Straight Outta Time

updated 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE END, IT WASN'T THE GUNTOTING gangstas he rapped about that brought him down. It was a quiet killer—a killer without attitude, known as AIDS. That's why there was such an outpouring of shock and confusion when rap pioneer Eazy-E died on March 26 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, about 3 1/2 weeks after learning he had AIDS. During his final days, fans swamped hospital phone lines with up to 2,500 calls a day—far more than in 1989, when Lucille Ball died there. "Eazy-E, he's like the brother next door," says rapper Method Man, "and when you see it happening to him, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee."

At 31, the rapper (born Eric Wright) had parlayed his gritty vision of urban life into a multimillion-dollar recording empire. The son of Richard Wright, a retired postal worker, and his wife, Kathie, a school administrator, Eazy-E took $25,000 he had earned dealing drugs in the crime-ridden L.A. section of Compton and launched Ruthless Records in 1986. His 1988 solo album, Eazy-Duz-It, went double platinum, but it was the formation of N.W.A (Niggas with Attitude), with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, that made gangsta rap a force to be reckoned with. The group's 1988 debut album, Straight Outta Compton, sold 3 million copies and angered the FBI, who complained it incited violence against police. "Records don't make anybody do nothing," Wright said. "You make yourself do that."

Wright often boasted of his sexual prowess, having fathered (and supported) eight children—ranging from Eric, 10, to Dominick, 1—by seven different women. (On March 14, he married Dominick's mother, Tomica Woods, but a suit has already been filed contesting her right to his estate.) How Wright contracted AIDS is still a mystery, but he was most likely a victim of denial and misinformation. In 1991 he said, "I use condoms. I don't want to f--k around with AIDS or herpes. But in case I need it I got a big-a--bottle of tetracycline and another gang of pills." On his deathbed, Wright wrote a cautionary message to his fans, saying he wanted "to save [them] before it's too late."

Of course, for Wright it was already too late. "It hits so close to home that it's hard for me to sleep," says L.A. rapper Rodney O. "It made me feel sad, and it made me feel humble. I mean, I never had the success that Eazy had. But would I trade with him now? No."

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