Eazy-E ‘Paved The Way,’ MTV’s Sway Calloway Says

Fifteen years after Eazy's death, MTV correspondent gives us some insight into his friend's genius.

The appearance was rebellious, the music was revolutionary, the history is legendary. Eazy-E changed not just what we say in music and how we listen to it, but also the business of hip-hop. Friday (March 26) is the 15-year anniversary of Eazy-E’s death from AIDS complications. Eazy is still loved, and our very own Sway Calloway had the pleasure of calling E a friend. Here, Sway, in his own words, gives us insight into the genius of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright.

Independent Thinker
Eric “Eazy-E” Wright was a friend of mine. It was a certain appeal about Eazy-E. Little girls liked him. The revolutionaries liked him, because he spoke his mind. He was easy to market, and he had a distinct voice. I met him through his music first, through N.W.A. If you were from the West Coast, it was kinda like you idolized them because they were capable. They did things that other West Coast acts couldn’t do, and we didn’t know why. What was the ideology behind it? But those guys were able to bust through regional boundaries. And a lot of it, I found out later, had to do with Eazy-E Wright’s genius; the dude was a branding genius.

He wasn’t necessarily a good rapper, admittedly so. He wasn’t a great producer, admittedly so. He was somebody who knew how to market music, and he knew how to build brands. At the time N.W.A came out, the majority of the music biz was being spearheaded from New York. All the platforms — from media to television to radio — you had to break in New York in order to get national recognition. The only thing was, you couldn’t really get record deals in New York if you weren’t from New York, because you didn’t have that New York swagger or New York accent, and the music business was basically being controlled from the East Coast. So Eazy-E created Ruthless Records, and through independent distribution, he was able to build an underground swell for his company and for N.W.A and create his own audience in a way no one had seen. Man, I remember that dude came to Oakland, California, and N.W.A was on this bill at the Oakland Coliseum that had Eric B. & Rakim, it had UTFO, it had Whodini on it and this group N.W.A, and they weren’t the opening act. And we didn’t understand: “How come they’re not the opening act?” They were just coming out at that time, and we found out later that Eazy-E was actually the promoter of that concert.

So what he did by promoting that concert, he brought the other groups that already had brand recognition and audiences and he put his group in front of the same audience. They ripped the stage up, so when people walked away, instantly they knew who N.W.A was. He did that up and down the West Coast, and then he went into regions of the country that the West Coast appealed to, that also had disadvantages in terms of excelling in the music business, like the Midwest, Kansas City, the South, Texas. Then you start seeing companies like Rap-a-Lot Records came out, and they had Geto Boys, MC Breed. All these other artists start coming out from different places other than the East Coast. And even in the Southeast, you saw Luke Skywalker Records, started by Uncle Luke with his group 2 Live Crew. A lot of that was made possible because of Eazy-E’s influence. He kinda paved the way for independent-minded companies to come out and exist in this music business without having major distribution or major marketing budgets behind them. Since then, that’s just been the way of the West Coast. People just came out independent; they didn’t think major.

Everlasting Influence
What N.W.A did was what hip-hop was always meant to do: It was, as Chuck D put it, the CNN of the streets. So when hip-hop started spreading on a national level, it didn’t do it by mainstream means; it did it by word of mouth. And I think what Eazy-E was able to do was master that ideology in everything that he approached. Whether it was concerts, releasing music or merchandising, he became popular through word of mouth first. He didn’t have P1 stations, which are like the big radio stations in the major market, spinning his records in rotation. But he had the word on the street. And he built an organic swell. That was the way you had the most credibility. That was the way to be heard if you were a rap group back then. It wasn’t through the MTVs that you have now or BETs that you have now. It wasn’t through the major radio stations that you have now, like the Power 106s in LA and KMEL in the Bay or Hot 97s here in New York.

It was through the streets. And if you could capture the streets, then you already had a built-in fanbase and that word of mouth spread was the best way to actually get exposure. Because he has independent means of getting his music out through one-stop distribution channels and small distributors like California Record Distributors and City Hall Distribution and George Daniel’s music room in Chicago, he was able to get into the mom-and-pop stores. He took care of the mom-and-pop stores before he took care of the big retail chains. Because of that, he was instantly in the ‘hood. He didn’t need the shine.

Unfiltered Defiance
One big component to [N.W.A's] cause was their message. It was raw, gritty, truthful. People could identify with it. They represented a voice that came from the streets that wasn’t otherwise being heard. The key was he learned how to market it. They were called “N—as With Attitudes.” You got a group called N—as With Attitudes? Back then, it was unheard of. Even the name itself was shocking. That was bold, that was cocky, it was pompous. It was also empowering. They talked about police brutality, the government. They talked about things that went on that you wouldn’t know about unless you lived in the ‘hood.

Some of it they glamorized, but we could all identify with it. There were girls who acted like “Strawberry, Strawberry.” There were crack-heads. There were dope dealers. There were people killing folks on a day-to-day basis. You weren’t hearing that in music. A combination of all those things is how he was able to sell all those records. It was unheard of. They did timeless things. Classic to me is when, whether it’s persona, music or different forms of art, is when you’re able to capture something in the moment that hadn’t been done. But you do it in a way that transcends geographical boundaries, ethnic boundaries, religious boundaries, and it appeals to everybody across the board. Something in their message still appeals to what we complain about in 2010.

How has Eazy-E’s music impacted your life? Share your memories in the comments section below.