Tennis champion Arthur Ashe had lived with the disease for five years – unbeknownst to the public – before deciding to come forward after learning that USA Today was planning on releasing the details in a forthcoming story. “I am angry that I was put in the position of having to lie if I wanted to protect my privacy,” Ashe said in April 1992. “Just as I’m sure everyone in this room has some personal matter he or she would like to keep private, so did we. There was certainly no compelling medical or physical necessity to go public with my medical condition. What I came to feel about a year ago was that there was a silent and generous conspiracy to assist me in maintaining my privacy.”
While Johnson has continued to flourish and remains a symbol that HIV is no longer a death sentence, Ashe passed away from pneumonia, a complication of AIDS on February 6, 1993 – a year after his announcement.
Prior to Eazy-E’s own admission, the West Coast rap world was being dominated by the push and pull between N.W.A’s former home, Ruthless Records, and the upstart label, Death Row, which had been formed by Suge Knight – who was intent on launching Dr. Dre as his flagship artist.
According to former N.W.A manager and Ruthless Records co-founder, Jerry Heller, Knight got Dre out of his contract by threatening him with baseball bats and lead pipes.
“I think, even more so now, that Suge Knight is an evil human being,” Jerry Heller told the Murder Master Music Show. “Eazy said, ‘You know this guy Suge Knight?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Well, I’m gonna kill him.’ He said, ‘This guy is gonna be a problem and I think I should kill him.’ I said, ‘Let me think this thing through. I said, ‘First of all, we’re doing $10 million a month with six employees. We don’t even have a typewriter in the office.’ I said, ‘We’re the most successful start-up record company in the history of the music business and you want to kill this guy?’ I said, ‘That just doesn’t make any sense to me.’ You know something? I should have let him kill him. I would have done the world a favor. He would have done it, for sure, by himself. He always rolled by himself and he was fearless… I think that he was gonna go do it. I shouldn’t have talked him out of it. Ruthless would probably still be around. Dr. Dre. and Ice Cube would probably still be with Ruthless. It would have been an empire.”
In 1992, Ruthless Records sued Death Row for racketeering – although the suit was dismissed in 1993. However, following Dr. Dre’s departure, Ruthless Records continued to profit off of him. According to The Los Angeles Times, “The firm received about $1 million in combined annual royalty payments from Young and Priority Records, which in 1990 acquired the rights to N.W.A.’s early albums.”
While in critical condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Eazy-E and his long-time girlfriend Tomica Woods – who was pregnant with the couple’s second child – were married at approximately 9:30 p.m. on March 14 surrounded by his immediate family.
At the time of the rapper’s announcement, both Woods and her one-year-old son had tested negative for HIV and AIDS. In the prepared statement which was read by Ron Sweeney, Eazy-E acknowledged that he had led a promiscuous lifestyle, saying, “Before Tomica I had other women. I have seven children by six different mothers. Maybe success was too good to me.”
On March 26, 1995 – one month after the initial diagnosis – Eazy-E passed away at approximately 6:35 p.m. PST. In eulogizing Wright, the Rev. Cecil Murray urged those in attendance at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church to rejoice in Wright’s life but learn lessons from the way he had died. “I know a little blackbird that sings,” Murray said, pointing his finger at the coffin. “And his lyrics are, ‘I want you to live. I want you to be careful. I want you to slow down.’”
Compton Mayor Omar Bradley declared April 7, “Eazy-E Day,” saying, “Eric made Compton famous not just in California, but all over the world. I recognize Eazy as a young man who grew up in the streets of Compton–and brothers and sisters, we know it’s not ‘easy’ growing up in Compton.”
The Los Angeles Times reported in late April 1995 that a fight over Eazy-E’s estate and stake in Ruthless Records occurred almost instantaneously following his death. “Squabbles have erupted between his new wife, Tomica Wood, and the former director of business affairs at Ruthless, Mike Klein,” the Times noted. “Klein filed a lawsuit last week claiming that he owns 50% of the company. Wood maintains that she is the sole owner. Industry insiders said the company is worth around $10 million, including its assets and a double CD compilation finished by Wright before his death. An April 14 Superior Court hearing is expected to send the once profitable company into a conservatorship until a judge can decide its fate.”
As many fans attempted to grapple with the loss of the “Godfather of Gangster Rap,” many couldn’t help but question just how quickly Eazy-E’s condition had deteriorated. However, according to aids.gov, it’s common for people who have contracted HIV to experience no symptoms at all and to look and appear like a healthy individual. After the early stage of HIV infection, the disease moves into a stage called the “clinical latency” stage. “Latency” means a period where a virus is living or developing in a person without producing symptoms.
Eventually the HIV virus will weaken a person’s immune system. The onset of symptoms signals the transition from the clinical latency stage to AIDS – resulting in symptoms like rapid weight loss and pneumonia – the latter which Easy-E succumbed to. But those around him during his final months didn’t notice any rapid changes in his appearance or behavior.
According to members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – who had just been signed to Ruthless Records around the time of his diagnosis – Eazy-E was his normal self. In speaking with Angele Yee, Krayzie Bone said, “Dude had full blown AIDS and looked regular. He still had his weight. Still cocky. Still looking like a regular dude. It just came about all of a sudden.” Layzie Bone added, “He was really built like a little tank.”
“He was smaller because his appetite had decreased. But there were no lesions or dementia. None of the other things you associate with AIDS, ” said Charms Henry, Eazy’s former personal assistant and longtime friend. “I know because I lost an uncle to it last year.”
While the conspiracy rumors have increased in recent years, there was an early indication that Eazy-E may have been HIV-positive.
On Snoop’s debut album, Doggystyle, there’s a skit entitled “House Party” in which Dr. Dre and Daz Dillinger have a conversation. Daz asks, “Aiyyo what’s up with them niggas that was on the TV dissin’ you?” Dre responds, “Man fuck them niggas, man I ain’t thinkin’ about that old shit, man.,” to which Daz echoes, “Busta ass, HIV pussy-ass motherfuckers.,” and Dre retorts, “Yo yo yo Daz, easy come, easy (gunshot noise).”
In his first public appearance after being released from jail in 2003, Suge Knight appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! – with the host donning a bulletproof vest as a subtle jab at Knight’s notorious reputation for violence and intimidation tactics. When Knight finally acknowledged it, he laughed it off, before going into how shooting someone wasn’t his preferred method of getting his point across, saying, “See, technology is so high. So, if you shoot somebody, you go to jail forever. You don’t want to go to jail forever. They have a new thing out. They have this stuff they called — they get blood from somebody with AIDS and they shoot you with it. That’s a slow death. The Eazy-E thing. You know what I mean?”
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