In 1995, N.W.A founding member Eazy-E died of AIDS. The music world lost an icon, but Eazy’s children lost a father.
In an interview with Whitney Joiner, co-founder of The Recollectors, Eazy’s oldest son, Eric Wright, Jr., talks about growing up as the child of rap royalty, grappling with Eazy’s sudden death, and the hugely popular N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.
JOINER: With the massive success of the film Straight Outta Compton, your father’s story—his rise to stardom with N.W.A. and Ruthless Records, and then his death from AIDS—is back in the media. As his oldest son, what are your earliest memories of your dad? Did he spend a lot of time with you growing up?
WRIGHT: When I was two years old, around 1986, I moved in with my grandparents, my father’s mother and father, in the same house where my dad grew up in Compton. At that time, N.W.A. was just forming and trying to cross over and get into the mainstream. They did a lot of pre-recording in Compton and I saw my dad a lot. Even when he was busy, I still saw him—after school and on a lot of weekends. He was just a great father. We mostly did a lot of father/son things. Family things.
JOINER: Were you aware of his music and N.W.A.’s notoriety?
WRIGHT: It took me a while to notice he was famous. I was about six or seven years old when I’d see him on TV and on the news; there were different things going on with “Fuck Tha Police.” [N.W.A.’s groundbreaking and controversial song about police brutality against Black communities.] He’d take us to Disneyland and people would go to the furthest extent to get his attention or his autograph. At that time I was like, “Oh, Daddy must be a somebody.”
JOINER: Did he share his work with you?
WRIGHT: I have fond memories of being at his house and him playing me “Just Tah Let U Know.” [A track from Eazy’s posthumous album Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton, released in 1995.] “What do you think about this song?” he’d ask. Sometimes I went to work with him at Ruthless. He introduced us to the Above The Law, the group he signed; I have good memories of that, too.
Sometimes he would bring musicians on those family trips with us. I remember Toker from Brownside, which was a Hispanic group that Dad had signed; he came to Disneyland with us. Above the Law, Kokane. Of course Ren all the time, and Yella…Dre, Ice Cube [the other members of N.W.A.], being at the house in Compton—asking me, “How you doin’ man?”
One time they had a concert, I believe at the Forum in Ingleside. My uncle took us. He was like, “Do you want to see it or do you want to go to the back?” I was like, “I want to watch!” MC Hammer was there; a lot of performers. Being at the concert was one of those early stages when I was like, “Wow,” you know what I mean—seeing the reaction of the fans. And we were standing next to Janet Jackson. I didn’t know who she was at the time. I was into sports back then. When we left, my father joked with me, like, “Now guess who stood with Janet Jackson and said not one word to her?” Everybody was like, “Who, who?” “Oh Eric’s scared self.” We all laughed about it.
JOINER: Do you remember when your dad first got sick? It seemed to happen so quickly.
WRIGHT: Everything changed when I got a phone call that we were going somewhere, but my family didn’t necessarily want to tell me where. We arrived at Cedars-Sinai: Dad was in the hospital. I didn’t understand because he was so uplifted. It didn’t seem like anything was wrong. We were just cracking jokes on each other. He’s joking about what he wants to eat and I’m like, “Well you can’t be eating no hamburgers from McDonald’s!” He had a little cough at the time, but he was just himself. I didn’t think nothing of it then; I just want to go see my Daddy ‘cause he wants to see me.
Then my uncle, my father’s little brother—my grandparents were at the hospital all the time—got a call that my dad was supposed to have surgery to clear the leakage in his lungs from the cough. He went into a coma. I saw him rushed back into the hall, and then when he got out, he had tubes in his mouth and couldn’t talk. That’s when I broke down. This all happened within two weeks.
JOINER: So he must’ve been positive for a long time and he didn’t know?
WRIGHT: That’s how people want to put it, you know? He didn’t seem sick to me. But I think I also kind of wiped it out of my memory too.
JOINER: Did anyone tell you Eazy had HIV?
WRIGHT: Finally my grandmother told me that my dad had the same thing as Magic Johnson. I was 10 at the time and didn’t understand what that was. So when they said Magic couldn’t play ball because of some illness—he’s not supposed to get his sweat or his blood on anyone, and that people felt like, “Oh he’s sick with something people don’t want to be close to”—I understood it was something like that. But Magic Johnson was (and is) still very much alive. So it was like, “Oh ok, it’s not that bad, he’s an athlete, they just don’t want to touch him and be around him. But this is my Daddy; I’m not scared to touch my Daddy.” You don’t understand that it’s a fatal disease.
JOINER: Before my dad died in 1992, he also used Magic Johnson to explain his status to my little brother: “I have what Magic Johnson has.” I wonder how many people used Magic Johnson as a reference point. It’s fascinating to imagine these same conversations were happening in both Compton and rural Kentucky, where we lived.
Did you ever have to deal with stigma and stereotyping around HIV?
WRIGHT: The only fool [stereotype] that you think of is, if you have HIV then you’re homosexual. You know? That’s the one that stuck to me. It didn’t connect really until I lost my virginity. As a kid at 10, then on to 15, 16—I’m going through the transition to being a high school student to having sex ed. It was in my mind that this is what my father died of. “These are what condoms are for. This is what they protect you from.” Those things made me remember and really question the stigma and the embarrassment of AIDS.
JOINER: And you couldn’t really talk to your father when you were 10 because he was already in a coma.
WRIGHT: And after the coma he passed away.
JOINER: So you never had a conversation with him about it?
WRIGHT: No, not at all.
JOINER: But he was open about his status. He released a media statement before he died saying, “I’ve got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what’s real when it comes to AIDS.”
WRIGHT: Yeah, it was on national TV. I wasn’t there [at the hospital] that day; it was just my grandparents. It was kind of hard on us to be there, period. Especially with all the media and the things going on, people running here and there—we were kept away.
When I got the call that he died, I was numb. I don’t think it hit me actually until the viewing of his body and then his funeral.
JOINER: People knew about Eazy’s death; it was a news story. Do you remember friends and family being like, “Let’s not talk about it, AIDS is stigmatized or shameful,” etc.—or was it just like, “This happened and we’re just going to talk about it normally.”
WRIGHT: Um, no. Yeah, it was hard. It was very hard. That’s true still today. You gotta think—I didn’t have anybody to teach me about what unprotected sex was, or what to do, you know what I mean? And then you have a father that passed away from this…You know? He died on March 26 and we buried him on April 7. I turned 11 on April 23rd. So in three years I’m going through the whole teenage growing stage, sex education, STDs. I was like, Oh wow, after you kinda get over the pain of losing a father and not having a father figure…. I played sports and didn’t have a father to teach me how to throw a football or play football.
My uncle, his brother, stepped in a lot to teach me those qualities about being a man and growing up. He traveled with me. At times, I used to slip up and call him “Dad,” you know. He’s his oldest brother, he looks like him…So then when you grow up and go into high school, trying to release the pain, here goes the whole sex factor; here goes the whole pros and cons; here goes the whole “Stay away,” you know what I mean? The “Don’t do it.” STDs, HIV, AIDS. Here comes that little horror again. It’s haunting. You lost somebody to this. Your life is really altered all because of this three-letter word.
JOINER: Did you ever feel uncomfortable telling other people?
WRIGHT: Very much. Yeah. I didn’t like that. And then, of course, at school, during son/daddy day, or daddy/daughter day for my sisters, or parents day…from two years old until the ninth grade, I went to Montessori Children’s Academy, and everybody knew me and grew with me, and helped me cope by not bringing up certain situations that would highlight my father not being there.
But I went to a different high school, and there were only a few people who knew me as being Eazy’s son. So when it was like “Ok kids, we’re on the topic of AIDS today, or a sexually transmitted disease,” it was my own personal inside pain. Nobody else in the class knew what I was going through.
At the same time, my city endured a pain as well. I’d hear “Oh man, you look just like your daddy!” And by that time I was growing up, it felt good, but I was also being like my father, being a tough on the streets of Compton. I endured my pain by inflicting it—when I played football, I inflicted it on the next team. It was all bottled inside of me, so I put it off in my own way.
JOINER: AIDS is different from cancer or many other diseases, because it continues to be so political and stigmatized. How have you dealt with that?
WRIGHT: I started doing AIDS awareness work. I went out and tested with individuals and campaigned for people to go get checked, talked about what it meant and how it affected me, how it’s important to the community. I was more vocal with the younger generation. One thing that hit me is because, as we said—Magic Johnson is still living. If you know earlier, you can get yourself care and medication. It’s good to get tested just to know. Because when you don’t know and in less than a week you lose your father…My father was, to be brutally honest with you, just as rich as Magic Johnson at that time. He could have kept himself here, if you know what I mean.
JOINER: How does it feel to see Straight Outta Compton? Like he’s back in your life in a way?
WRIGHT: Exactly. Definitely. It brings him to life again, in a positive light. He’s being homaged and recognized for how iconic he was for the entire music industry.
JOINER: And in all this time, since Eazy’s death, have you met other people who lost a parent or parents to AIDS?
WRIGHT: No, not at all. As I started doing community activism, I met people who’d gone through it—people born HIV+, or born from a mother who passed away, but they were okay. But at my age, going through it, not at all. Being from Compton, a lot of my friends had fathers missing, but due to gang violence. We had the same story of losing a father, but nobody killed mine with a gun or violence. He was killed by another disease.
The Recollectors, co-founded by Whitney Joiner and Alysia Abbott, is a storytelling site and community for the children and families left behind by parents who died of AIDS.
Whitney Joiner is a senior editor at Marie Claire magazine and the co-founder and co-editor of The Recollectors, a storytelling site and community for people who have lost parents to AIDS.