Even before AIDS-stricken rap star Eric (Eazy-E) Wright was laid to rest earlier this month, Wright's former lovers and business associates were haggling in Los Angeles Superior Court for control over his dwindling fortune.
"It's sad and it's shocking," said the rapper's 26-year-old widow, Tomica Woods Wright, who has a year-old child by Wright and is pregnant with another, due in September. "A lot of people who claim to know (Wright) really didn't. They didn't live with him, and it doesn't seem like they're even grieving his loss. Of course, he was a successful artist and record company owner, but there was so much more to his life than that. Now, it's like there's nothing left but turmoil."
Wright, who died on March 26, was a co-founding member of the ground-breaking rap group N.W.A. and the high-rolling owner of Ruthless Records, the company that helped put Compton gangsta rap on the pop culture map.
Once a thriving independent firm, Ruthless has floundered in recent years and is saddled with more than $1.5 million in debts, sources said. Even so, former Ruthless employees speculate that the company could be worth as much as $30 million, but competitors doubt whether the firm's assets could generate more than half that.
Two lawsuits have already been filed, and the label's offices in Woodland Hills were locked after a Superior Court judge barred the rapper's trustees and business associates from entering the premises. As a result, payments have stopped not only to the artists on Wright's roster, but also to the six mothers of his seven children. (There are no reports that any has HIV.)
Sources on both sides of the battle believe that the estate could soon be deluged by a slew of paternity suits as well as litigation seeking funds from disgruntled recording artists and producers. They also anticipate that other women who allegedly had recent sexual relations with the rapper may also file claims seeking damages for emotional stress, saying they are worried they might have contracted AIDS from Wright, whose disease was diagnosed in late February.
"It would rip Eric's heart out if he knew what was going on here," said Wright's former manager, Jerry Heller. "It's sickening to think that his children's future could go down the drain simply because people are picking over their father's bones."
On Monday, a judge consolidated the cases in probate court and appointed a special administrator and accountant to devise a plan to preserve the assets before May 8.
The court administrator will first review allegations posed in a lawsuit filed by former Ruthless employee Mike Klein that questions the legality of Wright's deathbed marriage to Woods, which took place about March 22 in the intensive care unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Woods had known Wright for five years and lived with him for three years.
Klein's claim also challenges the validity of a trust document that the rapper signed during his final days designating Woods and Wright's former attorney, Ronald L. Sweeney, as co-trustees, as well as several members of Wright's family, including his mother and father.
According to Klein's suit, Wright was heavily medicated and was "forced to sign" his trust and marriage certificate. The suit also alleges that Wright turned over half of the firm to Klein in 1992 and that money is now missing from a company bank account to which only Woods and Sweeney had access. Woods and Sweeney deny the allegations.
Rumors are also circulating in the music industry that the marriage and trust document were orchestrated by Woods and Sweeney to help Motown Records gain control of Ruthless.
Woods, who worked for six years as an assistant to Motown Chairman Clarence Avant, and Sweeney, who has done legal work for Avant frequently in the last decade, called the allegations "ridiculous." Avant was out of the country, but Motown spokesman Michael Mitchell said the allegations were "totally unfounded."
When the court-appointed accountant begins reviewing Ruthless' books, however, former business associates said he may find that the company was facing financial problems even before Wright died.
Ruthless lost its biggest asset in 1991 when producer Andre (Dr. Dre) Young, the creative locomotive behind the firm's strongest-selling albums, left the company after a financial dispute.
Since its inception, much of Ruthless' glory and revenue stream has been derived from projects affiliated with Young. The firm receives 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. Last year, Ruthless had hits with Eazy-E's "It's On (Dr. Dre. 187) Killa" and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "Creepin' On Ah Come Up," which sold a combined 1.5 million copies.
Insiders said that Wright's death significantly reduces the firm's value because he ran the company and was its best-selling artist.
Still, sources speculate that the company has a potential $15 million in assets, assuming Wright's fans purchase the estimated two albums' worth of material he recorded prior to his bout with AIDS and expected to be released before 1996. Ruthless' other strong seller, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, is signed to a six-record deal with its second album due out in May. The company has several other artists under contract--including MC Ren and Above the Law--and royalty assets worth $1 million.
Whether or not Woods and Sweeney are granted trusteeship by the court, insiders speculate that little money will be left for Wright's former employees and business associates.
Judge Robert Letteau declined to comment about details of the case but said it was transferred to probate court specifically to "protect the interest of those who otherwise may not get that chance--the children."
Industry sources interviewed for this story were skeptical about Klein's alleged partnership with Wright. The reason that Young left the label four years ago was because Wright refused to share profits with him. Indeed, Wright sued Young when the latter jumped ship in 1991 to start his own label. That suit, which maintained that Wright was the sole owner of Ruthless, was thrown out by a federal judge.
Even Heller, a longtime manager and adviser to Wright, who oversaw daily operations at the label since it opened in 1987, had no stake in the company.
In the end, insiders speculate that the landslide of anticipated lawsuits could take as much as three years to resolve, by which time much of the estate may be depleted by legal fees collected by contingency attorneys.
And what will happen to the company that Wright built from scratch?
"It's an absolute shame what has happened to Ruthless Records," Klein said. "As far as I can see, the future of Ruthless is one big question mark."