The following is excerpted from Ben Westhoff’s new book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, out today from Hachette Books. It focuses on the last weeks of rapper Eazy-E, who rose from Compton crack dealer to cofounder of N.W.A and its label Ruthless Records, which became one of the most successful independent music imprints in history.
One day in mid-February, 1995, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright began coughing violently and experiencing chest pains. He thought it might be an asthma attack, although he wasn’t known to be asthmatic. He was brought to Norwalk Community Hospital’s emergency room, where doctors elected to keep him overnight. A test determined that he had bronchitis, and Eazy was sent home.
But his symptoms soon returned, as bad as before, and on February 24 he was taken to Cedars‑Sinai. Registered under an assumed name, he received a battery of tests, yielding a shocking result: Eazy was HIV-positive.
“He was on the phone crying and couldn’t talk, and then the doctor got on the phone and asked me, was I sitting down,” Tomica Woods told a journalist. Short and light skinned, wearing ponytails and toting Gucci purses, she was Eazy’s girlfriend, and the mother of one of his children. She, too, cried her eyes out, but was forced to quickly compose herself. She would need to come in and be tested as well.
Woods was scared, and not just for Eazy and herself. She was pregnant again, with their second child.
Neither Eazy nor anybody else knew how he got the disease, but one thing was clear: These were dark days for HIV/AIDS treatment, which was causing devastation at an increasingly alarming rate. The side effect‑heavy AZT was the only antiviral drug available in much of the world.
Within days of his diagnosis, Eazy’s condition was downgraded to full‑blown AIDS. Doctors gave him antibiotics to treat a lung infection, but his energy level quickly deteriorated. Woods monitored him around the clock, staying on a cot next to his bed. Word got out before long about his condition; his assistant Charis Henry came as quickly as she could, as did the mothers of many of Eazy’s other children (all told, he fathered 10). “Even the ones who used to fight each other, they were holding hands, crying, praying,” Henry told me.
Wearing long underwear and hospital gowns, Eazy watched television and tried to keep his spirits up, whistling when Halle Berry came on the tube. But he could barely get out of bed, and soon required an oxygen mask.
Henry had a sinking feeling, and not just about his health. She was concerned that he was speaking with a new lawyer named Ron Sweeney, an acquaintance of Woods’, about creating a will. “I don’t trust your baby mama’s lawyer doing your will,” Henry told him.
As Eazy’s health faded, a power struggle commenced over control of his company, Ruthless Records, which put out music from popular groups including N.W.A and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and was valued at $30 million. Different parties positioned themselves as defenders of Eazy’s interests, and it wasn’t clear who was in charge. N.W.A’s former manager Jerry Heller still thought of himself as Eazy’s primary ally but could do nothing as Woods and Sweeney took over many of Eazy’s affairs. (Woods and Sweeney did not respond to requests for interviews.)
Meanwhile, a Nation of Islam detail arrived at the hospital and began a 24 ‑hour security watch. They were there “to keep everybody from rushing in on him,” Shaheed Muhammad, a Nation of Islam captain who was part of the security detail, told me, adding that they came at the behest of Mike Klein, Ruthless’s director of business affairs.
This wasn’t particularly strange; the Nation has a history of guarding black celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube and Johnnie Cochran. Eazy’s detail included up to four Fruit of Islam members at a time, Cedars‑Sinai spokeswoman Paula Correia told the Los Angeles Times, adding that it wasn’t unusual for famous patients to hire private security. Heller claimed the guards blocked him from seeing Eazy in the hospital.
But the Nation of Islam wasn’t just interested in protecting Eazy; according to some, they were interested in curing him. Rumors began circulating that the black nationalist group had a remedy for AIDS. “I heard that they were saying they had the cure,” Ruthless rapper Steffon told me.
In 1990 an experimental AIDS drug called Kemron came to market in Kenya. The Kenya Medical Research Institute reported that Kemron helped most patients alleviate their symptoms. The drug was unveiled with “fanfare and nationalistic triumph,” reported The New York Times on October 3, 1990, with patients coming from as far away as the U.S. for treatment.
Other researchers urged caution about the tablet, which was also known as a low‑dose alpha interferon, a natural chemical that’s produced in response to infection. A World Health Organization study in Uganda in 1992 and 1993 concluded the drug to be no more effective than a placebo.
Nonetheless, some continued to believe its merits, and a Washington clinic run by the alternative medicine–focused Abundant Life Foundation received a $213,000 federal contract to treat AIDS patients. The foundation’s director, Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, was a Nation of Islam member and former Louis Farrakhan spokesman. He didn’t claim that low‑dose alpha interferon cured AIDS, only that studies he contributed to showed it resulted in “weight gain, increased appetite and energy levels.” Still, this hadn’t stopped the Nation of Islam newspaper The Final Call from calling it a cure for AIDS.
Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad personally procured Kemron for Eazy, Shaheed Muhammad said. “Dr. Alim shipped it from D.C. on a plane, having made sure it was fresh and potent, so it would go right into his system,” Shaheed said, adding that he helped administer it to the rapper and it seemed, for a time, to make him feel better.
Eazy and Tomica Woods decided to marry. They wed on March 14, the day before his scheduled surgery to drain fluid from his lungs. “We got married at the hospital because he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it through,” Woods said.
In the presence of a pastor, the short ceremony took place that evening, well past dark, with Eazy in the bed but fully conscious. The proceedings were held before a small group that included Eazy’s sister, brother and parents. Almost immediately, Eazy’s will was written to make Woods and Sweeney co-executors of Eazy’s estate.
The surgery, planned for the next day, was canceled, as Eazy’s health was deemed too fragile. As for the Kemron, the “cure for AIDS”? According to Shaheed Muhammad, “His vitals picked up again and he really got better,” though he added that before long his pain returned. “We were all so hopeful,” Tracy Jernagin, the mother of Eazy’s daughter E.B. told me. But though many close to Eazy were in favor of him continuing the alternative medicine, Woods was against it. She didn’t know what they were giving him, she reasoned. Perhaps it could kill him. Muhammad said she called it a “miracle potion” that wasn’t going to work, and that she and Ron Sweeney promptly removed him from the security detail. He was also told to cease administering the Kemron.
Woods’s opposition to an unproven drug can hardly be faulted. But to Eazy’s desperate supporters it seemed like throwing in the towel. “That’s when everybody starts saying, ‘They got the cure, and she won’t even let them give him the cure,’” Steffon said.
“When I started asking Tomica questions, she started saying, ‘There’s nothing else that can be done,’” said Henry. “She’d given up.”
The morning after Eazy was married, he was taken to the intensive care unit.
“He always said he was going to marry Tomica,” Eazy’s sister Patricia Wright told me. We met at a party held on September 7, 2014, to commemorate what would have been Eazy’s fiftieth birthday. Wright wore short, dyed green hair, a lip ring, and smart‑looking glasses. Her voice sounds uncannily like her brother’s.
Some dispute Patricia’s claim that Eazy had long intended to wed Woods—or anyone for that matter. “Eric was not a person to get married to anybody. He was not one to marry Tomica,” said Eazy’s longtime friend Bigg A. Mike Klein also maintained that Eazy had expressed no interest in getting hitched, and in a lawsuit he soon filed, he claimed Eazy signed his will “while in a debilitated state and under medication.” (Sweeney and Woods denied the claims.) Even if he did say he was going to marry her, Tracy Jernagin argued, that didn’t mean much: He’d told Tracy the same thing, she said.
Was Eazy a one‑woman guy? Of course not. But did he believe it was in his best interest, and the best interest of his company, to sign it over to the woman now known as Tomica Woods‑Wright? It seems quite possible. Putting aside the question of true love—which we can’t really know—Eazy may have wanted to marry her at least in part because she was a sensible candidate to run Ruthless. She had a half decade’s experience in the music business, after all, training under Clarence Avant, a music industry luminary who took over as Motown Records chairman in 1993.
“In fact, I had already given Clarence notice that I was leaving to join Ruthless as general manager when Eric went into the hospital,” Woods‑Wright said.
The news that Eazy‑E had AIDS shocked even those who knew him best. “[I]t was like a wake‑up call, not just for his fans and people who don’t know him, but even for me,” Eazy’s former N.W.A groupmate Dr. Dre told the Los Angeles Times. Distressed fans began calling Cedars‑Sinai at an unprecedented rate.
His immune system devastated, Eazy was ravaged by a type of pneumonia common in AIDS patients called Pneumocystis carinii. A collapsed lung led to heart issues. The situation began to look helpless, and Eazy was taken off the ventilator. A Christian minister, brought in by his family, read him his last rites.
“It was one of the saddest days. It was like losing a family member,” N.W.A member DJ Yella said in the documentary N.W.A: The World’s Most Dangerous Group.
Everyone under the sun insisted Eazy owed them money, and their claims were slowly sorted in probate court. Heller said he was owed more than a million, while Woods‑Wright countersued, accusing him of misusing Ruthless funds. (They settled, but the terms were not disclosed.)
Meanwhile, many of the mothers of Eazy’s children pursued a claim to Eazy’s estate, contesting the validity of his will and his marriage. Mike Klein, Ruthless’s director of business affairs, also filed suit against Woods‑Wright and others, claiming they’d unlawfully seized control of the label and taken funds for their own use. He further asserted to own 50 percent of the label. This suit was settled for around $1.5 million, according to an FBI file. Ultimately the probate court found Eazy’s marriage and his will to be legal, solidifying Woods‑Wright’s leadership at Ruthless.
Eazy had unreleased music in the vault, and late 1995 saw the release of his modestly received, gold‑selling Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton. Though Ruthless signed a new distribution deal with Epic in 1997, the label gradually relinquished its heavyweight status. An announced comedy album from Chris Tucker never materialized. The new release schedule slowed to a drip. “She a cool person, but I don’t feel she know how to run a record company,” N.W.A’s MC Ren told WorldWideConnected.com.
The label moved offices, released a compilation album, and put out another posthumous Eazy‑E album in 2002. It nowadays subsists primarily on its back catalog, sales from which were greatly invigorated by the Straight Outta Compton film released in 2015.
Tomica Woods‑Wright has been accused of shrouding the events of Eazy’s final weeks in secrecy. One cannot, for instance, obtain a copy of their marriage certificate. A courthouse employee told me it had been made “private,” which is uncommon.
The ensuing decades have also been contentious. When I talked to Eric Wright Jr. in 2014 during Straight Outta Compton’s preproduction, he said Woods‑Wright had excluded him and his siblings from the spoils of the movie deal. Wright admits, however, that his stepmother has helped out the family a bit over the years, including paying some bills, paying for a wedding, and giving him an administrative job at Ruthless, though he says it didn’t pay well. After her brother’s death, Patricia got his Norwalk house and lived there for nearly 20 years, before losing it to foreclosure. “It’s nobody’s fault but my own,” she said.
Elise Kim, founder of Eazy’s favorite charity, Athletes & Entertainers for Kids, said that Woods‑Wright has been generous to her organization, continuing to send out Christmas gifts for their annual gala.
It’s impossible to know if Woods‑Wright has done with his estate what Eazy would have wanted her to. One thing is clear: Her life since his death has been no fairy tale. “That woman has been to hell and back,” S. Leigh Savidge, a co-writer of the Straight Outta Compton film, told me, adding that she broke down in front of him during a 2006 interview.
I’m inclined to give Woods‑Wright the benefit of the doubt. She was only 26 when Eazy died, and it’s unimaginable how much stress she’s experienced, starting from the moment Eazy told her he had HIV. (Ultimately, she and her two children with Eazy tested negative, and none of his kids or kids’ mothers have reported being infected.) She became responsible not just for his care, but for the label and handling the media and dealing with everyone who wanted a piece of him. Such duties would try anyone.
“I was not the cause of his death,” she told Vibe in 1998. “I did not kill him. I was the one by his side, and I am the one trying to keep his dream alive. As far as anybody else who might be saying stuff, I could give a damn.”