Eric Wright, who as the controversial rapper and music entrepreneur Eazy-E helped to put both "gangsta-rap" style and Compton on the pop culture map, died Sunday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of complications of AIDS. He was 31.
His parents, Kathie and Richard Wright, and his new wife, Tomika Wood, were with him when he died in the intensive care unit more than two hours after a collapsed lung brought on heart problems, said his physician, Dr. William Young, who had been treating Wright since the rapper was diagnosed as having AIDS last month.
Also nearby was Wright's personal security representative from the Fruit of Islam, the security arm of the Nation of Islam. As many as four Fruit of Islam members had stood watch at a time near Wright, according to hospital spokeswoman Paula Correia, who added that celebrities often provide their own security details.
Wright had been hospitalized since Feb. 24. It was only then, he said in a statement, that he learned he had AIDS. He did not reveal how he contracted the disease, but acknowledged numerous sexual partners and had seven children with six different women. In the hospital, he married Wood, with whom he had a 1-year-old son.
Fans who learned of his condition flooded the hospital with more calls than were received from fans of Lucille Ball when she was dying, Correia said.
The Compton native burst into national consciousness in 1989 as the co-founder of the rap group N.W.A. when the song "F--- tha Police," from the album "Straight Outta Compton," prompted an FBI official to send the group a threatening letter. Further tensions with police officers around the country led to many cancellations of N.W.A. shows, which in turn helped solidify the group's status as outlaw heroes in the rap world.
N.W.A. was also widely criticized for its graphic depictions of urban violence and rage, and its misogynistic lyrics. But Wright defended the raps as documentary-like reflections of the reality of ghetto life. Two years later, after the police beating of Rodney G. King, Wright claimed vindication.
"We were criticized a lot when we first released that song, but I guess now after what happened . . . people might look differently on the situation," he told The Times.
But when Wright later supported Theodore J. Briseno, one of the officers charged in the King case, because "he was the only one I saw who was trying to stop the beating," Wright was branded a "sell-out" by many in the rap community.
Wright had already been involved in a war of words with former N.W.A. members Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Oshea Jackson (Ice Cube), who accused Wright and his manager, Jerry Heller, of bad-faith dealings concerning N.W.A. business. Young and cohort Snoop Doggy Dogg ridiculed Heller and Wright with unflattering portrayals in the 1993 video for the Dr. Dre song "Dre Day."
Last year, Wright was named by police as one target of an alleged murder plot by white supremacists.
Perhaps the most unlikely twist to his story came in 1991, when he attended a Republican "Inner Circle" luncheon with then-President George Bush. Wright received an invitation from Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who got Wright's name from a list of contributors to such charities as the Make a Wish Foundation.
"It's kind of wild, isn't it?" said Wright at the time, noting that a $2,500 donation to the GOP was required to attend. "I'm not a registered Republican or Democrat. I don't even vote. I sent them the money because I was curious."
In interviews, Wright often said he took to rap purely as a business venture because it was more lucrative and less risky than his previous profession: drug dealing. In 1988 he founded the independent Ruthless Records and released "Eazy Does It," which sold 500,000 copies. He then formed N.W.A. by recruiting Jackson, Young, Lorenzo Patterson (M.C. Ren) and Antoine Carraby (Yella). Though Wright was the instigator, most critics felt that the success of N.W.A. came largely from Jackson's sharp writing and Young's innovative production.
Jackson left in 1990 for a successful solo career. The others continued through the 1991 album "Efil4zaggin," which reached No. 1 on the national pop album sales charts despite being banned by several major chain stores for explicitly violent, sexual lyrics.
But Young soon departed, effectively ending N.W.A. Wright went on as a solo artist with "It's On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa," a top 1993 rap seller. His Ruthless Records operation scored a big hit with the group Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony last year. He also began co-hosting a weekly radio show last fall and was working on another album.
"It's a real shame," said Young of Wright's death. "I went to the hospital and saw him, but he was unconscious. He didn't even know I was in the room. It wasn't a pretty sight, man. It was sad. . . . I think it's terrible that this happened. But you know it was cool that he wrote that letter (to his fans about having AIDS) because it was like a wake-up call, not just for his fans and people who don't know him, but even for me. This is a serious wake-up call."
Times staff writers Peter Hong and Chuck Philips contributed to this story.