After their astronomic rise to fame in the 80s and 90s, with their two studio albums Straight Outta Compton and N***az4Life going platinum, gangsta rap group N.W.A. seemed destined for plenty of further successes.
Instead, the band broke up as a result of vicious in-fighting, which spawned diss tracks, threats and broken hearts. Dr Dre had only just started to make amends when Eazy-E died from AIDS in 1995 – and Yella was the only N.W.A. star to make it to his funeral.
‘He looked like a little kid’
N.W.A. was first assembled in 1987 by Eazy-E, who was the creator of Ruthless Records. His first bandmate was fellow West Coast artist Dr Dre, and they were soon joined by Ice Cube, Arabian Prince and DJ Yella. N.W.A.’s best-known early track was F*** tha Police, which the band dreamed up after playing a public prank.
N.W.A.’s violent style of music and lyrics was relatively new to Dre. “Dre came from the [World Class]Wreckin’ Cru [an electro group], but I got him to do this other type of music I wanted to do, the gangsta s***,” Eazy-E would later state.
Meanwhile, Eazy-E became the most recognisable face of N.W.A. due to his distinctive appearance. “We liked Eazy because originally, he had the money, but also because the sound of his voice sold,” Yella commented. “He sounded and looked like a little kid. That’s why we pushed him out front; he was the image. When you thought of NWA, you thought of Eazy-E first. It was just a look.”
Their debut album Straight Outta Compton won a platinum certification for selling a million copies within two years. But funnily enough, Dr Dre was never a fan. “To this day I can’t stand that album, I threw that thing together in six weeks so we could have something to sell out of the trunk,” he has said.
Seeds of doubt
One of the band’s closest associates and collaborators was the D.O.C., who penned many of their lyrics. The D.O.C. was Dr Dre’s housemate and close friend, and they both were signed with Ruthless.
“I spent all day everyday with Dre for those first three or four years, I was with this guy all day everyday,” the D.O.C. would recall. “We slept in the same house, we ate at the same time. We drove to work together in the same beat up little Toyota Corolla.”
The D.O.C. was keen to start a new record label with Suge Knight, one of his other close personal friends. Knight at the time was running his own artist management company.
“I was trying to find myself and [Suge and I] felt like we needed Dre in order to make that s*** work,” the D.O.C. summarized. “We had already went through my little contract, Suge and I and other lawyers and found out that I was not fairly being compensated [by Ruthless]. With that information, I went to Dre and I started having conversations with him about he and I doing our own thing.”
“‘If Eazy’s f***ing me, then he’s probably doing it to you too. He’s f***ing Cube and dada dada da.’ I just got those kinds of dialogue started.”
The D.O.C.’s attempts to shake Dre’s loyalty to Ruthless seemed to pay off. Soon enough, Dre started to question the fairness of his current contract. Eazy disagreed.
“What that did was separate Eazy-E and Dre,” the D.O.C. explained. “Now that’s really all that Suge and me needed to get Dre to come on in where we at because Dre knew a lot of that creative s*** came outta me. He knew that he’s not gonna be able to sit in the studio with Eric and come up with this s***. So he comes over here and we get the idea that we gonna start our own label. We’re gone split the s*** 50/50. And Suge is gonna help us administrate and do business.”
‘An evil human being’
The final straw was a disagreement about their manager Jerry Heller, whom Dr Dre and Suge Knight believed was taking an unfair share of album profits. Dre confronted Eazy about this. “I said, ‘Listen man, f*** all this going back and forth s***. Either Jerry goes or I go’,” Dr Dre later claimed. “And he looked me in my face and said, ‘I can’t get rid of Jerry.’”
“That was the end of me and Eazy-E’s relationship,” he explained. “The feeling I had at that moment was similar to losing a brother. [It] seriously broke my heart.”
Knight, the D.O.C. and Dr. Dre went on to found Death Row Records, while Eazy stuck with Jerry Heller. Death Row flourished and soon became one of the most successful black-owned labels in history.
What followed for the former friends was a barrage of diss lyrics and open hostility in interviews. “Suge tried to destroy my record company with the help of others, including Dre,” Eazy-E summarized at the time. “… So right now we’re getting everything back together, and we finna come out, you know, fully loaded.”
Around this period, Suge Knight reportedly threatened Eazy-E at gunpoint, ordering him to sign the Ruthless rights over to Dre. Knight also reportedly threatened Eazy-E’s family. Neither of these details have been confirmed, but Knight did receive assault charges for pistol-whipping two other men in his Death Row offices.
Heller has claimed that Eazy-E described Knight as an “evil human being” and wanted to kill him. But the wounds of his broken friendship with Dre ran far deeper.
‘I don’t wanna make up’
In his diss track F*** Wit Dre Day, Dre included the lyrics “[rapper Luke Campbell] must’ve thought I was sleazy, or thought I was a mark ’cause I used to hang with Eazy.”
Eazy-E continued to earn money from Dre after their parting. “Basically I had Dre signed as [my] exclusive producer and exclusive artist,” he said. “So when Dre tried to make his deal over at Interscope, I was included for the next six years. So you can say all you wanna say. Basically you can diss me all you want, but I’m gonna get paid. That’s why I say, Dre day is only Eazy’s payday.”
When asked why the bandmates wouldn’t just “make up”, he first joked, “[Dre] already made up, you ain’t ever seen him with the lipstick?” He went on to say that in light of the disses, “I don’t think I wanna make up.”
Nevertheless, Ice Cube started to reconcile with Eazy, as Cube later recalled: “We had talked about getting back together. And at the time, our feud had died down, and him and Dre was still at odds, so I was like, ‘If you can get Dre to do it, I’m ready.’”
Eazy then called Dre to discuss their disagreements. “We started talking about the mistakes we had made in the past, and potentially getting back together and making another record,” Dre has stated. It seemed as if a full N.W.A. reunion was on the horizon.
But in 1994, their paths separated even further. Dr Dre was sentenced to six months in a Pasadena jail, during which he began to rethink his life. In particular, he was haunted by the memory of his brother Tyree, who had recently been killed in a street fight. “I just said, let me do a whole 180 with my life,” he has remembered. “I don’t want to do any more negative hip-hop music, I can’t be talking about bitches and hos.”
‘People just couldn’t take it’
Dre was in jail when he learned that Eazy-E was dying of AIDS, bedbound in hospital. After his release, he visited Eazy in hospital but found that his friend was comatose. Eazy passed away just nine days later.
Yella was the only NWA member to attend the funeral. As the godfather to one of Eazy’s sons, he stood by the children as they piled dirt over their father’s casket. “Some people probably just couldn’t take it,” was Yella’s opinion on why Dre was absent. “I don’t know what the reasons are, we never talk about it, even to this day. That’s something that can never get talked about.”
DOC said he didn’t attend the funeral because “Eric and I weren’t that close. I wasn’t his friend like they were his friends.” On Dre’s absence from the funeral, he noted, “I think he was super hurt, but Dre never shared those things… When things happen to Dre, life gets really tough, he separates himself from everybody.”
In contrast, Suge Knight seemed light-hearted about Eazy’s untimely death, even spawning a conspiracy theory about the deceased star in a Jimmy Kimmel interview.
“If you shoot somebody, you go to jail forever,” he said. “Key is, you don’t wanna go to jail forever, right? So they got this new thing out that people sell them all the time. They got this stuff they call – they get the blood from somebody with AIDS, and then they shoot you with it. That’s the slow death,” he concluded with a laugh. “The Easy-E thing, you know what I mean?”
The D.O.C. responded to Knight’s AIDS comments, saying: “It’s probably just a sick-a** joke… he thought stuff like that was funny.”
Dre always regretted that he never made amends with Eazy, but he found a way to pay tribute to his old friend in the making of the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton.
“We wanted to be as authentic as possible,” he commented. “There’s this actor, Jason Mitchell, he plays Eazy and he did an incredible job. I mean, there’s a couple of times where I got a little emotional on set. When E’s in the hospital and he finds out he has the disease and what have you, his acting was that great. Goosebumps.”