Remembering Eazy-E--Five years ago, the gangsta rapper died of AIDS

Whenever Eazy-E broadcast himself to the world, he never failed to shock it. Introducing himself by way of N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude), the group he cofounded in the mid-’80s with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the rapper — whose real name was Eric Wright — jolted the music biz as much as he did Middle America. And when the 31-year-old died of complications from AIDS on March 26, 1995, that shock seemed to come full circle.

Eazy-E first disclosed that he was dying from AIDS just 10 days earlier, in a statement read by his attorney, and those words stunned the hip-hop community. By implying that unprotected heterosexual sex was the cause of his affliction (he fathered seven children by six different women), Eazy-E seemed to concede that his swaggering, promiscuous lifestyle may indeed have been his downfall — and it served as a cautionary tale for others. As his former band mate DJ Yella said after his death, ”[It] has got a lot of people thinking, ‘Now, that’s close, it can’t get no closer but me getting it.”’

For N.W.A, Eazy-E’s passing was a strangely muted coda to the dazzling and sometimes brutal influence of their brief ride. The double-platinum acceptance of 1988’s blistering Straight Outta Compton by droves of middle- and upper-class white youths marked a major cultural shift, revealing the harsh realities of ghetto life to the suburbs. It crashed ears and sensibilities with a combination of ferocious rhythms and even fiercer lyrics. Its hallmark single, ”F— Tha Police,” was so unsettling it prompted the FBI to warn Ruthless Records — the group’s label, founded by Eazy-E in 1985 — that it ”took exception” to the song’s inflammatory message. By infiltrating the masses at the same time they were being condemned by them, N.W.A helped plant the seeds for the urbanization of pop culture.

The group’s popularity was confirmed with its second effort, Efil4zaggin, which topped the Billboard album charts in its second week of release. The group, however, had already begun to splinter and the members soon went solo, taking their distinctive talents with them: Dr. Dre had provided the beats, Ice Cube the rhymes, but Eazy, as one record exec told EW in 1995, ”was the personality.”

Eazy’s own persona was full of contradictions: He once donated $2,490 to the Republican party just so he could dine with President Bush, and he lent public support to one of the L.A. policemen involved in the Rodney King case. And yet, one irony was especially acute: While Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were shot down, it was Eazy-E, one of the original gangstas, who had fallen to his own vices. In the end, he was as significant a victim as he was an antagonist.

TIME CAPSULE: March 26, 1995
At the movies, the Dustin Hoffman-Rene Russo viral thriller, Outbreak, spends a third consecutive week at No. 1. On TV, NewsRadio, starring Dave Foley and Phil Hartman, premieres on NBC with a strong 26th-place showing. In music, Madonna’s uncharacteristically staid ballad ”Take a Bow” retains the top spot on Billboard‘s pop singles chart. And in the news, GOP candidate Alan Keyes enters the 1996 presidential race and becomes the first African American to mount a major campaign for the Republican nomination.