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N.W.A wasn't usually political in the same way as, say, Public Enemy. But Eazy's vision was progressive in its own way -- he let his artists talk about whatever they wanted to.
Now you can say anything in hip-hop and express yourself," MC Ren says. "But back when we were doing it, record companies would be skeptical about the shit we would say. The average company wouldn't have let us come out."
"We were able to do hardcore music at Ruthless Records without any restraints," seconds Big Hutch, of Ruthless act Above the Law. "In the late '80s, early '90s, that was unheard of."
Eazy's ideas about what gangster rap would look, feel and sound like seemed to emerge from him fully formed. Before Ice Cube wrote "Boyz-n-the-Hood," Eazy explained to him the street mentality he was trying to capture. In fact, "Boyz" initially was intended for a New York act called H.B.O., who didn't know what to make of its West Coast slang.
The first time he met with N.W.A's future manager, Jerry Heller, Eazy laid out his vision for the group. "He was explaining how, all of the stuff we rap about, we try to sound like New Yorkers," remembers N.W.A promoter Doug Young, who was also at the meeting. "So the concept of this group, they're going to be hip-hop, they're going to be real street with it. But they're going to represent the way that we talk in LA, the way that we act in LA. They're going to promote the LA culture."
Thanks to albums like Straight Outta Compton, The Chronic and Doggystyle, LA culture became synonymous with gangster-rap culture, which became synonymous with hip-hop culture generally. "This is [the] place where it originated from, when it comes to talking about what's going on in the streets," Ice Cube says. "And by this being the original place, it has power. It has an aura to it. And I think the whole country is [as] fascinated with LA living as they are [with] something like The Sopranos, something where they want to know more but they don't want to get no closer."
Golden-era acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul may have emphasized the positive, but hip-hop remains, more than any other, the genre where artists outside the white mainstream can tell gritty, urban stories in all their uncensored glory. And it wouldn't have been possible without N.W.A.
Eazy himself released a pair of classic solo albums: Eazy-Duz-It and It's On (
Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, the former the humorous complement to Straight Outta Compton and the latter the fiery (but still quite funny) response to Dre's disses on "Fuck wit Dre Day (and Everybody's Celebratin')." It's On, made after Cube and Dre had abandoned him, demonstrates that Eazy was more than just the beneficiary of their brilliance.
And his influence remains massive today. Practically every young artist considers himself or herself not just a rapper but also an entrepreneur and the leader of a "movement." Eazy, who launched the careers of dozens of artists, set the archetype.
In fact, until the day he died of AIDS on March 26, 1995, he maintained his unwavering vision: to promote music made by and for people from downtrodden urban areas. That everybody else seemed to like it, and continues to clamor for it to this day, was simply gravy.
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